By Rick Lasky
For years it has been said that when you take an honest look at how it all works and how it all really gets done, the following is more than obvious. First, our most important asset is our firefighters. Second, our battalion chiefs or shift commanders are the coaches. Third, it is the company officer—that lieutenant, sergeant, or captain—who gets things done and sets the tempo for the shift. Chief officers know that if they want to get things done they have to go to the company officer. This is definitely true and obvious when everything is going well, but it is also true and accurate when things are not going well. It all comes down to leadership and the company officer’s ability to lead the troops in a good direction. But that also means taking on responsibility—for yourself and your actions and for those you are going to lead.
The fire service has always been an extremely proud profession. But over the past so many years, we’ve seen this begin to slip and in some cases erode. Today we hear some of our officers and firefighters saying things like, “Why don’t these guys care? They don’t care about how the firehouse looks. They don’t care about their uniforms. They don’t take care of the rig. And they don’t care about the job.” And often they say, “There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s that damn generation X or Y. You know, the dotcom firefighters.” You hear them blame their parents. And that’s partially true.
Isn’t it time that we sit them down and tell them how it is in our world? I guess my question is, Where did all of the mentors go? Where are the company officers? Where are the guys who have all the information and experience that’s needed to teach the new firefighters how to be firefighters? How to survive inside and outside the firehouse? The stuff they need to know, should know, and have to know. Aren’t we a little responsible?
You’re out there. You need to share the wealth. Share your knowledge. You used to do it. The members with the experience need to give before they leave, because once they leave, they’re gone. And all of that experience and knowledge is gone with them. Once they walk out the door, it’s gone forever. Don’t let those members waste everything they worked and sacrificed for. Sit them down with the new members and get them to pass it on. Again, you will hear them say, “But they won’t listen.” I know it’s difficult, but you need to make them listen. This is our chance.
WE USED TO GIVE ORDERS
We used to sit the new members down and explain what was expected of them. The way we want it. The way the members before us wanted it. I can remember being sat down on my first day on the job by my lieutenant, Bill Allen, while he explained why we take care of the rigs, our tools, our firehouse and—more importantly—each other. He explained what was expected of me, and I was sure he was going to make sure that I met those expectations. He explained what we were all about and that the public didn’t owe us anything, that we owed the public for giving us the opportunity to work in the best profession in the world. And he said to never allow anyone to disrespect the job or each other.
Pretty simple stuff when you think about it. We do have a choice in this. Tell them why this job is the best job in the world and why we do what we do. Share with them the history, both the good and the bad. Tell them where it all started. Several years ago at FDIC in Indianapolis, I heard someone say, “What’s with the old guy?” and he pointed on stage to Ben Franklin. Talk about missing history.
Tell them why fire engines are red and that the color red in the fire service stands for courage and valor. Tell them where pike poles came from and that they were whaling hooks used in Jamestown to pull down the shacks on each side of the burning one in an effort to keep the fire from communicating to the other structures. (They were even into exposure control back then.) Tell them where the Maltese Cross came from and what it stands for. If you don’t tell them, how can you expect them to take care of the tradition? How can you expect them to understand and truly appreciate it all? And the list goes on.
Make them listen. Remind them that it’s a privilege to be a firefighter. That we owe the public a service. That it’s an honor to be part of this family and how great it really is. And if they don’t like it, show them the door. Because if they don’t have the passion now, we’ll lose for sure down the road. They’ll become the five percenters that don’t give a damn.
SHARE THE HISTORY
If we don’t share the history with them now and they don’t understand or appreciate it, what’s it going to be like in 20 or 30 years? All of it will be gone. Everything will be wasted. We may as well throw all the uniforms out and wear nametags that say, “Hi, my name is Chip.”
There are people out there right now who don’t have a clue as to where their collar insignias came from and what they stand for. Where the speaking trumpets came from. Tell them. Tell them where it all started. Go back and review the fires that occurred in our country and discuss the impact they had on the fire service as it is today. Explain to them where it all started with your department. Tell them about your department’s history, who was there before you, what kind of an impact they had, and where it needs to go now. If you don’t know, find out! This is our chance. Set the tempo right from the start. Pull them into the circle now so they can begin to appreciate how great this profession really is.
