Booster Lines, Bullies and Buffoons

Aug. 12, 2007
The other night I was out on the front porch puffing on my favorite brand of cigar and staring off into the distance pondering the movement of the earth around the sun. I was indulging myself with a moment or two of quiet time. As I counted the aircraft lights soaring high above me in the night sky my thoughts turned, as they often do, to the fire service.

The other night I was out on the front porch puffing on my favorite brand of cigar and staring off into the distance pondering the movement of the earth around the sun. I was indulging myself with a moment or two of quiet time. As I counted the aircraft lights soaring high above me in the night sky my thoughts turned, as they often do, to the fire service.

In my mind's eye images of the past began to appear. Some were hazy, as though seen through a light fog. Others were crystal clear. It was as though they had just happened, rather than being decades old. These images continued to consume my thoughts for the better part of an hour. I just had to write about them. I had to share my innermost feelings on these issues.

After snuffing out my cigar I repaired to my office in order to commit my random thoughts to paper. These thoughts were about firefighting equipment and operational practices which most folks within our firefighting field consigned to the bone yard many moons ago. As the hour was late, I had to settle for some scribbled notes on a lined yellow pad to save time.

I left the note pad sitting on my desk for awhile. It is my belief that time spent upon reflection is always time well spent. However those late-night front-porch thoughts continued to bother me. I am an ardent supporter of the fire service, but sometimes I think that far too many people are just along for the ride with the rest of us.

Being a fairly kind-hearted chap, I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt. If you say you are one of us that's good enough for me. I am normally a trusting sort. This trait has gotten me into trouble from time to time. However, when I try really hard, I can morph myself into one truly cynical son-of-a-gun; if only for a moment now and again.

It is my opinion that not everyone in the fire service is operating in the best interests of the members of our emergency service world. These are the people who move through life doing whatever they want, paying scant attention to the experience of others, not to mention the codes and standards which have evolved over the years for our protection and guidance. My friends, they just do not get it.

These standards have been built upon the lessons we have learned from the sacrifices made by fire people in the past. We now have such important safety tools as the National Fire Protection Association's live-fire training standard and its occupational safety and health standards because the manner in which we were operating simply kept killing people. Hell, people are still dying because some people are just too damned stupid to know any better.

People with gumption have stood up time and again to battle for changes in the status quo. The improved level of safety we now enjoy is the resultant product of a great deal of hard work by some truly dedicated people. However the ignorant among us are doing their best to confound the collective work and wisdom of the last forty years.

These are those boastful bullies and buffoons who take great pleasure in the living of lives unchanged from the past. They dwell in the past in an almost religious manner. They wear the past like a dusty, thread-bare suit of clothes. They and their cronies live life as it was relayed to them by way of their fathers, and their grandfathers before them.

These are the "my-way-or-the-highway" people whose goal is to perpetuate the past for their personal pleasure. Ignorance will be their gift to posterity. These are also the people who would still be running horses or using leather hose if they could find it.

I have nothing against the phrase "Leather Forever," but that phrase refers to helmets and not hose or lungs. These people to whom I refer are those who boast about how they have fought change at every turn in the road. They will brag about how they fought the biggest fire in the history of their communities while clothed in work jeans and using a booster line to boot.

Yeah, there are some really sick puppy dogs out there masquerading as firefighter and officers in various parts of our world. More than that there seem to be those people out there running loose in the fire service whose major role seems to be that of bullying the poor people have had the misfortune of being assigned to these bad bosses.

I hesitate to say the word leader here. These people are more like the straw bosses that used to hold sway in the manufacturing world back in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. These people existed solely to make people labor by means of threats and intimidation.

These were the Simon Le Gree's of our nation's factory empires. You might remember from your days in high school English that Simon Le Gree was the vicious plantation owner in Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic "Uncle Tom's Cabin". LeGree kept order on his plantation by whipping people. Fear was a tool he used with great joy.

This is a tool wielded far too frequently by people who never learned how to lead people. There still exists a style of fire chief that harks back to the old days of "Iron Men and Wooden Ships" that was so common in the same parts of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. This was also the type of mentality which led to the placement of miserable people such as Captain Bligh, of "Mutiny on the Bounty" fame, into positions of leadership.

Unfortunately when the factories of our great nation began to move out of the dark ages of the industrial revolution and refocused their efforts toward the human relations movement created by researchers such as Elton Mayo in the 1930's, many fire departments were not so fortunate. In far too many places chiefs continued to rule with an iron hand (and a wooden head). At one point I began to feel that we were moving away from that type of despotic leadership style, but now I am not so sure.

