VOLUNTEERS CORNER ❘ By BRIAN BERRY
If you’re reading this article, there is a good chance that you are a firefighter, married to a firefighter, related to a firefighter, or just in the fire industry. There also might be a chance that you picked up Fire Engineering out of interest while passing the time. Regardless of how you arrived to focus your eyes on this article, I want to tell you my story about a fire I was unaware of.
I was the chief of a volunteer fire department in Ohio (until my retirement in January 2019). I was also an engineer for General Motors. Besides the two demanding jobs, I also juggled a wife, two teenage boys, three dogs, and a cat. My full-time job took up to 10 hours a day on the clock. This left 14 hours to drive, sleep, eat, and take care of firehouse business including local and regional fire meetings. My employer expected leadership, excellence, punctuality, and commitment. In addition, weekend work was mandated if operations were running. Whenever there was a surprise issue at work and it needed to be resolved right away, we called it “firefighting.”
At the firehouse, we kept busy with our own calls in addition to structure fire automatic calls from a neighboring city. During those years, I made every fire and emergency medical services call at our station in addition to every structure fire in the city. If you wanted to run a successful volunteer department, the job of fire chief was not about commanding a scene; it was a very intensive administrative position where you had to keep up with legal issues, human resources, reporting/billing, policies, grants, and a hundred other things at a rate of 30-plus hours a week. Every once in a while, some drama appeared to distract you. All of this absorbed your time.
You can still be a chief and avoid the administrative features listed, but are you doing a great service to your crew and the community, or are you doing the bare minimum?
I was part of a wonderful department with an outstanding crew. When I received the keys to the chief’s office, I implemented lessons learned from the manufacturing sector into department policy. First, I kept the focus on priorities: family, career, firehouse. Change of culture is difficult for any group, but once a leader has his first follower, the changes become easier, and he can lock in the gains. These challenges are greater with volunteer departments that are not “paid for performance” as opposed to career departments, which are. With volunteer numbers dwindling, a leader must be aware that too strong a discipline system will empty out the station in a hurry. The time and balance of functions invested in a high-performing volunteer firehouse are immense.
Our department’s standard operating procedures were painstakingly fine-tuned, processes were standardized, and a flow chart or two were created for truck responses. Firefighters and emergency medical technicians were held accountable for their responsibilities. And if you wanted to be placed on the hose, no facial hair was allowed. Members had to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times while in any hot or warm zone. Alcohol was prohibited on fire station property and in a member’s body. Our station held the same standards as a career station, and it performed to the same level.
During those years, our station was very successful with federal, state, and local grants. It took an immense amount of time to work on grants. As I was composing this article, another large grant award notification came in. Everything seemed to be operating at a high-performing level. We tried to keep ourselves grounded while also promoting the improvement of volunteer firehouses in general. Almost daily, we saw photos or videos of other volunteer firefighters with facial hair below the lips, driving under the influence of alcohol, making irresponsible social media postings, and failing to wear proper PPE.
Those departments needed a culture change. Chief officers have a difficult journey; change needs buy-in and commitment and takes an extreme amount of time and effort to create.
The Value of Time
Have you noticed a common theme here? It’s about having the time to do things. Ask yourself, is this the fire you may be unaware of? You cannot squelch this fire with water or foam; you battle this fire alone while performing at every level of the National Incident Management System 100, from top to bottom.
My full-time job flexibility was nonnegotiable; that was a pay-for-performance reality. My time invested there was compensated, which paid for the house, the cars, electricity, running water, the Internet, and food. It was a necessity to live and provide for my family. The time I spent taking care of firehouse business was immense. In the past, the supporting officers on a scene operated only by title. The officers had no real role in the day-to-day administrative operations. A change was made to assign each officer real responsibility outside of the fireground. This helped with leadership development in addition to taking some weight off my shoulders. In this case, it truly took a village to run a fire department. Firefighters started to use proper escalation from the lower rank to the next rank.
The Fire I Was Unaware Of
I was aware of the fire department being a large “time absorber,” but I wasn’t aware of how it was affecting my wife. The “hidden” fire just reared itself without any smoke to read, and I was the sole firefighter without water.
My wife and I met at a friend’s party a few decades ago, where I asked for her phone number. We spent long nights on the phone, talking until we fell asleep. I worked at an automotive racing engine shop while we both went to the same college. I spent several years pursuing her on and off, with most of the early years resulting in her pigeonholing me in the “friend zone.” Flowers, candy, and teddy bears were a staple during this time.
My wife’s father was a lifelong police officer and retired as the chief of police of a medium-sized city. She grew up with the idea that birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays were not to be celebrated on the actual day. Her mother advised her to keep away from a husband’s fire/police business because it could blur the lines with potential implied authority issues. (See Webster’s Dictionary: “Most Honorable Exalted Auxiliary Battalion Chief,” also known as the volunteer chief’s wife.)