BRING BACK THE MENTORS AND TRAIN
Start a mentoring program, and take the time to let your firefighters know what you expect of them. It’s a little hard to get on a member’s case later when you didn’t give him the game plan up front. We’re killing more than a hundred firefighters each year and injuring tens of thousands—and all with better apparatus, better gear, and better tools. There’s no new fire out there killing us. It’s the same stuff that’s been killing us for years.
While we’re on the subject of losing firefighters, teach them firefighter survival training. Teach them how to survive and go back home, how to get themselves out of trouble. Don’t let anyone bully you into thinking you’ll hurt your members teaching them how to survive.
Train safely, but train. (You know I can hurt myself with a sledgehammer if I tried hard enough.) We train our people to work with saws that travel at 6,000 revolutions a minute—that’s 250 miles per hour; to work with hydraulic tools that will lift a school bus off the ground; to crawl into burning buildings. It’s a dangerous job, but when you freelance on the fireground you risk killing or injuring your firefighters, and when you freelance on the training ground you risk doing the same thing. Train safely and as if your life depends on it, because it does!
And to those who train their people in firefighter survival techniques, keep going—especially when you have little or no support from the administration. Keep fighting and teaching your people how to go home when things go wrong. About the only thing you’re going to do wrong is save a firefighter’s life.
BE HONEST ABOUT WHAT’S KILLING US
When you start to look at the reasons for firefighter deaths and the contributing factors, the same themes keep reappearing: lack of command and control, lack of an accountability system, poor communications, not following SOPs, failure to read the building and the fire properly—all pointing to a need to get back to the basics.
As one of my mentors said, “You want to be a good firefighter? You need to know building construction and fire behavior. You have to know how the building is going to react to the fire and how the fire is going to react to the building. You need this before the rest.”
On that same note, building construction expert Frank Brannigan has said for a long time that we often compare the “battleground” to the “fireground,” which is a very true comparison, but that we differ from military strategists in the following way: They are often successful in their battles because they study their enemy. They learn everything about the enemy. We don’t. Brannigan reminds us that our enemy is “the building,” and we just don’t spend enough time studying OUR enemy.
You can see that our leadership—or lack of leadership—often allowed for some of those things to happen. And often that problem starts back in the firehouse. How members act inside the firehouse is how they’re going to act outside the firehouse. There’s no metamorphosis that occurs on the fireground. Those attitudes will carry right out of the firehouse and onto the fireground.
Fire Department of New York Battalion Chief Don Hayde said, “Don’t blame the guys in the company. Blame the company officer. He’s the one who allows it to happen. Go after him. Hold him accountable.” And it’s true. If we can’t trust them in the firehouse, we surely can’t trust them on the fireground.
I mentioned earlier that the company officer sets the tempo and attitude for that particular firehouse and in reality can affect or influence the attitude of the entire shift. We can all remember the good officers we worked for just as we can probably remember the good teachers we had in school and how they influenced us. They were there for you when you needed them, they didn’t leave you in times of crisis, and they understood you.
At the firehouse, we referred to them as working officers. They didn’t mind getting dirty once in a while, helped you with projects, and were really part of your crew. They didn’t hole up in their office and keep distant from the crew. They were fair and honest and didn’t pull any punches. They cared enough to spend the time and effort on you and wanted to see you succeed; most of all, they wanted you to go home at the end of the day.
We’re losing too many very special people each year not to care, not to try. The bottom line is, we do have a say. We can make it happen. We can provide the foundation for that pride and stimulate the attitude that is needed. Remember, the one thing in life you have absolute control over is your attitude. Anger, happiness, sadness—they’re all emotions. Once you give up your attitude, it’s all over. It can take you years to recover.
YOUR CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE
Your circle of influence is a circle around you that, if used properly, can influence people to do the right things. If you lead by example and “walk the talk,” you can pull people into your circle of influence. Be positive, say good things, be nice to your people, and watch the circle grow. The fence walkers will eventually fall in, and the five percenters will go away.
It can also work the other way with a bad attitude. When that happens, you have to take immediate action and eliminate the source. As much as the company officer can have a positive effect in the firehouse or on a shift, that same individual can poison the water. The opposite of the positive company officer and role model is the one who sits at the kitchen table and holds court, tearing anything positive to shreds and destroying morale. The problem is, he usually blames someone else for the morale problem, not realizing that he is at times one of the contributing factors. If you’re trying to figure out where you fall, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I start the rumors or stop them?