Sadly my e-mail correspondence from around the country is telling me something different. It would seem that the intolerant oppressors are still firmly in control of fire departments in far too many places. I have made exposing and deposing such people a great part of my mission as an author and lecturer. My friends, the obvious solution is not open to us: you cannot kill or maim them. That sort of action is against the law in just about every state in the union. And it is not the thing a good person should do anyway.

It seems to me that you have to figure out how to embarrass them into change or retirement, wait them out, or run them out of office if they are in an elected position. None of these actions is an easy option. The fear engendered by these bullies has stampeded far too many people into a state of panicked paralysis.

Worse yet, these types of actions seem to jump right into the next generation. Since this bad leadership is the only thing many people see during their time in the fire service, they emulate what they have experienced. Sadly, this passing of the bad leadership torch perpetuates the parochial paralysis of the poor people laboring in the trenches.

Let me urge you to do battle with the forces of evil in your empire. It will not be easy. You will have to travel a long and difficult road, but the results of your endeavors will be well worth your effort. Let me assure you that if you quit, they win and the negative results will go on for another generation.

Let me urge you to preach the sharing of power and the delegation of authority. Preach the training of all future officers according to the nationally accepted standards. Preach the sermon of Servant Leadership. Always know that I am with you in this battle.

It is another one of my fervent beliefs that there are people out there doing all of these bad things: it is just human nature. Why do I think that there are people out there in our nation who are using outdated and outmoded equipment and practices to handle the problems facing us in the 21st Century? It is really simple if you think about it. Let me tell you why.

In this age of the Internet none of us can hide from the harsh glare of public review. Every few days you and I see things happening which should have been summarily extinguished from the confines of our collective behavioral toolbox many years ago. Every once in a while I see something really dumb which reminds me that not every one is on the same page when it comes to how we operate at fires. The power of the Internet allows for the sharing of both knowledge and ignorance.

My next target in this missive to the masses is the booster line. If ever there were an antiquated piece of equipment that should be consigned to history it is the booster line. Why do we have booster lines? The answer is short and sweet. We have them because we have always had them, or at least since the long-ago days of the chemical engine. The modern incarnation has insufficient water to accomplish anything more than to get people into trouble. Were it within my ability to do so, I would have them removed from engines everywhere.

My friends, the flow rate of a booster line meets no one's definition of an effective firefighting stream. A review of National Fire Protection Association Standards finds a continuing reference to the minimum size of a fire attack line as being 95 gallons per minute (GPM). The last time I looked you cannot get that kind of flow from a booster line. Heck, it is even my personal view that this flow recommendation should be raised to at least 125 GPM to allow for the new array of improved nozzles in our fire service arsenal.

Booster lines are cumbersome and difficult to maneuver. They deliver next to no water and provide a false sense of security. It is very easy to imagine being confronted by a sudden flash of fire inside of a structure and having insufficient water to protect yourself and your crew.

Here is where the reasoning behind the 95-GPM requirement comes into play. Let me suggest an excellent comparison to you. Let me state for the record that using a booster line to attack any sort of a fire larger than a wastebasket is the fire service equivalent of showing up at a gun fight with a dull knife. If my words make you mad, if my words make you want to reach out and grab me by the throat, then I have done my job in this commentary.

Using a booster line to attack a structural fire qualifies you as a certifiable, Grade- A, All-American dumb ass. These substandard tools should be removed from our inventory and consigned to the scrap heap of history. If you need something for trash and rubbish fires, use a 1-3/4" line. The same holds true for car fires. None of us can claim that we are so busy that we need to use a booster line to save time.

I can hear the loud roar of protest now. Heck, I was almost run out of town on a rail in one western state when I went into my anti-booster line speech. They accused me of not understanding how it really was. They even went so far as to accuse me of being too gutless to use a booster line. My friends, I have long tried to use my brain to supplement my guts. This is just one more macho battle that we need to remove from our fire service culture.

Let us now move on to my next area of concern. We are now a fire service which claims to live by the Incident Command System (ICS). Countless volumes have been devoted to the subject of using ICS to manage our resources at a wide variety of emergency incidents. Many hours have been spent drilling the principles of this resource management methodology into the minds of our folks.

We have been taught how to establish command and then how to staff and utilize a command post as the size and complexity of an incident escalates. So why is that far too many people who should be incident commanders are still turning out to be Roaming Ralph's at the scene of emergencies? You have to know at least one Roaming Ralph. These are the people with itchy feet.

