Free Agency

I have been very honored to hear from some young brothers and sisters that are just starting their careers in the fire service via both this blog and the Facebook page. I always like hearing from these younger members who are eager to soak up anything fire service related. It reminds me why I continue to be involved in training and why I m so passionate about it. It also reminds me that there is an opportunity to mold these young firefighters. Not into mini-me’s or anything but into good, solid young firefighters who will grow into excellent firefighters as their knowledge and experience increases. So it is with these young lumps of clay in mind that I write this post. Some of you older lumps of something or others may find it helpful too…

So why is this post titled “Free Agency” and why is there a picture of a guy wearing a free agent t-shirt? Remember something, my rookie phenoms. You are the Michael Jordan’s; the Patrick Kane’s and Jonathan Toews; the Ben Roethlisberger’s; and the Hope Solo’s. You’ve picked your team, er, your department. You’ve been assigned your teammates, the guys and girls you’ll take field with. But guess what? In something that is very unique to our job you get to pick your coach. You may have been assigned a Lieutenant, Captain or a mentor by your department who is officially responsible to oversee your probationary period and make sure you get all of your required items checked-off in your first year, but they don’t have to be your career-long mentor. Your true coach. You are a free agent. You, and only you, get to decide who gets that honor. The honor of having you as someone who looks up to them. Someone who goes to them for knowledge and experience and guidance. Choose wisely and it will serve you well for your entire career.

One of my past part-time jobs was as a flight-paramedic on a helicopter out of a local trauma center. This trauma center was also a teaching hospital for both future doctors and nurses. It gave ample opportunity to teach not only for formal educators i.e. the Doctors and Nurses that actually taught in the programs but also the Doctors, Nurses, Techs and guys like me who worked there as well. Anyway, one day a local ground ALS unit was inbound with a gunshot wound to the chest. I was working the helicopter that day and happened to be in the ER at the time. We were allowed to assist in the ER with codes and traumas and such so I thought I’d stick around and see if this turned out to be anything good. Soon, the attending trauma surgeon entered the trauma bay followed by his gaggle of doctors-in-training. He started shooting questions at them; what are things to be looking for; what could complications be; what should our interventions for those complications be etc. The medics rolled through the door soon after and it was immediately clear that the situation was critical. CPR was in progress, blood was everywhere, two large-bore IV’s that were almost empty etc. etc. The patient was transferred over to the ER bed and the assessment was begun. The patient had been shot once in the left upper chest with an unknown caliber gun. Never conscious at the scene. CPR in progress the whole time. Weak pulses with CPR, nothing without. The trauma surgeon went right to work but was still shouting out questions and listening for answers the whole time he was working. The pt wasn’t intubated so he looked at me and asked if I mined helping one of his “kids” with the intubation. After that, and purely for the teaching aspect I think, the decision was made to crack the patient’s chest right there in the ER. Even the ER staff was like, “holy crap.” So after the chest was open we saw the problem. That problem was a very large hole in the patient’s left ventricle of his heart. The trauma surgeon didn’t get excited, he didn’t back away and declare the patient dead. He calmly asked for a foley catheter. One of those catheters that goes in the end of a penis to drain urine from the bladder into a bag. The nurse he asked did a double-take and he calmly repeated his request. She went and got the foley and handed it to him. He took it out of the packaging, inserted the end that would normally go into the penis and then up into the bladder into the hole in the heart, inflated the balloon on the end of the catheter that normally would hold the catheter in place in the bladder, asked one of his students to hold the tubing and collection bag and “make sure this doesn’t fall out”, and then told the nurse in charge of the trauma bay to call the operating room and let them know they were on their way. Everyone, myself included, looked around stunned. Where the hell had he learned that?! For the non-medical type peeps out there, the balloon on the end of the catheter plugged the bullet hole in the heart, the catheter drained the blood into the collection bag to be transfused back into him later. He hadn’t learned that in medical school, he learned it while serving in Vietnam. If you want to look at it in our terms, he didn’t learn it in the academy or in his probie year, he learned it after. When it counted. From people who had been there and done that. Get where I’m going with this? Medical school, the fire academy, high school, it’s all the same. It’s the basic preparation for what you will need to perform in your job or in life where most of the real learning will come from doing and experiencing. But you can’t just hope to stumble upon things on your own. You can’t just hope for “a-ha” moments to happen throughout your career. You need someone to help and guide you with the things that don’t ordinarily get taught as part of a regular curriculum. You need a Yoda.