Over the past 20 years of our marriage, we rarely exchanged cards, flowers, or gifts. Each year, we joked about this “tradition of nongiving”; we even thought that if I were to give her flowers now, she would think something was up.
Something was up. We had our 20th anniversary this year. China is the suggested gift for the 20th anniversary, but in keeping with tradition, I did not buy anything. I see buying china the same as buying her a dishwasher or toaster.
Some people might be shaking their heads right about now. Some may say that I deserved what happened next. As you would expect, the fire appeared, and there was nothing I could do to extinguish it. I was called onto the carpet and was ordered to answer her accusations. The crime with which I was being charged was complacency. I failed on my own prioritization directive to my crew: family, career, firehouse. Several years ago, I would have put up a fight. Anyone who presented a complaint would have been met with a prepared list of counterclaims in a rapid-fire fashion. However, I made my own changes some time ago, and I have an open outlook on life and the interactions with the people I meet.
In life, two things will get you in trouble: (1) your hands and (2) your mouth. So, I closed my mouth and kept my eyes and ears open while maintaining my hands nervously clasped together. I listened. I repeated her words so that she saw that I understood what she said. I had my own list of grievances, but this was not the time. It was up to me to be the hero and save this marriage. Her demands were presented to me clearly, and we developed a pathway to recovery using the targets from the acronym SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based). A weekly meeting was decided as a barometer of progress.
What does this have to do with an article in a firefighter publication? Everything.
Most firefighters in America are volunteers. Each of us splits our precious time among family, career, and firehouse. Today’s family is typically dual income; therefore, family time is reduced even more. When that family time occurs, the pager suddenly rings, and the firefighter is out the door. Your significant other goes along with it because she knows it’s important to you. We’ve all had our spouses let out a large sigh one or more times as the pager sounded and we stood up to grab the car keys. That loud sigh should be a billboard of lights to us, but it usually isn’t.
Volunteer fire departments are sometimes similar to fraternal organizations. For the members, it’s like hanging with the old gang. Some couples are fortunate enough that both find a fit in the firehouse. However, for most, it’s the opposite.
When we were 18 years old, three simple things worked: candy, flowers, and teddy bears. As we grow older, emotional currency becomes more important. The old, reliable three are still acceptable, but they’ve generally become hollow or just an opportunity to open up conversation.
What if you don’t leave for that run? Perhaps the end result would be the two of you sitting in the same room, tuned into electronic devices instead of each other. You are now frustrated as your spouse sits there quietly watching a TV drama with a smartphone nearby for checking during commercials. Is this what was desired? Of course not.
Hey, firefighter! Wake up! You’re lost in the smoke, and your personal alert safety system alarm is telling you that you are low on “relationship.” Get a grip and develop situational awareness. Understand that blame does not provide any functional resolution. Your number-one goal is to survive. Have that difficult conversation. Develop and encourage openness. Remember, everyone has the right to change his or her mind and go somewhere or do something he or she has never done before. Discover the things that she wants to do. Do not make this about you; be aware of proper balance by being attentive while not smothering her.
Does this sound like standard advice? Does it sound like something everyone says? Yes it does! However, like most people and diets, do we really put 100 percent in for a month, let alone for life? In my position, it was difficult to avoid fire business. Phone calls and e-mails filled up what was left of the day.
Fire department administrations today are drastically different from those of the past. Technology and communication are key to functioning smarter.
Society tells you to find a mate, get married, and have kids. The biggest challenge of your life—relationships—does not come with a manual or training. When the kids emerge, the relationship becomes a business; the focus is now on the children. What was two is now three and then four. My wife became a business partner, no longer my lover.
It was too late. Sometimes the best quality CPR cannot resuscitate a relationship. On my relationship’s “autopsy,” I discovered that we, as a couple, were missing the emotional connection for several years. I replaced the needs that I was not receiving at home with the fire department. The firehouse family gave me the support I was not getting at home. I became closer to my fire family while drifting farther away from my spouse. No person was fully responsible for this. The blame was on both of us.
Don’t forget why you have a significant other. While you’re out working emergencies, take the time to keep your own relationship “up to code” to reduce the risk of “fire.” At the firehouse, training is a very important topic and a routine practical exercise; it is a pillar of the operations of a firehouse. We train on a constant basis to be prepared for anything. Why do we still choose to engage in relationships without the same approach?
Tonight, go out somewhere and enjoy each other. Turn off the pager. Reconnect and rebuild. Above all, remember to set aside an evening and go on an old-fashioned date.
BRIAN BERRY retired as chief of the Highland Township (OH) Fire Department after 30 years of service in Ohio and Michigan. He has degrees in applied science from Owens College, vocational education from the University of Toledo, and criminal justice from Northwest State College. He is an emergency manager for a large hospital system that includes assisted living and nursing home sites in 28 states.