Salka: First In, Last Out

People always ask me what it's like to work inside a burning building, what are we thinking? Are we scared, do we think about the dangers?

People always ask me what it's like to work inside a burning building, what are we thinking? Are we scared, do we think about the dangers? What is going through our minds as we run into a building that is on fire while everyone else is running out?

Courtesy John Salka

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Well, I can tell you what firefighters are not thinking. They are not thinking about the dangers. They are not saying to themselves, "Boy I hope we get out of here alive". They are not worrying about the building falling down.

What engine company firefighters are thinking is how many lengths of hose they need to reach the fire floor. Truck firefighters are thinking about how to get to the roof to cut a ventilation hole. Other firefighters are trying to decide where to search for people based on the time of day and occupancy.

What people are really asking is, "How do you get your people to follow you into such dangerous situations?" The answer in a word is Leadership! One of the most important yet often ignored traits of fire service officers.

From a leadership perspective there are three very important leadership principles at work while your firefighters are running into a burning building.

First, the firefighters arriving at structural fires are not only allowed but expected to size-up the situation, select a method of attack and go to work. Very often no orders are given, no specific tactics need to be requested, but instead immediate actions are initiated. This is a successful process because we allow our firefighters and officers to use their skills and talents, developed and refined through effective training and years of fireground experience. I like to describe this principle with the term, "You can't beat out a fire with a hook".

The origin of this term is the result of the rivalry between engine and truck firefighters. Engine firefighters, with no tools except a charged hose line, literally crawl into the burning room and extinguish the fire. Truck firefighters force doors, ventilate, search and rescue people from the burning building. Along with their truck duties these firefighters receive accolades and recognition for their heroic work, while the engine firefighters usually end up with burned knees. Besides the satisfaction of actually putting out the fire, the engine firefighter has little to show for their hard and dangerous work except the knowledge that the truck can do an awful lot but they can't beat out the fire with a hook!

This is more than just a way of saying you should value your people for what they can do for you. It's more about getting the most out of your people. An accountant auditing the FDNY would categorize our engines, trucks, tools and firehouses as assets. Our expenses would include fuel, electricity, tires and our largest expense, staffing, our people. Unfortunately many organizations see their people as expenses, not assets. Do you?

The essence of this first leadership principle lies in trusting your people and allowing them to do what they're good at, in a way that best suits them. Like how the FDNY handles building fires, allowing our people to get right to work, without micromanaging. We focus on results over methods. There are usually several ways to initiate many of our tactics. Our officers and firefighters are trained and familiar with these options and can quickly size-up the situation and begin operations without direct and specific instructions.

Another way of helping your people to do what they're best at is to help them move into positions better suited for their skills. Firefighters that show an affinity for tools and technical equipment are often encouraged to move from engines to truck or rescue companies. Allowing and encouraging this type of movement not only allows the individual firefighter to apply their skills and feel more fulfilled, but it gets the most out of this asset for the department. Firefighters are dedicated because their leaders trust them, allowing them to "own" their jobs. This leads to innovation and results in firefighters that are "into the job".

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