Disillusionment or Looking Behind the Scenes at the Fire Department of Oz

I realize that the last post may have come off a little, shall we say, venomous? I still stand by it. I still think that there are a large percentage of Chief officers out there not running their departments in the right way for the right reasons. But I feel obligated, after a day or so of reflection, to explain a little bit of where that venom comes from.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I am not Dave Statter or Jason Jefferies. I am not Bill Carey or Bill Schumm. I am not Willie Wines or Rhett Fleitz. I am not a news reporter or journalistic-type who presents a very informative reporting site. I am a blue-shirt firefighter who is opinionated about what the fire service should be, needs to be and deserves to be. What you read here is in large part my opinion, which we all know are like anal sphincters. Everyone has one. Doesn’t mean mine is correct, and I acknowledge that and respect others opinions, for the most-part. Sometimes people are just dead wrong. So that’s where the blog itself is coming from.

So where am I coming from in what I choose to write? Well, most of the time it comes from emotion, if you can’t tell. It’s gotten me in trouble more than once if you can believe that (try to hold back your scoffs). Most the time when I sit down to write something has recently gotten my Irish-German mixed heritage up and it’s better than drinking and going out and beating someone up. I don’t sit down and write rough drafts, move things around, change things etc. etc. With the exception of one or maybe two proof-reads what you see is what you get. So that’s where I am coming from with what I write. So now you know what the blog is about, where what I write about comes from so what’s the history behind me and what led to this blog? I guess that’s the big question and what played into a lot of the emotions that led to the last post.

From the time I decided I wanted to become a firefighter as a junior-higher I had a picture of firefighters and of the fire department as a whole that was pretty glorified. Unrealistic, even. I pictured firefighters as a group of honorable men who were out to serve others above themselves. Who were self-motivated to become the best they could possibly be. Who relished training and job-knowledge and constantly looked to improve themselves. I looked at firefighters as masters of every aspect of their jobs and as it being completely unacceptable to be less than so. I looked at firefighters as men who were bursting with pride at the calling they fulfilled and who would never dishonor their departments or profession. I looked at the fire department as a whole, and I guess by default the leadership, as an organization who’s purpose was too important to be influenced by politics or personal agendas. Everyone involved in the organization realized that and was able to put those things aside to serve the greater good and protect his neighbor. The fire department had no room for error or to be unprepared so equipment was maintained to the highest standards. Even the smallest deficiencies were corrected immediately so as not to affect performance readiness. The organization, and again by default the leadership, sought out and promoted the best qualified and most knowledgable applicants regardless of political favoritism or other influences, because that’s how important good leadership is. Over the last 18 years I have watched that entire picture be destroyed. It really is like when Dorothy looked behind the Wizard’s throne and saw the wee  little man and all the apparatus that made the image that he wanted everyone to see.

Over the last almost two-decades I’ve learned what firefighters and the fire department is really all about. Here is a list of just some of them.

  • I’ve learned that people become firefighters because of the schedule, pay and benefits.
  • I’ve learned that they put more emphasis on their part-time jobs than their primary job.
  • I’ve learned that they put little emphasis at all on learning their job because we just don’t do it that often and it’s easy to hide.
  • I’ve learned that he who finds just the right niche, or does just the right extra job, or says just the right things or fits just the right mold are the ones who get promoted regardless of whether or not they will make good tactical decisions where they count.
  • I’ve learned that there is very little team or Brotherhood and it is more about “me” and what I’m going to get, how I’m going to get promoted or what I can get out of the job.
  • I’ve learned that decisions are not made on what is best for the citizens, the members or even what makes sense but more-so for financial reasons or simply because “I say so.”
  • I’ve learned that switching into rigs three or four times in a single shift, into whatever is least broken, is somehow acceptable.
  • I’ve learned that nothing is important until someone gets hurt or something else bad happens and then it will somehow probably wind up coming back on the people who least deserve it.
  • I’ve learned that very little thought needs to go into the actual mission of the fire department (and EMS delivery), we don’t need to re-evaluate things on an on-going basis because everything is fine.
  • I’ve learned that we don’t need to clean our tools because it doesn’t matter, an ax will still cut with rust on it.
  • I’ve learned that pride in our job and training is for “fisties” or for those that care too much.
  • I’ve learned that there is almost no leadership left in the fire service, there are only managers and administrators.
  • I’ve learned that no one in any position of authority cares about the level of readiness, level of training or effectiveness of their charges.
  • I’ve learned that higher-ups have everything better to do than run their shifts or departments.
  • I’ve learned that it’s more about the appearance of a fire department than the function of a fire department.
  • I’ve learned that there are those who do despicable things as management techniques i.e. dangling carrots, making promises, manipulating lists, releasing new rules and regs at key times to stir things up etc.
  • I’ve learned that, as much as I absolutely do not understand it, there are those that thrive on power, or the perception of it.
  • I’ve also learned that those that speak out get punished.

