The Joy of Serving

Aug. 11, 2003
Why are there so many people in our fire departments who revel in stomping around our fire stations and emergency scenes with solemn faces?
Why are there so many people in our fire departments who revel in stomping around our fire stations and emergency scenes with solemn faces? Far too many people seem to act as though they were having a root canal in a dentist's office without an anesthetic. Far too many people seem as though they are preparing to enter the proctologist's office for a penetrating probe of their posterior.

Why? All I want to know is why?

Is there a rule that we all have to wander around being glum, dismayed, and confused? Is it because we are the offspring of strong peasant stock, or because our heroes are the strong, silent type who never seemed to derive any joy in doing their good works?

Are we so solemn because of the perceived importance of our chosen duties and responsibilities? This seems to be happening to far too many people. They build up fabulous images of themselves and their self-importance in their own minds? Or is it that these people adopt the solemn posture of pompous, personal pre-eminence? They are too self important to be perceived as being normal or human. Statues of the great seem to be scowling all the time, so these pompous putzes adopt the scowl as their facial image. Whatever the reason, I am here to tell you that it is time to begin changing what we do and how we do when it comes to being service-oriented organizations.

Let's all lighten up a bit gang. It does not have to be all doom, gloom, and denial. For whatever the reason, we have been called upon to serve our fellow citizens. We need to embrace what we do with a joy that allows us to overcome the adversities with which we will almost certainly come face-to-face.

Nearly four decades of my life have been devoted to serving my fellow citizens in one way or another. Whether it was the Freehold First Aid Squad, the U.S. Air Force Fire Department, the Rahway Fire Department, the Newark Fire Department, or the Adelphia Fire Company, my approach has been the same. We have a critical task to perform, but there is no written law that says we must hate what we do.

I have worked to approach even the most dangerous of circumstances with a light-hearted manner. This is not to say that I have operated oblivious to the dangers of my duties. I never leapt out of the frying pan into the fire without a thorough evaluation of the dangers involved in delivering a fire or rescue service.

That is just plain stupid. Nevertheless, I always tried to make the best of whatever curve balls the fates of fire threw at my buddies and I.

There have been times during which my service in each of these organizations seemed to become like pure drudgery. However, upon deep reflection, it turns out that it was not the tasks, but rather the people that made things a good or bad experience.

It is up to the leader to create an environment within which we will not only do good things, but do these things and gain a bit of enjoyment. A good leader can, and must, work to create an environment wherein each of us is caused to grow in skill, knowledge, and service delivery capabilities.

That requires a great deal from those who step forward to lead their associates. Each member of the team is an individual person. Each has grown to adulthood in a different manner. Some come from happy families, others from dysfunctional environments. Each individual possesses a unique personality. They are who they are because of the where, how, and why of their process of growth and maturation.

It is because of this fact that every member of your team requires part of the leader's time, talents, and thought processes. It may well be that the least of us requires the most from the captain of the team.

None of us is a self-made creation. We are the sum product of all that has occurred during our lives. If we turn out well, it is because someone, somewhere along the line, believed in us. They saw something in us that stimulated them to share what they knew with us. If we are fortunate they also shared their love of life with us.

The good leader realizes the total equation. The team is the sum of its parts. The whole is not more than what the parts of it bring to the team. Based upon literally decades of time in the emergency service world, I am here to tell you that a team will grow more solid and become more productive when the troops are happy.

I never really believed that old nonsense that says that you can tell when things are going well by the griping that is going on. Happy people do not gripe. People that are kept in the dark, abused, and fed phony or misleading information will not gel into a happy and productive team.

There must be rules, regulations, and guidelines to insure that our team operates according to a common set of standards. It is the leader's job to layout the rules and roles that our people are going to be required to perform. However, it is the wise leader that joyfully welcomes the thoughts and suggestions from their team.

As I have stated on more than one occasion, I was always most pleased by those situations where the people who worked with me came up with the solutions to the problems we were facing. As a company officer, I worked hard to create an environment wherein the gang bonded together into a team. Whether it was an engine company, or a truck company, I worked to build a sense of pride and teamwork among the crew. I never dictated positions or duties.

The guys ran their own house-watch roster. They were the ones who had to do the duty, no sense being a dictator. It always worked out, because they knew that I trusted them. The guys knew that someone had to drive, someone had to step off at the hydrant to secure the water supply, and that someone would have to carry the hoseline in to attack the fire. We trained as a team so that each of us could do whatever was needed at a given moment. In that way, when the fires occurred, I was free to size up the fire, knowing that the guys were ready to do whatever was necessary.

The same things held true in the manner in which I structured my battalions and my divisions when I was on staff. I laid out the tasks that had been laid upon me by the organization, gave guidance as to what I believed should be done and then asked for my guys ideas on how best to do what we had to do.

Unlike many of my associates in command positions, I believed in creating an enjoyable work environment by working hard to care for the people that the city had placed in my care. We trained hard and we fought a great deal of fire. Such was the way things were in Newark. However I believed in creating some light moments for my men.

I was most pleased by the performance of my guys. At the end of my first year as chief of Battalion Five in Newark's Ironbound District, I gave every member of my command a Christmas present.

One of my Captains owned a printing and novelty business. I asked him to create a commemorative tee shirt for my gang. It had the battalion's long-time slogan (a fireman sitting on a powder keg), and the words, Battalion Five, Tour Three emblazoned underneath. We were called the city's powder keg because our fire load was lower than the rest of the city, but when we had something, it was usually big and jolting.

When I was involuntarily transferred out of the battalion back in 1996, the same captain created another tee shirt for me. It was given to every member of my battalion, as well as the members of those companies that I worked with on a regular basis. It had the same emblem emblazoned on the back, but the words were different. It had the words, Battalion Five, the Carter Years lined out under the emblem.

I want to once again thank my good friend Captain Tom Grehl of the Newark Fire Department. He helped me to create the world that I desired for my guys. He was a real strong supporter. I relied upon to Tom to honcho the quarterly parties that I created for my guys.

There was the "Swing into Spring" party, the "In the Good Old Summertime" party, the "October-Fest Party,

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