Have You Ever Felt Lost or Helpless?

Many of us within the fire service think and act as though we believe ourselves to be immortal. Each of us likes to think that we are up to handling whatever challenge might be hurled at us as we speed down the road to our next assignment. We constantly seek to push the envelope in order to get the job done.

Yes my friends, we tend to live life, and fight fire as though we were somehow invincible. Many times I have personally fallen victim to this false, but fleeting sense of infallibility. However, it is not only fire service folks who feel immune from the negative aspects of life.

My dear wife Jackie is a person supremely confident in her abilities as a health care professional. Over the years, she has proven herself to be one of the best nurses around. Of course I might be forgiven for a bit of bias in this instance.

Jackie has been a nurse for the better part of the last 35 years. She initially graduated from a three-year diploma nursing school, with an old-fashioned, hospital-based nursing education. She then went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from an Ivy League school (The University of Pennsylvania) and then a master's degree from Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

Jackie's nursing background runs the gamut from specialty work in the Shea Eye Clinic at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to the classroom as an instructor at her nursing school alma mater, Muhlenberg Hospital in Plainfield, New Jersey. She then spent 20 years as a labor and delivery nurse at Freehold Area Hospital, now known as the CentraState Medical Center. She has learned to accept responsibility and exercise her judgment in a wide variety of challenging situations.

During the early 1990's Jackie felt that it was time to make a change in the direction of her working life. She returned to Trenton State College to earn her school nursing certification. Since 1992 she has served as the school nurse at the Wall Intermediate School, in Wall Township, New Jersey.

My wife is used to being in charge. She has served during the delivery of literally hundreds of babies. She has been responsible for the welfare of thousands of children as they passed through the Intermediate School. Many have been the trials she has faced and many the problems she has solved.

Think about it my friends. One of her other primary challenges for the past 32 years has involved being a practicing health care professional, all the while keeping an eye on me. As you might imagine, I have been a real tough nut for Jackie to crack. My friends, she is the best wife imaginable.

Recently she suffered a short-term setback. She suffered a broken arm as a result of a job related accident at school. It stopped her dead in her tracks. I can recall the day that I had to pick her up at the school and drive her to the worker's compensation doctor for the school board.

She was not sure if the arm was broken or sprained. All she knew was that it hurt. The x-rays told the story. She had broken her arm up near the elbow. She was not a happy camper and, like I said, she was in pain.

Jackie had instantly been transported from a position of independence to a place of dependence; where she needed someone else to drive her around. My wife values her independence. Jackie was suddenly forced from her comfort zone into a whole new world of dependence. I can tell you that she was not happy at all about this turn of events.

The next day dawned to find her on the way to the orthopedic surgeon. She had a break in the upper end of her forearm where it meets the elbow. The doctor gave her a list of no-no's that was quite long. It included no driving, no lifting, and no going to work. So it went for the first few weeks.

Jackie was quite upset that she was not able to get to work at the school and catch up on her paperwork. She had not fully completed her health-related records for all of the 1,100-plus students in her school when the accident occurred.

Let me assure you that she wants to get back to work, but the doctor has ruled it out. During her last visit with the orthopedic surgeon, she was informed that he was not happy with the manner in which the bone was healing. He prescribed more exercises and ordered therapy to begin. With a bit of luck she might be able to return to work in early December. She is making progress, but I am fairly certain things are not moving along as quickly as she would like.

During her latest visit with the orthopedic surgeon, he eased up a bit on the restrictions. Jackie can now drive occasionally and lift up to 10 pounds with her "bad" arm. The only bright light on the horizon is that the injury affected her left arm and she is right-handed.

I also think that she is also angry with the fact that there is no cast for anyone to sign, and there is no bruise to show people. There is nothing but pain in her daily existence now. She is not happy that she has lost control of her daily life. This school year is not playing out the way that she hoped it would.

Now you and I may see this as a temporary setback. This too will pass. That is easy for us to say, because our lives have not been altered. We are not walking in her moccasins at this point. Here is where the lesson begins.

We need to understand about how a variety of situations affect the people who are around us in our lives. We need to be responsive to their needs and concerned with their problems. We need to reach out to them in an attempt to help them deal with life.

