Old Dogs and New Tricks

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My friends, I had one of those "hallelujah" moments while I was out at the Fire Department Instructor's Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis. It has been my good fortune to be able to attend the FDIC for 31 of the last 34 years. More than that, I have been privileged to teach or facilitate seminars or main program presentations for 30 of the last 32 years. But this year was a great one owing to my 'personal epiphany'.
 
Let me assure you that the years I did not attend were merely because of job-related injuries. FDIC has been an important part of my life, growth and development as a member of the fire service. More than that, the FDIC has served as the place where I recharged my professional batteries in order to face the challenges of life here in the Garden State of New Jersey. However, having said all of that, this year's edition was one of the best ever.
 
Thanks to the intervention of friends and associates, I had a great deal of help to guide me when I ran right into the brick wall of my own personal errors in the world of fire service education and involvement at the FDIC.  Thanks to the support of a number of really great people, I believe that I have avoided stepping off the edge and falling into the abyss of professional irrelevance. I talked, my friends listened. They talked and I listened. That is a really great way to work out your problems, particularly when you are unaware that there are problems. 
 
Like many of you I have often heard the old story about how you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Old dogs, it has long been suggested, are so set in their ways that they will not accept new training from their masters. It seems to make sense, and given the actions of many of the people whom I have met over the years, it seems true indeed. Except for one thing; it isn't always true.
 
Let me share a little story with you to make my point. Back in 1994, at the age of 47, I began my journey through the world of music as a tuba player. I had sung in church choirs for a number of years, but had not done more than take about six months of lessons on the trumpet back in grammar school. I could not play any instrument at all.
 
However, I had always wanted to play the tuba. Since I was a little kid, I wanted to make the 'bump-bump' sound at the bottom of the band. Unfortunately, when I got to high school, I discovered that there were no tubas in the band inventory. They had always borrowed the Sousaphones from the Elks Band and the Fireman's Band in Freehold, New Jersey.
 
By the time I got to high school, both local bands had been disbanded (pun intended), and their instruments sold. Sadly, this left me out in the cold when it came time to think about playing in the band. The rest is, as they say, history. I played football, wrestled on the junior varsity team, and threw the shot put and discus for the track team. Lots of fun, my friends, but not it was not the same as playing a tuba. Let us now jump ahead many years. 
 
In 1994, it was time for me to begin studying for the civil service Deputy Fire Chief's examination in Newark. One of the things which I did to prepare myself was to attend a series of promotional prep courses in Northern New Jersey. It was on the return trip from one of these educational adventures that a life changing (read that hallelujah) moment occurred. 
 
While heading back to the city for a night shift in the firehouse in Newark, I stopped at a music store on Route 46 in Little Falls. I was shopping for a trumpet for my son. He had developed a love of music and needed his own instrument. While shopping, I shared my well-worn 'I have always wanted to play a tuba' story with the sales person. He listened, paused to think and then shared the following thoughts with me. 
 
A tuba is expensive he said. Why not buy this old baritone horn that I have hanging here, try it out, and if you like it, you can buy a tuba? It looked like a little tuba. The man seemed to make sense to me, so I agree to buy the horn. $200 later, I left the store with the old horn and a 'how-to-play-the-horn' book. So began my journey into the world of music.
 
It is important to note that I sought advice on this subject about a month earlier. It was at the CFSI Fire Caucus Dinner that I caught up with my friend Bill Markgraft, from Columbia, Missouri. I asked him if a guy my age could start playing an instrument. He was really blunt. He told me that it was possible, but only if I was willing to buckle down and put in the necessary practice time. 
 
It was not too much later, after buying the horn, that I contacted my son's school music teacher to ask her if she gave lessons to adults. We quickly agreed on a time and fee. That was how my music career began. My son and I would go over to her house and he would take the first half-hour session and I the second.
 
At some point during August of 1994, I broke the old horn I was playing. A tuba-playing friend from church told me to take it to the Dillon Music Company in Woodbridge. When I got there, I met one of the repair people who advised me that the horn was really an old student model and that is was not worth fixing. I then went into my 'I have always wanted to play a tuba' story with the repair guy.
 
At some point shortly thereafter, Steve Dillon, the owner of the store, came up and said that if I could wait a couple of minutes, he would have one of his folks help me. In the mean time he asked one of the sales people to surround me with a dozen or so horns. Wow, I was then taken to a room chock full of tubas of all sizes, shapes, and keys. 
 
It was about 15 minutes later that I met a man who would become a great part of my life. His name is Matt Walters and he still works at Dillon. After a lengthy series of discussions with Matt, I left with a nice student tuba. I also began to take lessons from Matt once a week at Dillon's. Later I played next to Matt in the Union Municipal Band. Matt and I now play together in the Greater Shore Concert Band. We have become really great friends.
 
Not too long after this point, the 1994 school year began. When my daughter's music teacher asked if any of the student's parents played an instrument, Katie told her that her dad was a tuba player, when in reality I was merely a tuba owner. The truth of the matter my friends is that I was at the same skill level as many of the sixth graders.
 
