The members of today's fire service are dealing with many challenges, but each member needs to communicate and lead by example.
Photo credit: Photo by Glen E. Ellman/FortWorthFire.com
Today's fire service is constantly evolving as a result of both societal and economic changes. Although current economic constraints will cause a shift in the way we provide service to the public, a greater effect will occur because of changes in society's values and expectations. I have heard it said that if your expectations aren't being met, lower your expectations.
I would challenge today's fire service to do the opposite. I have watched as the older members complain about new employees, yet do nothing to change potential problems. One cannot just complain and expect things to change on their own. Change requires effort.
I started in the fire service back in the early 1980s. I looked up to the senior people in the station and admired the confidence they displayed and the way that they interacted with each other. Yes, it was tough trying to figure out what my role was and how to win the respect of the "old timers." One way seemed to be to quietly prove your skills and to show motivation by asking questions and watching.
Today, we have many entering the fire service who, although educated, have grown up with different goals and values. They seem to have shorter attention spans and what appears to be less motivation. I think it is incumbent on the older generation of firefighters to realize that, unless the institutional knowledge is passed on to the next generation of firefighters, we will lose many of the things that we love so much about this job. Although it would be easy to say nothing and let things run their course, I have seen the effect on a smoothly functioning shift when a young firefighter comes into a station and nothing is said to change undesirable behaviors. In my situation, everyone else had been together for a while, and each knew his or her role and those of the other shift members; there was no need for specific directives to be given. The new person never asked what his role was or how he could best contribute and crew continuity suffered. I don't want to see this happen again.
Yes, it is easy to think that we have paid our dues and can relax while someone else carries the load. However, in doing so, the younger generation will never learn many of the nuances of this job, the same nuances that make being a firefighter so rewarding. Contrary to their beliefs, not everything can be learned by watching a video or a PowerPoint presentation. How can any video adequately prepare a rookie to understand how quickly the spreaders can shift and pin them against a car before they release the dead-grip? Do you think a PowerPoint can describe the feeling of the floor giving away or the time to back out because the room has become untenable? How about needing to remove a door but the access is blocked by the utility pole? While there are many good teaching aids available on many subjects often times the scenario is very sterile compared to an actual incident. Dialog can be started after an incident to get everyone to think and see if they would do things differently. With the proliferation of videos on YouTube and Facebook there are many opportunities available to view and critique actual incidents.
Challenge the crew to see what was done properly and what could be done better. Keep it positive and not a condemnation of others actions. In the same vein, remember that others can view your actions and will judge you and your department. We seasoned veterans need to climb out of our comfort zone and teach. Pull the crew together and show the tricks learned to make the job go more smoothly. Help the firefighters understand everything the driver needs to consider while establishing a water supply or positioning the ladder with a good scrub angle.
Lead by example. Whether it is mentioning what the driver expects the firefighter to check every morning or telling someone to stop texting when there is work to be done, it needs to be said. How many times do we see a medic leave the stretcher on the unit and expect the engine crew to bring it? If nothing is said, one could assume that this is the "new normal." Step up and correct poor performance before it becomes a habit. This may not be a one-time effort but more than likely will be a continuous process.
I would also challenge the younger members to ask how they can contribute to the effort. Don't forget that learning is a two-way street. Some things have changed since we older firefighters went through the fire academy, and the younger members can share new techniques with us. Although many operational issues are still the same, technology, such as improved turnout gear and lightweight construction, has changed the way we need to look at and perform our duties. Anyone can start a brain-storming session, and you might be surprised where it leads. This will force us to examine the way we do our job and more easily adapt to or make needed changes.
I would also challenge everyone to overlook items beyond your control, such as budget cuts. Change the things within your control. Administrative policies and issues only have an indirect effect on field operations. Many things can still be accomplished at the crew or station level without needing to go up the chain. This might also be time to be reminded of the proverb of not judging someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes.
How many times have we all solved the departments problems sitting around the coffee table? Now think about things from the chiefs perspective. Have they had constraints set in place that do not allow them to fully fund every need? What would you fund and why? I am sure some would wish that the toughest decision of the day was the menu instead of finding ways to keep apparatus on the road. Do not let a pay cut result in a reduction of your effort. Not only will the public suffer, but so will your teammates. The pay cut did not just affect you. Many people are going through the same economic stressors. We still have a great job with a noble heritage.
We are all a team and need to be able to count on each other to do the best possible job. Take the time to study new things and share them instead of taking the easy way out. All of us can lead by example. We are the people that someone calls when things go bad. We don't have the same ability. The public expects a well trained and professional fire service, and we owe it to them to be the best that we can be. Be proud and let your actions show your pride.
JIM MILBY is a lieutenant with the Anne Arundel County, MD, Fire Department. He started in the fire service in the 1980s's and was hired as a career firefighter in 1990. Milby has been a member of the county's special operations team for 20 years.You can contact Milby by e-mail at:firstname.lastname@example.org.