It was my daughter Katie who suggested the topic for this week's visit with you. She too is quite familiar with her mom's take-charge approach to life. However, she suggested that the uncertainty that Jackie is feeling right now could be extrapolated outward to the world of firefighting. Katie asked me to relate to you the issue of uncertainty as it pertains to the feeling that newcomers to the fire service may experience when they encounter their new environment.

In my case, I have been going to fires for so long that it is somewhat difficult to recall how I felt when I started going to blazes. However, it is critical for those of us who have the experience to reach out to the new people.

I alluded to this in last week's commentary when I spoke of the need for leaders and others to make people feel comfortable when they enter the doors of our fire stations. We have to remember that what is familiar for us is new and unique for the novice firefighter.

Katie has made reference to this issue a number of times over the past few years. She suggested that many of the fine folks who trained her early in her career skipped over certain things, thinking that her and her classmates knew more than they actually did. She made a real impression on me with this assessment. She suggested that instructors should make an effort to learn more about their students.

Over the past few years, I have attempted to alter my teaching techniques, based upon Katie's premise. This has been done in an attempt to understand the level of understanding that my students possess. We are meeting each other in a unique way. I asked questions to help me arrive at an awareness of what they may or may not know about the topic in question.

I try to assess what they know, and what they might not know. I do this so that I can begin to teach them in a way that allows them to pick up the topic and carry it towards a successful learning experience. It is my task to meet them on a common ground of mutual understanding.

This is an element basic to the delivery of adult education. It is a concept that many instructors fail to appreciate. Each student arrives with a given base level of knowledge. If you teach the topic at too low a level, they will quickly become bored and are turned off. If you teach at too high a level, the student never has a chance to tune in and carry on a two-way educational interaction.

Katie also reminded me of the importance of sharing our experience with the new people at the scene of emergencies. These new folks may hold back if you do not encourage them to participate. They might also forward rush toward the emergency and be injured if you do not keep an eye on them and share what you know.

This is an area that lends itself quite well to the twin concepts of coaching and mentoring. It would be my suggestion that every new member be assigned a veteran to mentor them as they move through their probationary period. While there may be some organizations that practice this proactive approach to develop personnel, far too many leave the new person to their own devices.

How long does it take the newcomer to your fire department to figure out that no one likes them? In some cases, the atmosphere is quickly poisoned and the person is run off. In other cases, the newcomer is allowed to blend smoothly into their new world.

My research indicates that people tend to stay with those undertakings that satisfy their needs. Likewise, people tend to abandon those activities that do not meet their needs or make them happy. It is critical for your organization to create an ethical approach to proactively encouraging your new members. Treat each as though they were a member of you family, for that is in fact what they have become. They are now a part of your fire department family.

How long would you have stayed with your fire department if you had not been made to feel welcome? I am not saying that every new person will accept your offer of kindness and friendship, for you see some people really are loners. What I am suggesting is that each of you must become an active part of the fire department when it comes to bringing the new member into the organization.

You will be able to tell which way it is going to go during the first couple of months. Some people never do make the connection. These are the people who were not meant to be members of your organization. However, you should only arrive at this awareness after a suitable period of coaching, mentoring and trying to understand these new folks.

Even though I have been an active member of the fire service in a variety of situations and positions for a long time now, I still get a bit uptight when I enter a new situation. I have found that if I keep a friendly spirit and a smile on my face, things will work out better.

It is simple. Be nice to people and treat them as you would like to be treated. This is simply another version of the Golden Rule. That is what I have to offer to you this week.

As my wife works her way back to the world of the working, I will do all in my power to be supportive and nurturing. Sometimes she accepts my help with a smile. At other times she tells me flat out to let her do things herself.

Much like the shifting of a manual transmission, there will be times when the shift is clean and times when the gears grind. As you work to bring new people into your organization, please understand that it will not always be a smooth transition, either for you, the long-time member, or the new member.

Just remember to be nice, answer questions with a smile on your face, and reach out to bring the new member onboard with a friendly spirit. Their feelings of unease will pass and you will have created a valued new member of your fire department family. I promise that it will be worth the effort.