Mean and Mad

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

Last column, I reminisced about attending FDIC for the first time early in my career as a firefighter. I described the conference classes and the special experience of visiting the Memphis (TN) Fire Department (MFD). The MFD was a well-established, structured, big-city system that was very different from the western, newer department where I started (and finished) my career. It was an exceptional experience for a very curious firefighter with one and a half years in the service.

FDIC International: Education

I have just returned from attending the 2017 version of the same event I attended in 1959, and I have reflected on the long-time effect of the experience. The attendance at this year’s FDIC International was overwhelming – just shy of 34,000 attended. Firefighters from all over showed up in Indianapolis. It was interesting to hang out and observe the huge group for a week. Other than for some accent differences, it seemed that we all came from the factory pretty much the same and we basically all speak the same fire service language.

The educational program is an interesting combination of new and old, traditional and modern, scientific and empirical, and everything in between. The conference is an ideal place to get exposed to education that includes not only the presentation by the instructor but also the observation of students’ reactions.

I am always fascinated by the highly energetic hands-on training classes conducted in the field that involve manual labor on the part of the students learning and practicing the techniques of a full range of tactical subjects. The students are typically very young (to me) and enthusiastic; I watch them in wonderment. They must get up early, lug their gear around in big grimy duffle bags, and do a full day of strenuous educational labor. In the morning, they are bright-eyed and eager; in the afternoon, they look as if they had done a full day of firefighting. When I see them when they get back to our hotel, I engage them and ask what class they were in and how they went. They always relate that they had had a great day and can’t wait for tomorrow to be tortured again. Sometimes when they still have a twinkle in their eye, I suggest that I could get them some psych meds and they could sleep late in the morning and then I would buy them breakfast. They all have politely declined.

Continuity Apparent

During the week, as I watch everyone who is involved, I reflect on how lucky we are. It reinforces the fact that the strength of our service is in the 23-year-old firefighters toting their gear bags down the street, the old soldier officer who has been on the job 35 years sitting in a class 30 minutes after it was scheduled to stop, and the instructors who tell their classes in an hour and a half what they learned over the past 30 years. Everyone is doing what they are doing simply because they want to do their job better. I have not attended a conference conducted by any other profession, but I seriously doubt that the city managers, auditors, or financial peanut counters (all fine people) get together for a week with a big bag of gear that they will wear all day while they are vocationally tortured so they can become more skillful in their job.

FDIC: Exhibits and Technology

I can pretty much make sense out of and relate to the educational part of the event. The part of the conference that boggles my mind is the exhibit hall. I am not a technologist. I recently was in a session where the very young, very smart instructor described relics like me as a “technology refugee.” The show now completely fills up an entire sports arena and convention center as well as the surrounding areas with modern, leading-edge products. Many are the latest versions of the traditional equipment we have always used. These developments fascinate me; some of the really new nontraditional things defy my imagination. Sometimes I can’t figure out what something is or how it is used. This tech-overload reaction is probably typical of a refugee. Although I am confused by a good part of what I see, I still wander around like Bruno in Wonderland. The whole process for me probably relates to excessive seniority.

After a week, I was ready to fly home. I thought I had completed my annual educational experience, so I trudged off to the airport. Always aware of the possible sources of travel confusion, I arrived a bit early. When I got to my gate, I found an empty seat next to a woman and asked her if it was taken. She invited me to sit down. Being a regular of the airplane travel routine, I have learned that my seat mate could be silent, chatty, or anywhere in between. My “next-door” neighbor was chatty.

Airport Encounter

She was an older woman with completely white hair, was very well dressed and well-spoken, and seemed very nice. She asked if I was flying to our final destination. I told her that was where I lived. She said she would be changing planes on her way home to the West Coast. A beginning part of the standard airplane conversation is, “What do you do?” She asked first. I told her I had worked for the city and retired about 10 years ago. I returned the question. She said she was a retired college instructor. I asked what subject she taught. She said she was a graduate school writing teacher. I asked her where she was when I needed her. She laughed, as most of my former graduate school teachers had done.

As we sat in the waiting area, a national news program was on an adjacent television set. The talking head was relating the current update on the bad news of the day. My seat mate asked what I thought of the condition of our society. I told her that much of what is now going on is unusual and many times completely bewildering to me, that it seems that many of those elected would rather block the process and progress of what they were elected to do. I returned the question to her. She shook her head and agreed that many of those in leadership roles are dysfunctional and disruptive. Then, she delivered the punch line: “I can’t understand why so many people are mad and mean.” Then, she added something that we hear often today: “It seems as if we have lost our civility.”

She then quietly made a profound observation: “When I was a little girl, we looked up to those who behaved with grace.” I could not remember when I had heard anyone use the word “grace.” I Googled the word. It is defined as “elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion or action.” I live on a busy urban street, so I get to see a lot of traffic while sitting at my desk facing the street. As I was writing this, Engine 30 responded by as it does three or four times a day. The company always drives in a safe and considerate way. I reflected that, as a famous writer once said, “A fire engine is the most religious thing on earth.” It occurred to me that a well-behaved rig also reflects the definition of grace.

Several FDIC firefighter attendees were among those who were beginning to show up for the flight as we got closer to take-off time. They were wearing their typical firefighter “colors.” As they walked by, they stopped and said hello and asked me about the conference. My seat mate listened to us talking and asked me about the event. I gave her the nickel version. Then, she asked, “What did you do for the city?” I told her I was a firefighter. She said (just like a writing teacher would say) that it seemed to her that firefighters were the only group of people who now consistently behaved in a way that reflected politeness and courtesy. I asked her if she had any experience with firefighters. She said her now departed, very senior mother lived with her and she called on her firefighters for assistance. She asked me, “How do you create and maintain a group of mostly active young workers who are so nice?” I told her that we carefully select them and then instruct them to do what their Mom taught them to do. “It seems to work,” she said. I agreed.

Retrospective

When they announced our flight, we said goodbye and exchanged thanks for the conversation. When I got settled in my seat, I began reflecting. It occurred to me that I had just been conversing with Mrs. Smith and that I had just spent a week at the biggest educational and exhibit extravaganza that occurs in our business. There is no comparable collection of weeklong fire service teaching and learning or tactical, organizational, leadership discussion and conversation in one place. There is also no larger collection of apparatus, tools, equipment, and technology anywhere.

The objective and basic reason we gather the phenomenal collection of people and products together was sitting next to me at the airport for 45 minutes – Mrs. Smith. She never said one word about all the amazing content, lessons, and development we all focused on for a week. She related what was important to her – the manners of our troops. She was a very smart person, and I’m sure she had confidence in what it takes to create and maintain the professional part of our service, but that part is transparent to her because she trusts us to have those skills when she needs them. She connects mostly to the kindness she received from us. She created a contemporary comparison – that much current energy is wasted on being mad and mean and that those who feel that way don’t know what they’re mad about or how to direct their meanness.

It was a great experience to sit with her at the end of the conference and realign my perspective to the person we serve and how she feels about how we treat her. The experience caused me to think that we should add a standard beginning to each FDIC class. When the coordinators describe the fire alarms and exit details, they should start the class out with a reminder that we are gathered together to better serve Mrs. Smith; this reminder should be repeated at the end of the class.

We must do whatever we can do to replace mad and mean with positive and kind.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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