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My friend the plumber came to my house the other day. I call him my friend because he always seems to be able to handle the emergencies my family throws at him. The funny part of it all is that he has this magic truck, or it seems magic because he always seems to have the proper tool, pipe or part to do the job. I once asked him how he came to have such a well-equipped vehicle.
The plumber's story was as simple as it was educational. He explained to me that he had done his apprenticeship with an old-time plumber who always tried to save a buck. If there was a corner to be cut, this old miser was there to cut it. The problem was that these cost-cutting measures came at a price. That price usually involved unhappy customers, sudden cost overruns and numerous unnecessary trips to the supply house. These all took time and, as we know, time is money.
On many occasions, the lack of something so simple as a roll of duct tape or an adjustable wrench created problems. The young apprentice soon tired of this miserly method of operating. He swore that when the time came to hang out his own shingle as a plumber, he would profit from that old-timer's errors.
This young plumber began planning how he would work when he went out on his own, and how he would equip his vehicle. He was well aware of the fact that this project would cost money, a commodity which was, at the time, in short supply. He decided that he would create a master list of what he needed. He costed out the list and then prioritized it. Even though he did not yet have a vehicle suitable to carry things, he began to gather his inventory about him.
As he approached the end of his apprenticeship, he noted that he now had a sizeable cache of tools. He then moved to the next level of planning. Harking back to the example of the penurious old plumber and his continual lack of parts and pipe, he knew he wanted to do things better. He began to compile a list of those things which were used to get the job done - you know, fittings, elbows, gas for the torch, etc. And he started to sketch out his dream truck.
On that happy day when he completed his apprenticeship and was able to step away from the old-time plumber, he took the man out to lunch. His message was couched in a completely positive manner. He thanked the man for all of the valuable lessons he had learned, and vowed to be the best plumber which his skills allowed. The old guy never knew the negatives.
Of course, the young plumber couldn't afford the vehicle of his dreams right away. However, he did have a nice set of tools to carry in the work box on the old pickup he was able to afford. And he had a reservoir of dreams and talent.
Over time, this young lad worked extremely hard to be the best that he could be. Many times, he took a slight salary from the business and plowed the balance of the money back into tools, parts or the savings account for his dream truck. His wife answered the phone at home, booked the jobs and kept the books for the business. They scrimped and saved, for they had a goal.
It was shortly before his second child was born that he was able to buy that dream truck I spoke of earlier. It was his shop on wheels, and his home away from home. Rare was the time that he did not have what he needed on that vehicle. And to help out during cold weather, he had a plow for attachment to the front, just in case the chance came to pick up some spare change. This plumber is doing quite well today.
After reading this far, you might be wondering just what in the world this story has to do with the fire service. The answer is as simple as it is obvious. To do the job of firefighting, certain tools and talents are necessary. These are well known to us all.
The problem comes from the fact that many of our public officials seem to think that they come from the "Fire Fairy," a mythical creature who has a magic tree in her backyard. Two things grow on that tree:
- Free fire equipment.
This has to be the case, or why else would they budget fire departments, both major and minor, as though they were neighborhood candy stores? We can debate the number of engine and truck companies necessary. But once the debate is over, someone has to come up with the bucks to get the job done. The same is true with communications and a whole host of other operational areas.
Training is another area where we know that the dollars flow quite slowly. This division is treated as though there was a magic river of knowledge which ran past the training division. Whenever fire personnel wanted to learn, they merely dipped their glasses into the river and drank deeply from that heady draft. You would think this if you saw some of their budgets, which barely cover buying bulbs for their projectors and duct tape to repair their old screens. And heaven help the poor training officer who mumbles the words "computer-generated graphics."
Given that many fire departments are being asked to do more with less, the two areas which can stand the least cutting involve equipment and training. We all know that less is more when it comes to staffing. That makes it critical for every person who is left to do the job to have the best equipment available and the best training possible. Since every person is being called on to do more, he or she must know more. And knowledge comes at a price.
But you know, there is something else which comes with a higher price tag. It is called "ignorance." And the price of ignorance involves injury, death and destruction. This means that if you are the trainer, be prepared to fight for the dollars. It also means that you will need to inform public officials of the consequences of their actions. And more importantly, you need to make your case known to the community, for it is the citizens of your community whom you really serve.
Unfortunately, you will probably be met with a stony silence. For if these people really knew what we were talking about, they would gladly fork over the change to train the fire troops. Ah, but then they would have to take a few bucks away from the police, and, as we all know, crime is rampant. Remember that fire always happens to someone else, or so the public usually thinks.
While you work to put your plans together, just remember my friend the plumber. It took him 10 years to arrive at his goal. But he had a vision. That vision led to a plan. And through hard work and dedication, the goals which made up that plan were met, and that plan came to fruition. When I call with a problem, he has the answer for me.
Are you ready for that next call from your firefighters? You can be if you have:
- A vision.
- A plan.
- A purpose.
- The guts to get the job done.
People's lives rest in the palm of your hands. Never forget this.
Dr. Harry R. Carter, a Firehouse® contributing editor, recently retired as a battalion commander with the Newark, NJ, Fire Department, where he also served as chief of training. He is also a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia, NJ, Fire Department. Dr. Carter is an Associate of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (AIFireE).