- Do I exhibit a positive or a negative attitude?
- Do the troops hang with me because I let them get away with murder, or do they hang with me because they know I care about them and will protect them?
- Do I serve as the errand boy for the chief, or do I stand up and explain that a policy is for a good reason and needs to be done?
- Am I part of the problem or part of the solution?
- And probably the most important: Am I their leader or their buddy? I can be both, but I need to be a leader first. I don’t want them to follow me just because I’m their buddy; I want them to follow me because I’ll keep them out of trouble (both on the fireground and in the firehouse), I care and will protect them, and I’m a good officer.
In the fire service, we come up with solutions and get rid of the problems. Start on the candidates’ first day and continue to build the foundation. Insist they appreciate this job. We owe it to those who have sacrificed before us. Those who worked so hard. It’s our turn to take a crack at them. Don’t let the old-timers come back and say, “What the hell did you do to my department?”
LEARN TO MARKET YOUR FIRE DEPARTMENT
Go out and show off your department. Whether you’re a career or a volunteer firefighter, get out of the station. Or better yet, open it up. If your neighborhood will allow it, open the overhead doors once in a while and let the neighborhood see that the station is occupied. Let the members sit in front of the firehouse in the evening. We put park benches in front of our firehouses. I want our members sitting out front. Let them connect with the families in the neighborhood. Let the kids see the fire trucks. Try to make the firehouse look like a firehouse again.
This is probably hard to believe, but in Lewisville, Texas, we actually had a “no loitering” rule here that stated that “personnel shall not congregate, loiter, or otherwise meet in the rear or front of the station.” Does that sound as ridiculous to you as it does to me? As long as they are not doing anything wrong, what’s the big deal? A neighboring training chief said that I ruined what someone else spent 16 years working so hard for by letting the members sit in front of the firehouse in the evenings. I don’t know how you can ruin something that ridiculous. I’ll be happy to explain to anyone from the public why we do it!
Get your members out reading to the kids in the schools. Go out and find ways to market your fire department. See what others are doing and how it works. Go out and brag about your department and tell people why it’s great. I walked into our Central Firehouse in Lewisville on my first day and didn’t know whether to open up a checking account or buy insurance. All the desks and tables had glass on them. Who puts glass on furniture in a firehouse? Then I looked at the walls and said, “Where’s all the fire stuff? Someone stole all the fire stuff off the walls. They’re all bare.” We took care of that. There’s “stuff” on the walls now! Often, if it looks like a firehouse, it is.
We’re the FIRE DEPARTMENT. Start acting like it. To those who say you have to be more like a “business” these days, you’re right—to an extent. You can still look like firefighters, your firehouse can still look like a firehouse, and your firefighters can still act like firefighters and still be professional.
The best job in the world
This is the best job in the world. For those who don’t care about this job, who don’t care about their brothers and sisters, who don’t love it, send them a message: Tell them to go down the street and work for K-Mart stocking shelves. Then they can have a job that they don’t have to think about when they go home.
The following is a poem I’ve used many times. I got it from my friend Bill Farnum. It applies not just to the company officer but to all of us.
The message is, you can go out and be the best company officer you can. Study the position. Talk to those who are successful. Ask them how they make it all work. Constantly evaluate your performance, and always try to improve yourself. Share your knowledge and experience. Love this job, and be passionate about it. You can share the information and continue to build this great profession, or you can go out and tear it down. The choice is yours. For those who do care and truly love it, keep working at it. Keep pushing forward. Go out and share it with somebody. Read something about this job every day. You owe it to yourself and both of your families. If anything, do one small thing. Leave it a little bit better for the next guy.
RICK LASKY, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. Previously, he was chief of the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department and training officer for the Darien-Woodridge (IL) and Bedford Park (IL) Fire Departments. While in Illinois, he taught at the Illinois Fire Service Institute and Illinois Fire Chiefs’ Association and received the 1996 International Society of Fire Service Instructors “Innovator of the Year” award for his part in developing the “Saving Our Own” program. He is the lead instructor for the H.O.T. Firefighter Survival program at FDIC West and is co-lead instructor for the program at FDIC. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and serves on the FDIC and FDIC West advisory committees.