Motivation Makes the Difference

This week I want to share some words of inspiration with you that have meant a great deal to me over the years. There was a time when I was a brand-new, rookie member of the fire service. Like many new members of the service, my career could have gone in a number of directions. I am sure that you have experienced these decisions through the years as to which path you should follow.

It has been my experience that the people who surround you influence you more than you will ever know at the time. Back during my time in the Training Division in Newark we used to say that the primary influence on the probationary firefighters we turned loose at the end of recruit training came from the first company officer for which they worked. A good captain would always have a positive influence on the troops. The opposite was also sadly true.

As you might imagine, I have devoted a great deal of time over the past 39 years to the process of learning, both as a learner and teacher. Perhaps this bent for learning came about as a result of the emphasis my parents placed on learning, or perhaps it was some force within my inner spirit. There are also the memories I cherish of the teachers who really took the time to kick my butt and make me do my best.

There is also the possibility that successful people in my hometown created an atmosphere where success was seen in terms of the acquisition of knowledge. In reality, it is probably some combination of all the above influences. However, I would like to share a story about what I feel is an integral part of my success as a fire service person. It took me a lot of years to come to understand this influence, so it is critical for me to share it with you.

Along the way, I have accumulated a wide range of experiences. Thanks to the U.S. Air Force (Uncle Sam Airlines), I was able to learn my trade at one of the finest fire schools in the world, the U.S.A.F. Firefighting School. Back in the far-away days of 1966 this school was located at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. I was blessed with a wide variety of assignments that took me to places I might well never have visited. I was allowed to hone my firefighting skills in such widely disparate areas as the Arctic region of Alaska, and the steamy climes of Vietnam and the Philippine Islands. Oh, and they also sent me to Arkansas.

It was during the first 18 months of my Air Force career, which were spent near Fairbanks, Alaska, that I received an early appreciation for experience based upon a solid foundation of knowledge and education. The Superintendent of the Eielson Air Force Base Fire Department back in those times was Chief Master Sergeant Joseph Haider, a man well known throughout the Air Force Fire Service.

A long-time Air Force firefighting veteran, Chief Haider had probably long-since forgotten more than many of his contemporaries had ever bothered to learn. He was a stickler for discipline and a firm believer in the gathering of knowledge. He had a carrot and stick approach to making sure that we all progressed through the On-the-Job (OJT) Training program used by the Air Force at that time. During my time, I felt both the carrot and the stick.

When we young lads arrived at Eielson from fire school, we were school-trained apprentice fire protection specialists (57130-level troops for you old USAF types out there). As was the practice at Eielson Air Force Base at that time, we were immediately enrolled in the OJT program with the goal being to reach our journeyman skill-level as quickly as possible.

The carrot Chief Haider used in motivating us involved the granting of our Kelly Day. Back in those days the Air Force Fire Service worked a 72-hour shift schedule, 24 hours on and 24 hours off. The Kelly Day was an extra shift of time off granted every two weeks. This allowed for a three-day break from our station duties. As a motivational tool, newly assigned fire personnel were not allowed to have our Kelly Day until we upgraded to the higher journeyman skill level. He apparently had the solid backing of our squadron commander. So the carrot and the stick were one in the same: time off.

While this may seem like a harsh treatment, in light of the working schedules for many fire departments today, it really had a strong motivational impact. This was particularly true for the married first-term personnel who were not eligible for on-based housing and had to commute out to the base from Fairbanks every other day.

There were no living quarters for them on base, so if they wanted to bring their wives up to live with them, they had to rent in town. These men would be on the road every day, going one way or the other, regardless of the weather, which, as you might imagine, ran the gamut from bad to worse during the winter. Therefore, the three-day break was a tremendously valuable commodity.

All of us in the December 1966 arrival group made the upgrade to our 5-level in minimal time. Then most of made our first promotion soon thereafter, also in minimal time. This did not seem odd to any of us, because every one of us was going through the same positive experience. I personally thought nothing of making Sergeant in less than two years, because so many of us did it together.

Little did we know at the time just how important this positive, goals-oriented environment would be to our future success in the service? It was not until much later, when I moved to other air bases and ran into buddies who had served at other stations, that the value of Chief Haider