I haven’t learned these lessons in a theoretical way in which you might learn a lesson about trigonometry. I’ve learned them by seeing them, hearing them, experiencing them and living them. Those lessons I’ve learned over the last 18 years is my fire service experience. Those lessons are made up of the firefighters I’ve served with and the company and chief officers I’ve served under. Obviously not all of them were horrible. But if I’m summarizing my career in this way which way do you think the scales are leaning? The sad part is that to a certain extent, I still believe in Oz. Despite having seen the wee little man and all his gadgets and gizmos and the front he’s put up to make it appear as something it is not I still want to believe. Maybe that’s why I write. Maybe I hope I’ll affect something or someone somewhere.

Many of you out there can pick out one or more people in your careers who you view as a mentor. A roll-model that you would like to end-up like someday. Some firefighter or officer who is a wealth of knowledge and experience, a great teacher and all those other things I used to think made up a great fire service employee. I can’t. Not a single one. Every time in my career I’ve thought I’ve had one they’ve sold-out to something or other. Or they’ve betrayed the fire service, the department or  worst of all, themselves. Sure I’ve got guys that I still want to take bits and pieces of, but I have no one singular person who I can hold up and say, “I want to be like this guy.” Terry Hatton. Paddy Brown. Bob Hoff. Ed Enright. Ray Hoff. Andy Fredericks. Benny Crane. No one like that. But I have a wonderful list of examples of whom I do not want to be like. Maybe that’s just as good. I dunno.

So ‘dats it. When my venom comes spewing forth they got the best of me. If you don’t like it, sorry. Leave me a nasty comment. I probably won’t hold it against you. I hope maybe this explains a little bit of where I come from with this blog and in particular where the Calendar post came from. I don’t hate all Chiefs, if that’s what you think. I don’t hate all officers. I’m an equal opportunity hater no matter what color shirt you wear and it pretty much comes down to this; If you’re in this job for the wrong reasons, if you’re taking more from this job than you’re giving, if you don’t know or are not proficient at your job, then you suck. Get out.

Until next time,

Stay safe!

Chris

Well, That Didn’t Work Out.

Well, ok. So by now you know that ‘ole Sledge’s first big break to present at a major training conference will have to wait for a while. Unfortunately the Gateway Midwest Fire & Leadership Conference that was sponsored by Go>Forward Fire Training had to be cancelled due to a lack of registration. Don’t worry, I won’t take it personal-like. I know no one wanted to waste their time with guys like Sendlebach, Brunacini and those Mitchell and Statter guys. It’s just unfortunate that they had to suffer because you guys and gals that did register only wanted to come see me <sorrowful sigh>. In all seriousness, it is unfortunate the event had to be cancelled but I get that it’s a business and there are certain margins that need to be met. I know that Go>Forward’s new inaugural event in King of Prussia, PA. will be a huge success and set the stage for all the events in the future. Hopefully I can still be a part of something in the future. But for now, I did make two promises to those of you that waste their time reading my smack when I wrote the post announcing that I would be presenting at the conference. First and foremost I promised a class. I was to present a class I have developed called, “Selling Out to the Fire Service”.  A class designed for the new guy all the way up to the Chief about why we got into this business, why we should be in this business and the commitment we all need to make to this business. Secondly, I promised that my Hallway Sledge persona would be killed-off and I would resurrect as my true-self. So let’s get down to business.

So some of you who checked out Go>Forward’s site advertising the conference already know who I am from the instructor bio page, so this may be a little anti-climactic. For those of you who still do not know… my name is Chris Sterricker and I am a full-time Firefighter/Paramedic in the Chicago suburbs. I am married to a wonderful and understanding woman and together we have two young daughters. I’m in my 18th year in the fire service, starting out as a paid-on-call firefighter and eventually getting hired full-time. I started this blog out of frustration over things I saw going on in our beloved profession and as a form of cheap therapy. It felt good to get stuff off my chest and to write about things I thought needed to be discussed. I really never foresaw the amount of success I’ve been blessed with in regards to this site. So I sincerely say thank you to everyone who checks it out.

Now, about that class. I obviously can’t give you something designed for two hours in a blog-post so what I’m going to do is give you the Cliff’s Notes version. I’ll try to hit the high-points and generate some discussion, which is, as always, encouraged.

