Tuna Talk

I recently attended a one-day conference with about 150 firefighters present. There were four instructors, and the planners were nice enough to give me a small speaking part in the program. In the audience, there were about a dozen young men and women all in the same uniform sitting together and attentively taking it all in. The group was a soon-to-graduate fire science class from a local community college. They were completing a two-year program that would prepare them to go out in the brave new world and compete for an entry-level fire department position. Their academic boss probably thought it would be a positive experience to get to hang out for the day in a conference context. I was sitting in a place facing them so I could watch their reaction as the program proceeded.

When I was gainfully employed by a fire department, I really enjoyed having a conversation with our academy recruits. It was always educational for me to listen to them describe how they fit into and felt about the system at the very beginning of their career. Given our relative ages, it was to them a lot like having a conversation with their grandfather.

I was in the department long enough to visit with them at the start of their career in the recruit academy and then attend their retirement ceremony at the end of their career. It was common for them to remember and mention something we discussed during our conversation when they were in recruit school. I guess, as a boss, we should pay attention to what we say because it may live forever.

As I watched the young people at the conference, it was interesting to observe their level of attention and animation to what was being presented. I’m sure their boss gave them a “no cell phone” order because I never saw a cell phone appear during class, which was a completely unnatural act for anyone their age – or now, really, for anyone of any age. Although they could not communicate electronically, they did connect interpersonally in very subtle and quietly polite verbal and nonverbal ways.

When we broke for lunch, given the large group, the hosts had set up four big tables filled with box lunches. So far, I have never met a lunch I didn’t like, and that includes one that shows up inside a box. Generally, the box contains a sandwich cut in half and wrapped neatly in clear plastic; a small bag of potato chips; and either a cookie, also wrapped in cellophane (if the choice were made by a short, fat guy like me), or an apple if the dessert decision maker were a flat-belly workout guy/gal. In this case, they recruited one of my team and the box had a standard issue chocolate chip beauty that was calling my name. Given my extensive very positive experience with box lunches, I accurately expected the top of each box to have a written note indicating the type of sandwich in the box. As I sized up the “menu,” it listed the standard box lunch sandwich choice: ham, turkey, or tuna salad.

(I was raised in a big downtown central fire station where every shift we did a two-meal lunch/dinner routine. The cooking and eating routine is a huge part of the culture of our service. Our cooking magicians concentrated on creatively preparing the evening meal, so our lunch routine pretty much included sandwiches – lots of hamburgers and sometimes grilled cheese and tomato soup. Everyone religiously cut the sandwich into four strips so they could dunk in the soup. Every Friday, we had tuna salad. I loved Friday duty because tuna salad is my favorite. Forgive my digression into my sandwich fetish.)

Recruits’ Question

Back to my conference story. I made an aggressive tuna grab and found a seat at an empty table. As I got going on my standard sandwich demolition warm-up, five of the students approached my table and asked if they could sit with me. I immediately invited them to sit down and asked how they were enjoying the program. They predictably indicated it was peachy and that they were learning a lot. Then the lead recruit asked if I would answer a question for them. “Please ask,” I said. I knew what the question was – this wasn’t my first box lunch rodeo. She (the spokesperson) asked, “What advice would you give us as we start our career as firefighters?” I quickly answered, “You should be like my watch.” I kept enjoying my tuna sandwich.

The five of them exchanged the “old fella has slipped off the edge” look. After a pregnant pause, she said something very polite like: “Chief, I beg your pardon.” Now, my goofy answer has their attention. I am fairly certain that none of them really contemplated much about any watch; as modern young people, every one of them habitually looked at their cell phone to see what time it was (none of them were wearing a wristwatch).

I repeated my “be like my watch” answer and pointed to my watch. More bewildered looks! I asked, “Do you know what kind of a watch this is?” They all shook their heads. I told them, “This little baby is a Timex®!” More blank stares! I asked her, “Do you have a cell phone?” She pulled it out of her back pocket (standard female phone storage location). I said, “Google: ‘Timex® slogan.’” She did it in about three seconds.

She smiled and read what’s on the screen, “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” I nodded my head and said, “That’s my one piece of advice.”

I highly approve of their question because when you are getting started on a career that will generally last your entire working lifetime, it is smart to ask an old guy who is four times as old as you and has done the same job for three times as long as you have been alive. At this point, I have 20 minutes to connect the 50-year-old slogan describing my watch to their future, or we will be late getting back to class, where I will be on deck to go on stage.

Back to the box lunch, where I failed to describe another standard item: Inside, there will always be a paper napkin neatly folded. Most of you silly ducks think it is for neatness in dabbing a mischievous dab of mayonnaise. It is placed there to write on when you must describe a 35-year career in 20 minutes.

My Response: Basic Human Capability Components

I took out my trusty 79-cent ballpoint pen and wrote four words on the napkin: “biologic, cognitive, emotional, social.” The five students blinked and nodded. This was the launching pad for my answer.

“I used the very old ‘licking-ticking’ slogan to advertise my very old watch because it directly related to the career you are just beginning. You have these four basic human capability components that will determine how effective and happy you will be in your job. As you go through the difficult challenges of working as a firefighter, those four parts of you will get beat up, and you will be personally affected and will survive if you can develop the capability to keep going. Let’s look at those standard pieces of you.