They cannot remain at a command post and let their subordinate commanders manage their divisions, groups, and branches. Short of chaining these people to their command car there is no way to keep them where they belong. They come from an earlier time when it was the tradition to make the toughest fireman the chief. These people seemingly equate the word chief with the title boss. Since in their minds no one is as smart as the 'boss', they are driven to travel from place to place giving orders to the folks in charge of the operational subdivisions within the incident command system.

It is always easy to determine whether a Roaming Ralph is in command. Just report to the command post and ask to speak to the incident commander. The Roaming Ralph will not be there. No one knows where that person is. You must then play radio tag or walk-around hide and seek. Let me give you a bit of advice on how to track down these sorts of people.

It may be best to simply plunk yourself down in a given spot near the A-side of the structure and wait for the Roaming Ralph to come flying by on one of his many circuitous circumnavigations of the incident. Be warned. You may have to tackle them, or hit them with a rolling body block to get their attention. Perhaps these folks operate according to the old "you cannot hit a moving target" theory of supervision and management.

All of this creates a very poor operational command structure. The subordinate officers in the command post do not want to make a decision because they know that the Roaming Ralph wants to make all of the decisions themselves. They have been through all of this before. They know that even if they make a proper decision, Ralph will change it on the way by. My friends this would be laughable if it wasn't so common and so devastating to good order. Apparently there is still a persistent group of officers who have yet to realize that the year is 2007 and we just aren't managing fires like we once did.

Through the years I have seen my share of Roaming Ralph's and their opposite numbers the Stationary Stanley's. The Stationary Stanley type will take a position out in front of a building and place their butt and their brain into vapor lock. They will not take advice, nor will they issue orders. You cannot get them to speak on the radio. However, if you do get them, you would be well advised not to heed the blathering which comes flowing out of your portable radio. They are the exact opposite of the Roaming Ralph.

Incident command is a critical part of all that we do. Every one of our people, from the highest ranking chief to the newest firefighter, needs to be thoroughly trained in the use of the Incident Command System. Heck, in New Jersey this is mandated by a state law. However, training is not enough. You need to use ICS every day and at every type of incident. It is not a special weapon kept in readiness, to be unfurled only when things are really big or really bad. If you fail to commit to this you will fail when the time comes that you will need to use it.

OK, I should have your attention by now. How about those people who still insist on riding on the rear of fire apparatus? Oh Harry, you might say, nobody does that anymore; People stopped doing that sort of thing years ago. Are you sure? There are a lot of fire departments which have two-person cab units still in service and there is an amazing temptation by some folks to think of the people in the fire service as being exempt from the laws of nature, probability, and chance. I will never fall off the back of a fire truck. My dad, granddad, and great granddad did it and they did not fall off of the rig. Nah, it won't happen to me.

Let me tell you something. I know it can happen, because it happened to me back in 1967 when I was serving with the U.S. Air Force in Alaska. My buddy and I were riding on the back of an old 750-A pumper on the way to a run in our base housing area. Our unit was over at the main station on the opposite side of the base from our quarters adjacent to the housing area.

We had a long run ahead of us and our driver was working to trade speed for time and distance. As we rounded a corner not far from the main station the pumper hit a bump, I lost my grip on the bar and fell off the pumper. I can recall a feeling of fear as I fell and hit the pavement. Luckily I was able to land in such a way that I kept rolling. Luckily there was no one behind us. After coming to a stop, I got up and limped over to the side of the road. After a short trip to the base hospital I was placed off duty for a couple of days.

Incidents like this never really leave your mind. I often thought of this fall in Alaska as my engine company rolled through the streets of Newark, with my brother and me on the back step hanging onto the grab rail for dear life. Here is an area where the problem should have been consigned to history two decades ago. However, I am a suspicious person by nature and unfortunately it is my hunch that this is an area where hanky panky can and does still occur. That is just the way it is.

Let me urge you to battle for the right way of doing things in your fire department. I know that many of you are not in a position to make policy. However, you cannot sit idly by and let these brainless bullies and buffoons continue to kill and maim our people. Fight for safety. Do not let them do these bad things to you! Do not let your people be subjected to this!

Even thought it seems quite simple, the battle will be difficult and you will be called names. You will be called many names, most of them not too nice. Many of these I cannot print here, but if we are to truly make a difference in the fire service we need to battle the booster toting bullies and buffoons who want change to disappear from their fire departments.

My view of life is just one of many. I only offer it for your consideration. If it happens to work for you that is good. If it makes you think so much the better. You can do whatever you want. I spent 36 years in the active and reserve forces of out nation protecting your right to do just this.

As my late grandmother was so fond of pointing out to me; "Sticks and stones can break your bones, but names will never hurt you." That might be true, but let me remind you that dumb-ass bosses sure can. Be on guard and always try to do the right thing.

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