Flexibility: The Key to Living a Life in 2005

How often have my words urged you to approach life in the fire service with a certain degree of flexibility? There are just too many variables at work in the world to insist that your way is the only way. Many times during my life, people have told me that I needed to loosen up and be more flexible. These folks urged me to go with the flow.

My friends, this is never an easy lesson to learn. Oh, it is easy to give advice on flexibility, but it has been my experience that flexibility is a learned attribute. It is something that you come to have at a certain point in your life. Maybe you do not even recall the day that you started to be a bit more flexible.

I cannot recall that moment. I think it came, but sometimes I wonder. Many of the organizations to which I belong are not bastions of flexibility, so it is difficult to be the willow tree in a forest of oaks. As a matter of fact if you were to ask my lovely wife, she would say that I have yet to get to that point.

Let me share the fact that life's lessons about flexibility were learned over the course of an extended period of time in my life. The lessons riveted themselves into my mind during my many years as a commuter to the City of Newark, New Jersey. Over the years I came to understand that there was more than one way to get to work.

As it turned out, there were about eight ways, or combinations of ways to get to work. There were the everyday routes which were good as long as people managed to avoid hitting each other. There was the older trip-down-memory-lane route up U.S, Highway 1/9 through Woodbridge, Rahway, Linden, and Elizabeth, on the way to Newark.

It was that route which took me back to the days in the 1950's when my parents would take my brother and I to Newark for the Thanksgiving celebration at our grandparent's home on Lafayette Street in that city's Ironbound section. However, that way could only be used on weekends and holiday mornings headed in to work.

There were also the longer, emergency and national holiday routes that avoided the heavy traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike and The Garden State Parkway. Then there were the sudden emergency routes which involved having to duck off of a regular route and taking another road which I may never have seen. Some of my greatest adventures came during these sudden alterations to my commute. I found places in New Jersey I never knew existed.

Perhaps what I am trying to say is that the living of life is a matter of experiencing things and then learning from what has occurred. As I wrote a number of weeks ago, when someone hands you lemons, quickly begin the search for water and sugar (or sugar substitutes) so that you can create some world-class lemonade.

This lesson was brought home to me again the other day. I have a new assignment as an on-line faculty member for an American educational institute. After spending a number of days preparing the work within my course-room area, I thought that all was in readiness to begin helping a new round of learners acquire a fresh set of educational experiences.

Imagine my surprise when one of the students asked me a question on the disparity between what the module overview specified, and what the textbook provided by way of reading assignments. After a cursory review of the material I began to develop a terrible feeling about what was happening.

Whoever created the modules and lectures for the course which I was expected to teach had based it on an older edition of the same text that my learners had just purchased from the school's book store. Many times there is not a great difference between editions of a text by the same authors. Sadly, this was not one of those cases. There was a great difference between the older and newer editions from the same authors.

My initial reaction was to become upset. I quickly fought that urge. No one would have been well-served by that sort of action. I paused for a bit, went out to the kitchen to brew a fresh pot of coffee and went out into the backyard for a breath of fresh air.

I returned to the office with a fresh cup of coffee and a new perspective. It was then that a problem report ticket was forwarded to the school. There was a procedure provided for these matters and I followed that procedure. I also took the precaution of posting an announcement to the students that a problem had been identified and I was in the process of asking the school for guidance.

The wait for a response from an on-line institution of any kind is problematic. It seems that far too many people in the world today have developed a fear of interacting with other human beings. Why else would we face so many email interactions and countless telephone menu listings when someone does provide a telephone number? That is what happened here. No human ever contacted me, either on the phone or in writing.

Maybe it is just me, but have we not as a society moved away from the basics of human kindness and interaction. Heaven knows I have been beating my head against this for some time now. Frankly I am tired of hearing how efficient this new electronic world of ours is supposed to be.

The absence of human interaction has diminished us as a society. Perhaps this will be yet another helping of grease on the skids as our society slides down the icy slope to historical insignificance. Give me the good old, one-on-one, person-to-person communications interaction.

Perhaps I am just tired of spending hours typing things in emails that would actually take a lot less time if the interaction could simply be conducted person-to-person. Further, there is no voice inflection in an email. Perhaps that is why so many people get into trouble using them. After some really outrageous communication's errors, I have adopted a new personal email policy.

When I have something that is angering me, I create the email and then let it sit for at least an hour. Then I go back and take another look at it. Hopefully I have calmed down and can eliminate the stupid parts that would get me into trouble. If I have not calmed down, I let it sit until I am.

At that point I attempt to edit the document into something that expresses my thoughts without angering the potential receiver. In this way, I will hopefully create a modicum of flexibility to counteract my propensity for being an ass.

It is possible that I am barking up the wrong tree here, but I think not. My research has indicated to me that there are some serious leadership issues in the fire service. Perhaps the greatest problem area involves the issue of communications. This topic continues to head a variety of lists outlining our fire service difficulties.

I am suggesting to you that far too many people are just not getting the word out to their fellow travelers in a timely manner. It is my belief that another aspect of this conundrum involves those interpersonal misunderstandings caused by the many different meanings attached to words in our language. Then we throw the impersonal nature of the Internet and email into the mix. Is it any wonder that we have problems sharing our ideas with one another?

What makes this situation worse is the lack of flexibility built into many organizational communications systems. When I had the problem with my on-line university course I asked for a person to call me. I was informed that they did not do things that way. So I had to spend an inordinate amount of time typing my thoughts into a box.

It is getting so bad that I am beginning to envision people around the world hunkered down in their personal bunkers, hiding from the world and pounding the keys on their keyboards. They are probably praying that they do not have to speak to a human.

My friends, if we are to have a better fire service we need to create a more flexible approach to our operations. When we need to talk, provide a mechanism for human communications. There will be times when an email will suffice however I am of the opinion that these times should be limited.

Communications is but one of the many organizational areas where flexibility is needed. You had best be real flexible in your approach to operating on the fireground. Have a plan, have standard operating procedures, and train on all of these things.

Just remember that the fire will do what it wants. Do not be a slave to any plan. If things are not working, try some new things. This means that you need to continually study, drill, and practice the many ways that things can be done. Then when things start to go bad on the fireground, be ready to dip into your bag of tricks for a new attack plan.

Now back to my problem with the on-line institution. As was mentioned above, no one ever got back to me. I was left to stew while pondering how I would get the job done for my students. Fortunately one of my students took the bull by the horns and sent me a private email telling me that the school had changed the modules to the proper edition.

That student displayed an inordinate degree of sensibility and flexibility. That student even took the time to respond to my request for a telephone conversation. Between the two of us, we came up with a means of addressing the issues created by the case of the "moveable modules." We then worked to cement a bond between two fire guys in widely-separated parts of our country.

My whole life during this past week was yet another lesson in the need for flexibility. I was supposed to be in one place and ended up in another. One set of tasks had been planned and then a totally different set of tasks was accomplished. Let me share a fact with you.

The 1980-verson of me could never have done what I did this week. Maybe not even the 2000-version would have had a shot at it. However, this is a new century and I had damned sure better be a new, more flexible me. I suggest you need to adopt this approach yourself.

That is my advice for you this time around. While you can and should plan your work, and then hopefully work your plan, be warned. Things happen. Things change. New exigencies present themselves for your review. Do not be so inflexibly tied to your plans that you end up missing the opportunities which present themselves at the oddest times.

These are just a few thoughts from a guy who has sent a couple of changes in the last 40 years. Think about my words. That is all I ask, just a moment of your time for some thoughtful consideration. Have a blessed week.