Reflections on The Road Less Traveled

One of the sad scenarios that I have witnessed during my lifetime is one with which you may be very familiar. It is known as the taking of the easy way out. If there are two ways to do a thing, some folks take great joy in taking the easy way out.

Now I want you to know that taking the easy way out is not always a bad thing. If you can dig a hole with a shovel, or rent a backhoe to dig the same hole, you would be foolish to dig the hole with the shovel. The same holds true in my life for washing my truck, or painting my home. For a few bucks, my buddy at the car wash will insure that my vehicle is clean. Perhaps if I have time on a nice spring or fall day, I will take a few moments and do the job myself. However, after a winter storm, or on a hot summer's day, visiting the carwash is the smart thing to do.

Rest assured it really quite probably that you would not catch me pausing to paint anything at anytime. I lack those kinds of skills, so you will agree that paying someone to do the job is not only the easy way out, but also the wise choice of action.

This week we are going to feature a few fine folks who have fought the urge to take the easy way out. Over the past year or so I have said quite a bit about the negatives that I have encountered. This week I am going to do something different. I am going to shine the bright light of the public arena on a number of good things that I have seen, that I know, or of which I have been informed by friends. I want to magnify the greatness of the individuals that have taken a road less traveled. By shining the light of public acclaim on these people, I hope to cultivate their example in your life.

They may not look at themselves as shining examples of doing the right thing, but that is even more of a reason to sing their praises. No my friends, it is not this sort of hard versus easy decision to which I make reference. I am referring to those situations where a person in a position of leadership has to make a tough call, one that runs against popular opinion.

I recently saw just such a good decision in my fire company. We were called to the scene of a working fire at the far end of our district. As we rolled into the incident, we could all see a decent-sized loom-up off in the distance. Upon arrival, we were greeted with a good volume of fire blazing out of a decent-sized one-story dwelling. A number of our younger members appeared to be ready to take a shot at an interior attack.

Chris Pujat, our chief here in Adelphia, NJ then made a very sound, but potentially unpopular decision; he gave his size up and announced that we had a fire in an abandoned one-story, wood-frame structure. He then announced that we would be setting up for a defensive attack.

I could almost hear the young folks muttering, "ah shucks" amongst themselves. However, it was absolutely the right thing to do. No one should ever be injured in a useless battle to save a building that will probably be torn down anyway. Not too long after my crew had established a hose line at the seam of the A and B sides the front porch collapsed. It is the little things like this that make a good call suddenly seem great.

What we did do was a bit of training as to just how much fire a 1-3/4" hose could extinguish. I rotated the younger members of our crew through the various positions on the hose line. Everyone took a turn. No one ever went close to the building. My chief encouraged my efforts to work with the younger troops.

Three hours later, we were done. A backhoe from our local public works department had been called in to tear the structure apart, while our crews operated a portable deck gun and a 2-1/2" hand line to wet down the rubble heap. Ladies and gentlemen, this was a safe, textbook operation. We all went home to our families.

Let me now turn to another example of a man who is working hard to make his fire department better. He just happens to be a man that I know personally and have really come to admire. By way of background for you, there is only one fulltime, career fire department in the State of Delaware, that being the Wilmington Fire Department in the far northern part of the state.

Recently, a new chief was promoted to the top spot in that department. His was a department that needed a new direction. My sources tell me that a number of his predecessors were not all that you would want in a leader, more concerned with things other than the troops. I will leave it at that.

Jim Ford is that new chief. I have met him on a number of occasions and he impresses me as a man who really cares about the troops. He cares about them enough to have decided that it was necessary to enter into a contract with his troops.

He created a list of expectations for his troops. Then, as a show of faith, he created a list of expectations for himself. He felt that if he was going to ask things of his men, he had best put his money where his mouth was and set the same standards for himself.

Not content to leave this matter to chance, Jim reduced the contract with the troops to writing. Wisely, he made the contract into the form of a bookmark. He was kind enough to send me several copies. One the one side the contract has what he has called the:
Six Characteristics of Your Administrative Team

  1. We will treat people with respect, dignity, and fairness.
  2. In all our communications and discussions we will be open, honest and exhibit the highest standards of integrity.
  3. In everything we do, we will strive to "Get it Right."
  4. We will "Follow Through."
  5. We will exhibit a strong sense of team spirit.
  6. We will always be looking for ways to be more effective.

On the opposite side of the bookmark, Chief Ford lists his: Fire Chief's Eight Basic Expectations

  1. I expect you to expect that this Fire Administration will work hard and diligently on your behalf.
  2. I expect Battalion Chiefs to run their Battalions effectively. To treat their Battalions with respect, impartiality, and fairness.
  3. I expect Company Officers to train their companies on the capabilities of their unit. To insure the readiness of tools and equipment and be prepared to make a solid contribution to mitigating incidents.
  4. I expect Firefighters to be physically prepared to do battle. I expect firefighters to learn to teach and contribute to the success of their Company.
  5. I expect that Company Officers will not perpetuate rumors; that they will get accurate information from their Battalion Chiefs to address issues.
  6. I expect disagreements. Disagreements need not produce conflict. I want the benefit of your professional judgment, your ideas, and your intuition. Disagreements should be a healthy and creative way to get new ideas to the table.
  7. I expect you to be confident enough in yourself to laugh and enjoy your work. Humor can reduce the tension produced by hard work.
  8. I expect all of us to be proud of our department. We are all responsible to promote the Wilmington Fire Department. I agree with Chief (Alan) Brunacini that our mission is simply to: Prevent Harm, Survive, and Be Nice.

When was the last time that you saw such a contract between a chief and his troops? It is a shame that more people do not step up to the plate and lay out the framework for their organization. I have a great many dear friends in the State of Delaware, and their admiration for the work of Jim Ford is great. Remember that he is the chief of the only civilian, fully paid department in the state, so the depth and range of his admirers is that much more meaningful to me.

I wish that more people would see the light. I am hoping that the reflection of the bright light of public acclaim will bounce in a variety of directions. In this way, maybe more chiefs will come to the realization that it is not about them. It is about the people. It is about treating people with respect and earning their loyalty, one day at a time.

So it has been with my friend Mike Burton. I first met Mike when he was the Chief of Training in St. Petersburg, Florida. I met him through Lieutenant Bill Stringfield, a buddy from the world of hazardous materials. He impressed me as a man sincerely interested in people. I guess that is one of the critical elements for a successful trainer. You have to like people in order to teach them in the most effective manner.

Back in 1998 he took the gigantic step of leaving St. Petersburg and venturing into the cold north country of Michigan. He applied for the position of Fire Chief in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The applications process was a truly interesting departure from the normal world of testing. In this case, the city manager went out and spoke with members of the fire department to gain an insight into the problems facing the fire department. Now there is a road less taken if ever I saw one.

An article on the official website of the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union, written in the Spring of 2001 by John Mielcarek and Marvin Dembinsky speaks volumes about how well things can work when the world of labor and the world of management join hands in a cooperative effort. "Jointly, the city and union selected a team of fire department members that served as the interview panel, while the city added its own interview step.