“Biologic. You were tested and selected because you are physically capable. The entry obstacle course had an occupational doctor medically evaluate the history and status of all your parts and systems. The entry evaluation process also created a physical capability performance exam that evaluates your ability to physically do a set of valid operational tasks that are directly connected to the manual labor you will do on the fireground. You survived that entry evaluation process simply because all your body parts work very well.

“The physical work you will do as a firefighter is very difficult and many times is done in a dangerous place, an environment that is immediately dangerous to life or health. You will survive doing this if you adopt a personal wellness maintenance program. You must become informed and skillful in developing, applying, and refining a personal fitness and nutrition program (tuna on whole wheat = A+), using the medical maintenance support program, and understanding and connecting to the rehabilitation system for injury recovery. As you get older, you must use these systems to help get through your current stage (it’s stages, not ages) because you will not recover as quickly (to say the least), so you must use these support systems more actively. You cannot go through your career and not get scuffed up physically. You must develop the continual awareness of your biologic status and the skill to survive the wear and tear (literally) of doing tough work for a long time so you can successfully come out the other end of your career and then happily exploit the pension system.

“Cognitive. This is your brain. I commend you for going through your current educational program. This is a very effective head start in understanding the work you will be doing and the role you will be playing. The challenge for you is that when you graduate, you cannot stop being a student. You must then become a lifelong student. I can relate to your situation. I graduated from Oklahoma State University’s School of Fire Protection Technology in 1960, and here I am directly connected to a seminar tuna salad sandwich in 2017. So far today (and it’s just lunchtime), I have taken two full pages of notes about new subjects that I must study when I leave here.

“The challenge for your brain is just like that for your body: You must develop, apply, and keep feeding information into your head. This would be simple if everything stayed the same and were stable enough so you could pin it down and have it remain long enough so you can study and understand it. The problem is that while you are sleeping, the change mice are working, and when you wake up, you will find that the sneaky little rodents have created a new, different, surprising, and many times nonsensical headline for that day. If you can’t figure out what the headline means by about 10 o’clock (on your Timex®), you miss the opportunities that come with the change; if you miss the change message for about three days, you are now behind. If you are behind long enough – and right now that’s not very long – it’s difficult to get current again. During your career, you are going to read some surprising headlines. How you react to them will determine if you overcome the licking and keep on ticking.

“Emotional. This one relates to your heart. Most occupations do not come anywhere close to the emotional involvement of being a firefighter. A lot of your preparation has been directed to performing the difficult, demanding physical labor involved in firefighting. This is essential training. Firefighting training curricula typically do not have much education or direction about the emotional labor that always goes with the physical part – in fact, the soft human part is a lot more difficult to understand and to do for most of us than the hard, technical, tactical segments.

“The sooner you become more emotionally literate, the happier and better adjusted you will be. You will have a job that responds every day to our customer’s (Mrs. Smith’s) worst day. After you have helped her and solved the problem that was disrupting her life, she will mostly remember how you treated her. She will not connect to anything technical or very complicated but will use the word “nice” > nice/kind/patient/considerate. She will use emotional language to express how she remembers you and how you protected and saved the people, pets, pictures, and pills that defined her life.

“As you progress in your career and become a boss, you will quickly discover you spend most of your time dealing with both positive and negative emotional issues. The earlier you develop the ability to encourage, value, and support the humans in your life, the more successful you will become. If you don’t learn that, the most you will ever accomplish is to just break even, and you will not be successful. The same understanding of how critical it is for you to make effective emotional connections also applies to how you connect to yourself, particularly as you progress in your job. You will get beat up emotionally by what you see and for doing what you must do as a firefighter. You will become very stressed if you cannot develop your own emotional damage-control recovery plan. When you become a boss, your troops will care more about how you feel than what you know.

“Social. This mostly involves how your eyes hook up to your brain. You must develop the ability called ‘social radar.’ This skill will relate to how effectively you relate to others; it is mostly driven by the status and situation of the other person. You must develop the instinctive ability to look at and “behind” that person and the situation and then adjust your behavior (control your ego) to relate to that person as a caregiver so you can help, control, comfort, direct, advise, support, protect, and on and on. As a firefighter, you will attend virtually every negative physical event in the community and will be called to provide support and assistance at every unscheduled birth and unplanned death. What you leave with the customer is a memory based mostly on how your behavior and performance made Mrs. Smith feel. We (humans) remember 100 percent of our feelings.

“You are going to become a member of the only public service agency that can enter anyplace in the community without a search warrant. In the middle of the night, Mrs. Smith will call us and then let the firefighters on her front porch into her home and the paramedics cut the pajamas off her eight-year-old daughter. This has to be the highest level of trust. We have this access and reception because the community trusts us; a huge reason for that feeling is that our service has had a rapid problem-solving history and a positive social connection to those we interact with and protect. As a new firefighter, you will be a member of the generation that has the longest to go, and you are the custodian of the most profound effect on our future. Your social skills will be a big part of that future.”

As I devoured the last chocolate chip, it was time to get back to class. After I finished my breathtaking, heart-stopping presentation, I walked by the kids. I pointed to my watch, and they all nodded. That may be the best feedback I have ever received.

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

Alan Brunacini will present “How Am I Doing as a Boss?” at FDIC International in Indianapolis on Tuesday, April 25, 2017, 1:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m.

“Bruno and Norman ‘Unplugged,’” featuring Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini and Deputy Assistant Chief (Ret.) John Norman, Fire Department of New York, will take place at FDIC International in Indianapolis on Wednesday, April 26, 2017, 5:30 pm-7:15 pm.

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