* Image from Check Out This Alternative to College, by Charlotte Allen
So I’m sitting in church yesterday listening to our pastor reflecting on a book that changed his life and heart in regards to racism. Not that he was ever racist, mind you, but that since he never considered himself a racist then he thought he was all good on the topic. If he wasn’t contributing to the problem then everything was fine. After reading a book by Dr. John Perkins entitled Divided By Faith, our pastor’s world was rocked and he decided to really start fighting against racism in our country and transforming his congregation, my congregation, into a totally open and accepting group of people. After that recollection he introduced Dr. Perkins who only spoke for about 10 minutes and then helped close the service in prayer (may I remind you at this point that this isn’t your typical fire service blog). Something Dr. Perkins said in that short address really hit me and is the basis for this post. For it is true in addressing racism or any other prejudice as well as it is in how I am going to tie it into the fire service. He said, “Education is asking a question about the condition in which you find yourself and then looking for solutions,” [Dr. John Perkins, Willow Creek Community Church, January 15, 2012]. Wham! I got slapped.
You see, many of us go to work, do our job, don’t really contribute to any problems and then go home. And a lot of people are content in doing that. Then there are some of us who go to work, still do our jobs but then look around and say, “What else can be better?”, “What else can we be doing here?” Sometimes those of us that look at things in such a fashion are called trouble-makers, malcontents or disenchanted. “Why rock the boat?”, some people would say. “Things are fine.” But in every organization in the world, fire service or not, in every human relationship in the world, in every community in the world there are things that can and should be improved upon. The first step is asking a question. In educating yourself about the current condition in which you are presently located. Think about how many times you’ve asked a simple question at work as to why a certain thing is the way that it is, or the way that you do something in your organization and get the reply, “I guess no one’s ever thought to change it.” Or, “It’s the way we’ve always done it.” Really? No one has ever taken the time to look at something and devote a little brain-power to seeing if it can be improved upon? That’s really kind of sad, especially when the top of the para-military pyramid has never done it.
I do not advocate change for change sake. Sometimes I think that’s what happens in our profession. Someone wants to make a name or get a certain reputation so they institute changes to be “progressive” or to appear to be a “leader” <cough, cough, Ken Ellerbe, cough, cough>. If that’s the reason you are changing something then it is more than likely going to be counter-productive and often not have the results intended, whatever those results are. I do, however, advocate the systematic revisiting of policies, procedures and ways of doing things in order to see if they are outdated, inefficient or simply not needed any longer. Ask questions. But don’t just be a pot-stirrer, look for solutions or offer suggestion on things that can realistically and efficiently be implemented to change those conditions. If you’re going to suggest removing all the hose from your Engines and putting it on your Trucks you’d better have a pretty good reason for it. Research and take the time to think about not only what you’re questioning but the proposed change or solution as well. Too many people we work with say, “We should do something different!”, but then have nothing to offer in the way of what or how.
Be prepared for rejection. I wasn’t alive then but I’m pretty darn confident in saying that when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began speaking out about the black condition in America he wasn’t universally loved and adored. If you are going to walk into Chicago Fire Department Headquarters and suggest to Commissioner Hoff that the CFD should repaint all of their rigs from their iconic black-over-red scheme to blaze orange, be prepared for a staunch “No”, if only for the reason of tradition. But, if you go to your Chief and lobby him or her to revamp the running procedures to send two Truck companies on an initial alarm instead of the historic one and support it with data and facts and propose responsibilities that the second Truck could fulfill, then you may have a better shot. It may still be a “No”, but at least you come off as being prepared and well-thought-out instead of off-the-cuff and ill-prepared. I’m not necessarily advocating a popular uprising, but sometimes seeking support from others and getting their endorsement prior to presenting an idea helps too. If you’re proposing a new hose load, for example, maybe present it to the Training Officer first with all the supporting reasons and research. If the TO is behind it then taking him or her with you up to the office could help your cause, or at least shorten the process. Again, the first step is educating yourself. Asking a question as to why your current condition is the way that it is and then looking for a change or solution. In fact, you may find that everything is fine with a current way of doing something, or that the reason you do it that way is for a very good and solid reason you may not have been aware of before. You have then furthered your own education as to the condition you are in.
I have never understood why organizations are scared of question-askers (is that even a term?). I have also REALLY never understood why organizations pretend to welcome question-askers and input-givers but only do so for one of two reasons. First, so that if no questions are asked or input is received they can say, “See? No one asked or gave us any input so we’re doing fine.” And secondly, if questions are raised or input is submitted that an organization can go ahead with a plan they had every intention of implementing regardless of question or input but make its members feel “good” that their input was requested and “considered”. Believe me, if you are a member of the upper peak of the para-military pyramid and you are reading this, that kind of behavior will severely damage both your organization as a whole and its morale as it eats away at the employees feeling of value. It would be better to not even ask for input and say, “This is the way we are going to do it because I’m the Chief and I say so!”, then to pretend to be genuinely interested in what the lower echelons have to say and then reject it. Remember too, pyramid-peakers, you always have things to learn and questions you should be asking beyond how much money you can save and how many concessions you can get from your troops.
We need to edu-ma-cate ourselves throughout our careers. That includes classes, training, certifications and other forms of formal education but it also includes taking the time to look around and wonder, question and problem-solve. Maybe we can take a lesson from Mother Necessity and a blast from our past.
Until next time, fellow Sherlock Holmes’,