Riding the Right Front Seat — Part 2

Sept. 1, 2010
you pause to ponder the meaning of the headline on this month's column, you may be asking a simple question: Why does it matter what rig I am riding? I am a firefighter and firefighters can do anything.Nice thought, but unfortunately it ignores the reality that each of us has strengths, weaknesses and preferences. The rig you are riding sets the stage for what you will be expected to bring forth from your crew.

you pause to ponder the meaning of the headline on this month's column, you may be asking a simple question: Why does it matter what rig I am riding? I am a firefighter and firefighters can do anything.

Nice thought, but unfortunately it ignores the reality that each of us has strengths, weaknesses and preferences. The rig you are riding sets the stage for what you will be expected to bring forth from your crew.

I am sure that you know people who like riding on engine companies. I am equally sure that you have friends who live only for the joy of riding on a truck company. There is even that select circle of those who were born to be members of the rescue squad. The fact that people want these assignments is what I am referring to as a preference. These people want to do these things, but can they? Let me now suggest that there are people whose list of skills does not match their list of wants, needs and desires.

Example one is the clumsy person who wants to be on a truck company. That, my friends, is a disaster in the making. I can remember one fellow with whom I worked in the city who seemed destined to kill someone during his time on a truck company. This guy loved truck work, but he was almost totally devoid of any identifiable level of mechanical skills or deft body motions. Lucky for all of us, a chief recognized this shortcoming and had him transferred to an engine company. All he could do there was hit us with hose streams and get us wet.

Example two is me. I am clumsy. I managed to perfect this lack of physical acumen to a high degree by the time I reached the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1973. I had served as a firefighter in the U.S. Air Force for a number of years. I was working for the Rahway, NJ, Fire Department in 1973 when I got the call for the Newark position.

After six years in the business, I was well aware of what I could do and what was hard for me to do. I could move hose and apply water quite well, but I was not that great on ladders and lacked the necessary talent to bend, fold, spindle and mutilate property well enough to call myself a truck fireman. When asked to do truck-like tasks, I had the unfortunate propensity to damage my body. So it really did matter which rig I rode.

Because of this, I tried to avoid being assigned to a truck company when I got to Newark. I was largely successful in this effort, serving all of my firefighter time on Engine Company 11. My early years as a fire captain were spent on Engine Company 15. Unfortunately, the time came when our city ran short of captains and a scheme was created to bounce us from place to place so that no captain's spot was open for more than 30 days (civil service and union stuff). The powers that be told me that the disruption to my life would be minimal. I guess in their minds they were right, because they kept me on the same shift and in the same station. They simply bounced me to Truck Company 7, quartered with Engine Company 15. I was still on the "Good Old First Tour," so what, they asked, was my problem? I knew my potential for hurting myself, but being a faithful soldier I just followed orders.

Unfortunately, it was the beginning of a time of pain and trial for me. I proved during this period that it really did matter which rig I was assigned to ride. Slipping and falling became a way of life for me as I tried to navigate my way on ice-covered roofs. Bending over and breaking things led to a flare-up of an old back injury. I made my point the hard way. Life finally calmed down when I was reassigned to Engine Company 15 later that year.

It is my contention that in order to properly lead a firefighting crew, you must embrace the functions for which that unit is designed. Engine companies lay hose and truck companies raise ladders and break things. You must then work to train your crew in the nuances of those assigned functions. This will not happen overnight. Regardless of the requirements of your fire department's training program, you need to conduct an extra drill here and there so that your crew knows what you expect and how you want these things done.

It will be harder to conduct hands-on drills for truck company people. I am not talking about the use of ladders, but rather the use of the many tools that make up the inventory on a well-equipped aerial vehicle. Engine companies can practice laying hose and pumping water without disturbing much other than passing traffic (which can be avoided by careful planning). For a truck company, with careful planning and a small amount of funding, props can be built to help you get the job done. And here is where you can grow the team a bit by letting the members exercise their imaginations.

I can recall when a group of guys offered to build a roof simulator for the city so that the truck companies could practice venting roofs. I thought it was a great opportunity for a team-building effort. Unfortunately, the city turned us down. Our estimate for this home-made project was about $200 in materials with the guys providing the labor. The city went out to bid on the project and it ended up costing about $20,000. (Actually, it cost a lot more, because the workers doing the construction dug down for the footings on which the prop would be built, disturbing an underground coal oil pocket, and the city was hit with the cost of hazardous materials remediation.)

These training-related matters are the sorts of issues you will have to address when you step into the right-front seat. Leaders who fail to train the troops are setting themselves, and their people, up for failure. When you plunk yourself into that right front seat, you need to be sure that a few things happen:

• Your brain is in the right mode (engine, truck, rescue)

• Your team is all on the same page (engine, truck, rescue)

• Your training has prepared you to work with your well-trained team to get the job done.

The key to success involves training all of your people to do all of the functions they could face. It is then up to you as the person in the right front seat to set the task-to-talent tone for a safe and effective operation. If you are riding an engine, think engine-like thoughts. If you are riding a truck, think truck-like thoughts. In either case, be sure to impart this mindset to your troops.

Only by building your fire department along these conscious thought lines can you hope to get the right mix of skills, talent and equipment working in a coordinated manner to get the job done. Riding the right rig is a frame of mind. Be sure to set yours before the driver puts the rig in gear for the ride to the emergency.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, and veteran of 46 years in the fire and emergency service. He is chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners of Howell Township, NJ, Fire District 2 and retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. Carter also has been a member of the Adelphia Fire Company in Howell Township for 38 years, serving as chief in 1991. Carter is a member of the American Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain, for which he formerly served as vice president and secretary. He also is president of the New Jersey Association of Fire Districts, a life member of the National Fire Protection Association and former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. Carter holds six degrees, with his terminal degree being a Ph.D. in business administration from Capella University in Minneapolis, MN, where he is an adjunct faculty member.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!