Since I already took care of the intro part I’ll skip to the chase. What was this class going to be about? Well, in a nutshell, why are you a firefighter? Do you want to wear the super-cool t-shirts and have a built-in pick-up line, or do you really want to sell yourself out to a noble and important profession that requires much more than just a casual dedication? Are you looking for a fraternity and drinking buddies or do you want a true brotherhood (or sisterhood) and guys that’ll drop everything to give you a hand when you or your family needs one? Only you can make that decision and only you will know if you’re BS’ing yourself, but I guarantee others will see right through it.

So after I got done challenging everyone my next point was going to be that this job is just too important to not dedicate yourself fully to it. Important on a couple different levels. The first and most important level is to yourself and your family. The fireground, accident scene, haz-mat incident or any other of the multitude of calls we  answer can be very dangerous places even if you are hanging back trying not to get involved. Don’t you owe it to yourself and those that love and care about you to know what the heck you’re doing? To keep up on new trends and techniques? New information? Seek and attend good, solid training? Think about the knock at the door your significant other will get after you decided that dousing the stack of pallets in the shipping container that is your “training tower” in diesel fuel and then throwing in the fusee resulted in you being admitted to the burn unit, or worse. Dedicated professionals do not do those kinds of things. Smart, trained firefighters do not do those kinds of things.

Secondly, you owe it to those that you work alongside and who depend on you. All the same reasons apply. How would you feel if your actions, or lack-thereof, resulted in the injury or death of another firefighter? Imagine their family and friends and the pain and grief they would experience because of the death of their loved one. I have known many firefighters over the years who lacked basic skills and training as well as any motivation to know and get better at their job. Many of these guys had an attitude that being a weak firefighter didn’t matter, didn’t have any ramifications, because there were always other people around to pick up their slack. Someone else who knew what they were doing or how to operate that tool. Until the day came when they were forced into a situation where they had to perform and couldn’t. It’s not fair to the other guys and gals around you, period.

Thirdly, it’s not fair to “Mrs. Smith”. Mrs. Smith represents every person you and I have sworn to protect and who counts on us to know what to do and have the ability to perform when the worst day of their lives comes calling. Mrs. Smith doesn’t care if you receive  pay check or not. Mrs. Smith doesn’t care if you belong to a Union or not. Mrs. Smith doesn’t care that your department only responds to 100 or so calls a year. Mrs. Smith expects that when she calls 911 she will receive the same level of service living in her 100 year-old farmhouse in East Fork Little River as she would in her brand new condo in downtown Chicago. Now don’t get me wrong. Capabilities and training are two different things. East Fork might only have 5 or 6 people available to respond, whereas in Chicago that’s one company. The capabilities of the two departments are vastly different. But, East Fork better have been proactive in setting up Mutual Aid agreements knowing that they have staffing challenges. That’s a totally separate issue from those same 5 or 6 East Fork FD guys showing up and not having good, solid training and job knowledge. There is no reason in the world, in my opinion, that hose East Fork guys cannot be equally trained as any other firefighters in the country. Perhaps it’s naive of me to think that. Perhaps it’s brash and outlandish for me to expect, but that’s how I feel.

A trend I have noticed over the last few years is that Mrs. Smith doesn’t matter so much anymore. We matter more than she does. We matter more than her property does. We matter more than the oath we all took in one form or another when we started. I have actually heard statements made to the effect of, “We can’t do VES. That’s way above us.” Or, “We only search after the fire is out. It’s too dangerous otherwise.” Or, “If we have more than just one room involved or if we have really heavy smoke we go defensive. We can’t handle anything bigger.” What?!?! But somehow some ideas that are not too far off from these statements have taken hold of the fire service lately and made it ok to not go inside. Ok to write-off Mrs. Smith as soon as we pull up. Ok to really not make much effort at all to stop property loss. “…to guard my every neighbor and protect his property.” Isn’t that how the prayer goes? The Fireman’s Prayer? Again, if you’ve read any of my posts for a while you know I do not advocate throwing our lives away. I do advocate and believe in doing our job fully, safely and effectively. Especially in a time when we are under attack from politicians and our citizens alike. So, did you get into this job to actually do the job? Did you get into this job to risk your life so that someone else might live? Or did you just get on to show up at the fire and get your picture taken, or to take pictures? Did you get into the job to do the job or to give back to your community, or the community you work in, or did you just want to ride in the 4th of July parade? Did you get into this job because you believe in the oath and the prayer or because you wanted a pay check and time off? It’s time to decide.

So that’s a quick overview of what I was going to talk about and challenge the attendees with. Maybe it got some of you thinking. Maybe it made you angry when you read some of my statements. I’m ok with that. Evaluate your career honestly and look at yourself. Have you done everything to make yourself the best firefighter you can? Do you continue to do so? Do you train up others that you work with? Have you sold out to the fire service?

Be safe, train hard.

Chris Sterricker