Shirt Pocket Notes

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

A big part of writing a monthly column is the process of deciding what to write. Sometimes it takes longer to decide what to write than it does to actually write it. There is generally some topic, event, or issue that has attracted my attention; many times, that is what I write about. A lot of what I decide to discuss takes several issues, so the material gets strung along for at least a couple of months. I am going to try a new way to select a topic to write about, and I want to share with you my topic selection brainstorm. I think the new way should be fun for me and (I hope) for you.

I have for many years carried a small notepad in my (Hawaiian) shirt pocket. I use the pad to jot down just about anything that comes across my personal radar screen that is interesting/relevant or something that I want to capture in writing so I can refer to it later. I am at the stage where if I don’t write it down, it quickly disappears in the forget fog. If I were an electronic person, I would record my note on a modern, pocket-sized, handheld, whiz-bang electronic device that instantly connects to outer space, but being an old guy who has imitated Rip Van Winkle and slept through the first 35 years of the computer age, I simply take out my pocket pad and write what I want to enter into my “system.”

My “system” is really pretty simple. The little pad (seven pages) has a dated page for every day of the week. I write my notes on the page corresponding to the weekday. Every Sunday night I get out a new pad for the next week. I put the date for the next week at the top of the page and transfer any notes that I want to continue into the new week. The other notes go into a notebook. For a regular week, most of the note pages are filled out. If the week had a lot of activity that attracted my attention, all the columns on all the pages have been written on—it is very messy/crowded. For that week, I pretty much limit myself to dealing with only what I can get on the seven pages. The system is simple: If I can’t get it in my pocket, I can’t get it in my brain.

Most of these things are not my ideas; they are things I have seen, heard, or read. Many of them relate to firefighting, but lately I have paid more attention to the ongoing human opera that occurs around all of us. Most of the notes are just one sentence long, as I am attracted to and fascinated by any sentence that contains or describes a complete thought or picture (in my mind). Virtually everything I write down is plagiarized: I got it somewhere out in the world and brought it into my “system.” I want now publicly to thank and acknowledge anyone and everyone who did, said, or wrote something that landed in my shirt pocket.

As I mentioned earlier, I have been taking notes for a long time. Two or three pages in the back of the original Fire Command textbook released in 1983 (that’s 30 years ago!) had little sections of these notes called “Timeless Tactical Truths.” They seemed to be very popular and started to show up in a lot of fire service material. After the book was published, I had collected so many more of these quips that we published (in 2003) a small book devoted singly to them. I have since then collected enough that we probably should do another book of them.

As I have continued to write in my notepad, a lot of other subjects besides firefighting stuff started to get noticed and recorded. Obviously, there is a steady stream of comments that relate to the human condition, particularly when it resides inside a service like ours with all the energy and human confusion that just naturally occur when we all go out and deliver service in the brave new world. In fact, if you pay attention, you are continually bombarded by a ton of funny, sad, smart, dumb, absurd, nice, awful stuff—some days I can’t write fast enough to capture it all.

I record the events encountered in a very brief note. It is generally cryptic and, a lot of times, kind of sarcastic simply because it quickly captures the essence of what got my attention. This seems to fit the basic fire service form. A lot of what we say to each other is many times cryptic because many times we don’t have a long time to say it—the best orders on the fireground are short and sweet. We also typically communicate with each other in a sarcastic way because it basically fits in with our very own sense of humor (dark, sick, warped, funny).

My current plan is to begin to use my shirt pocket notes as topics for this column. The notes are generally directed toward some event that I have noticed, so I hope they are interesting to you. It should be a useful exercise for me because it will require me to expand my thoughts and understanding of what is generally written as just a pithy sentence. I am going to start out in this month’s column with a note about an unusual thing I saw.

“NO KIDS/NO COLORS/ NO ATTITUDES”

In my travels as I was tooling around on a bright sunny day, I drove by the front of what appeared to be a biker bar. The clue I got that it was indeed a biker bar was there were about a dozen Harleys lined up at the curb in front of the place. I could have easily been a detective because I have never seen this many choppers outside a Mensa Cocktail lounge. Also, the place had a robust name like Doc’s Bar or Mabel’s Place, a dead giveaway that it could very well be full of biker guys/gals.

Although the sight of a biker bar is really kind of exciting to a dull old guy, what caught my attention was a sign on the side of the front door that you had to notice before you entered. The sign said in bold letters: “NO KIDS/NO COLORS/NO ATTITUDES.” I thought the string of words created a powerful and very direct message, so I wrote the six words in my shirt pocket notepad.

Even though I have never visited a biker bar (darn it), I think that I sort of know what the sign was saying in fairly clear behavioral terms to the patrons. The message was in a very obvious place where potential customers would see it before they became insiders. As I thought about the whole picture, it occurred to me that while the overall operational objective is quite different (I hope), the biker sign would be just as valid if it were next to the entrance of a fire station. These are my thoughts.

“NO KIDS”: I sincerely believe that a fire station must be friendly and welcoming to kids. It should be the safest place in the community, and any person, including kids, should go there for support and assistance. Most fire stations have a regular cast of neighborhood kids who are routinely in and out of the station. Many firefighters are the grown-up version of these kids. My comparing the biker bar “No Kids” prohibition is not in any way directed to this group of kids.