That was the beginning of a musical odyssey of many years' standing. Through the years, I had the joy of playing in the school band for every one of my children's graduations from both their middle and high schools. I had the rare experience of playing tuba during my son's senior euphonium solo at Freehold Township High School. Let me assure you that it is tough to play and cry at the same time. Today, I play in two community bands, along with the jazz group at my church. My friends, I am truly the old dog who learned a new trick.
 
Let us now flash ahead to this year's FDIC. It was my privilege to once again be asked to deliver an FDIC educational program. My session was entitled, 'The Leadership/Followership Equation'. It was a new program created for the show. I made my presentation on Friday March 25. I had a respectable crowd and worked to share my knowledge with them.
 
As I was sitting there after the completion of the program, I began to feel that I had not done as good a job as I should have. Fortunately for me, my best friend in the whole world was there. Jack Peltier sat in the back of the room, listening to my –program and assessing the audience. After I spoke with the last person from the class who came forward for a handshake, a business card, and some extra advice, Jack and I sat down and began to talk seriously.
 
We agreed on a number of teaching mistakes that I had made. I took a number of notes, so that I would not forget what we discussed. This is important, since I am scheduled to teach this course as part of my three-day program in Nebraska this coming May. It is really amazing how a veteran instructor can make so many simple errors. But as I often like to say, each of us is a work in progress.
 
After our dissection of the presentation was complete, Jack move on to another topic. In assessing the age of the audience, he felt that a great many of the people might not know me. These were the people, he told me, who came for the topic and not the teacher. This comment was not unlike a dose of cold water tossed in your face. 
 
Golly, I had not even thought about the fact that I am outgrowing a great part of my potential audience base. The discussion now switched to how to reach the younger folks in the fire service. Jack asked me if I used the Facebook social networking site. I responded that I had a page, but rarely used it. His response was simple. If you want to remain relevant, he stated, you have to be working where the people are.
 
He also went on to mention that I needed to be using the electronic tools of the younger generation. He looked at my cell phone and said that I needed a phone that I could touch with my finger and do tricks with. He knows that my phone, even though I can take pictures with it, is for talking only. By now my head is spinning and I started to beg for some refreshments.
 
Jack and I then took a break and ambled over for a cup of coffee at the snack bar in the convention center. It was here that the next stage of my '2011 epiphany' came to be. While we were sitting there discussing my need to update my links to the world, we saw two folks working on their electronic devices.   Rick Mason of New Hampshire was working on his I-Pad ® and Randy Novak from Iowa was creating text messages on his phone.
 
I did not want to interrupt them, so I waited for the right moment and asked for some electronic help. I was then given the privilege of an excellent indoctrination session on the use of an I-Pad ® and a Smart Phone ®. It was amazing to see how much was being done by these two devices. A couple of simple touches of the screen turned on and unlocked the I-Pad ®. In a fraction of the time it would have taken just to fire up my notebook and get into Windows ®, I was up and running. Wow!
 
I asked Rick how he was able to tie in to the Internet, since I knew there was no service in the area. It was at that point that the next stage in my educational process began. He showed me a Verizon 'Hot Spot'. He turned it on and when the lights were all on (less than 30 seconds), he began to show me how to communicate via the I-Pad ®. Wow.
 
At this time, my laptop computer was back at the hotel, because it was such a pain in the butt to pulling the rolling case in which it is carried through the convention center. For this reason, I had a lot of free time which went to waste, because I was without my computer. I was in technological shock. I told them both that I had best step outside to check my Model T Ford in the parking lot. 
 
After Rick Mason finished my 'class', he and Jack urged me not to rush out and start buying things. Since this seemed to me to be good advice, I promised not to do this. I was advised to lay out all of my needs in writing and then shop at the various stores to see which tools would fit my personal needs. This bit of advice came from my pal Tom Hogan, a Verizon engineer who serves as a call firefighter with Jack and Jim Peltier in Massachusetts.
 
Later that afternoon I decided to conduct an experiment.  While seated in the Marriott Downtown Hotel's free wireless zone, I created a Facebook message entitled 'Greetings from Indianapolis' and shared a few thoughts on my trip to the FDIC. About a half hour later, I sent out another message that I had gotten permission from my publisher to start writing the second edition of my firefighting strategy and tactics text. I then let this go for a couple of hours.
 
When I went back to my Facebook page a couple of hours later, I was astounded to note that I had received dozens of comments and compliments from three different countries and a few dozen people. They were from both fire buddies and high school classmates. Wow. How right was Jack about this one?   
 
Now here I sit at my computer, trying to make sense of all the things about which I have been forced to think. Here I sit pondering the points on my personal and professional compasses. I am thinking about what I must do with my new knowledge. Let me be honest with you. 
 
Here I sit at the beginning of a steep learning curve. As I look up the technological mountain toward my next series of goals, I see a daunting task in front of me. However, my cause is right and I definitely need to reach out to the younger members of the fire service, or else how can I share what I have learned over the last several decades. I must reach the very people with whom I need to converse? 
 
So there you have it. Once again an old dog has seen the need to learn a new trick. If the old dog just wanted to fad away and become part of history, no further activity would be needed. But this old dog thinks that he owes it to the legions of folks who have shared their knowledge with him over the years to keep giving the gift they have shared with him.
 
Just remember this the next time you wish to avoid something new or confusing. Suck it up my friends and get on with the business of remaining relevant. Take care and stay safe.

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