The reason that kids are so safe and so welcomed in a fire station is simply that the people who work there are not kids. The role, function, and job of being a firefighter absolutely require that the person be a functioning adult. When a person becomes a firefighter, that person makes a promise that he will quickly, directly, and physically insert his body between the hazard and the customer. These are the kinds of humans who very typically inhabit a fire station, and when you are with them in their fire station or anywhere else, you are secure (and many times entertained). A major reason for this security is that they are fully developed adults, or they simply do not get their ticket punched to ride on Big Red.

We don’t talk about this promise to protect in a very direct way very much, but that does not change the reality that firefighters are men and women with a high level of personal courage. Only fully developed adults can process the challenge of developing a realistic risk-management plan that determines where they physically can go and what they can do and then effectively execute that plan within a hazard zone; this is no place for kids.

Hazard level performance and behavior require a person to be equipped with the most mature set of personal capabilities and characteristics—mature means that the firefighter has fully developed mental, physical, emotional, and social skills regardless of age. I have worked with very young firefighters who had stability and capability way beyond their age; they are treasures. I have also worked with older firefighters who acted and performed as pre-recruits; they are hazards and constant problems. Requiring the workers (not the visitors) to be adults is the reason I was attracted to the “No Kids” part of the bar sign.

“NO COLORS”: I really like this one. If you look at the cast of characters who show up at a biker bar, some belong to a motorcycle “club.” They identify their membership in the club by wearing a jacket with the club insignia on the back; doing this is referred to as wearing “the colors.” Sometimes these clubs can have fairly different and competing social positions that can produce a difficult relationship among the organizations, and these differences can result in fairly spirited resolution rituals.

If you are the custodian of a place where these groups routinely gather, it is prudent to announce before entry that the customers must not wear their official uniform simply to retain the longevity of the furniture and the safety of the humans inside the bar—in other words, the bar is a neutral place. I think this process also applies to us. If you examine the profile of our members, they all come on duty wearing their own “colors.” This is a good thing because a huge part of our internal strength is our diversity.

When I was a captain, I had a crew of five excellent firefighters. Their former occupations and off-duty jobs were heavy equipment operator, electrician, air-conditioning technician, very successful salesman, and high-tech mechanic. They could collectively do (and did) just about anything. Other fire companies would special call us so that my crew could solve a special problem (shameless bragging). In a very special way, each of them wore his own colors, and I think this is the essence of the comparison: When they all came on duty, their color was blue, and they were more effective as a team than any one of them was by himself.

During my career, I worked as a senior boss, and sometimes I would become aware of the staff attempting to solve fire station personnel problems. Many of these problems were the result of our diversity not strengthening us but doing the opposite. Instead of a crew coming together and contributing their individual capability to the team, they simply came in wearing their own colors, and they never collectively achieved being “blue.” It would have been smart for us to have a sign that announced “No Colors.”

A huge challenge and opportunity for a fire department boss is to get the unbelievably diverse group of people who inhabit a fire department to all be blue. If we can do that, we can achieve just about anything; if we can’t, we will spend virtually all our time chasing problems and never catching them. The answer for us is pretty simple, and the biker bar figured it out: If you want to come in, leave your colors outside—then behave yourself, and have a good time with all guys/gals wearing blue.

“NO ATTITUDES”: When you operate a place like a biker bar, you will quickly understand that the state of mind of your patrons will regulate what kind of night you will have. If you can create friendly energy that leads to positive relationships among all the customers from the very beginning of their arrival, the better time everyone will have, including most of the folks who manage the bar and those who must reassemble and repair the bar if the customers act out their time together dysfunctionally.

The direction on the sign (“No Attitudes”) is a bit subtle, but it has a very clear and explicit meaning to biker bar customers. Those who arrive on a customized, full race motorcycle know what is meant by “attitude,” and they also understand that you must not bring your bad day in here. That message was developed (I would imagine) over a long period of time of having to clean up the mess produced by the damage that resulted from a lot of competing bad attitudes. I think almost the exact set of dynamics relates to what happens when a crew of firefighters walks into a fire station.

We will be effective and safe if we have an attitude that leads to an effective level of fitness for duty. That fitness applies to what we do inside and outside of the station. We live with each other in close quarters and become either the beneficiary or the victim of each other’s attitude. We also are on duty to deliver service to Mrs. Smith. She generally calls us when something has disrupted her life; many times, that thing makes her grumpy = bad attitude. If we mix her lousy attitude with our lousy attitude, it will produce lots of paperwork and meetings. These are reasons we should manage the attitude when we walk through the door.

Although it is critical for us to manage our attitude, it does not mean we must constantly be a positive ray of sunshine. We all have up/down, good/bad, happy/sad, and nutty/sane days. When you are having such a time, the rest of the crew should take up the slack for you on that day and practice team management.

A problem occurs if someone regularly walks in with an attitude that is out of balance. That is when an effective boss directs that person to some attitude-adjusting support. The biker bar does not have access to an employee assistance program, so it simply says on the welcome/instruction doorway sign not to come in if you are sporting an antisocial attitude.

Wherever I go in life, it’s good to know I can extract a pocket pad lesson, even when driving by a biker bar.

● 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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