Now, as fair warning, not every guy in the firehouse wants to be Yoda. Not every guy in the firehouse should be Yoda. There’s no reason to rush picking your sensei. Your probationary year should be a year of learning the things your department wants you to learn in the manner they want them to be done. As long as you have someone assigned to you who is half-way competent at their job and can teach you those things you’ll be ok. Picking your Yoda, your career coach, is something else. It doesn’t need to be done in that first 12-months. Make sure you have a job first. Take that time to look around and see who really has a passion for the job, not just who comes in and does the job. Who’s the guy or girl who’s still out on the apparatus floor doing a little extra spit and polish on the rigs or tools after everyone else is sitting having a cup of coffee? Who can seemingly answer almost any question with a reasonable answer but if they don’t know something then takes the time to find out and share the knowledge? Who might join in on the inevitable kitchen table airing of the grievances but then actually offers solutions to the problems and tries to mediate what’s going on instead of simply fanning the flames? Who is the guy or gal that loves this job? Maybe that’s who you should be thinking about to be your tour guide through fire service life.

Not everyone picks a coach. Some guys, most guys maybe, don’t. They make it through their probie year and figure they’ve got it made. They figure they learned what they needed to learn and that they’ll get what else they need in drills and whatever future classes they’ll take for certifications. But there are so many more things to learn about this job than just what you’ll learn in drill or at those classes. Maybe that’s why you’re reading this website in the first place. Obviously a mentor, a coach, doesn’t have to be just one person. You can pick up as many things from as many people as you can in this career. And we all know that you can learn just as much from people that you don’t want to emulate as those that you do. But you should find a couple people on this job whom you can consistently go to for solid advice. For good direction. For answers to questions that other people seem to be guessing at. But take the time to evaluate who you want those people to be. You are the free agent. You are the rising star and you don’t want to sign with just anyone. So take a look around and see who’s making the best offer to help you and career. And then go play your heart out, kid!

Until next time,

Be Safe!


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!


How Full Is Your Calendar?

In the September, 1995 issue of Fire Engineering then Editor Bill Manning wrote an Editor’s Opinion piece entitled, “How White is your Helmet.” If you have never read the piece please take a few minutes and do so now. Even though it was written almost 17 years ago you will be struck by how apropos it is to the state of the fire service today. Scary, actually.

So, in Bill’s piece he asks Chief officer’s if they still remember where they came from. Do they still remember that they were first, and still should be, firefighters? Or has the role of Chief changed so much that the position no longer requires experience, training and professional panache? Is all that’s needed today an MBA and political savvy? Is actually being present at your department, physically in your office, even a necessity these days? That’s what I’m asking.

How full is your calendar, Chief? How often are you in your office? Are more and more of your e-mails ending with the tag-line, “Sent from my iPhone”, or, “Sent from my iPad?” Are you visiting the station for an hour, or less, in between meetings, luncheons or retirement parties? All in the name of department business. When does the actual business of administering the department get done? No, that wasn’t a typo. I chose the word “administering” very carefully as opposed to another that might be defined as, “the action of leading a group of people or an organization.” Everything must be ok, though. The tones go off and something responds. Sick people go to the hospital. CO alarms get answered. AFA’s get re-set and every once and a while those things, those ummm, uh, those um, those, ‘ya know, those rapid oxidation of a fuel resulting in the release of heat and light things gets put out. And we can’t forget about the discipline. The troops are being disciplined so everything’s ok. We’re doing our jobs. Then, there’s the tell-tale sign that everything in our organization is really A-o.k. We’re all getting set-up for our next careers. Truth is, we really don’t care about what’s going on here, this department we’re administering now. The meetings, the luncheons, the golf outings, the parties, it’s all networking. It’s all connections being made for when working for pennies on the dollar just doesn’t make sense any more and it’s time to move on and go get another pension because it’s not about my department. It’s not about loyalty. It’s about me.

How full is your calendar Chief? What is it full of? Workshops, training, leading your department, evaluating your department in a constructive way, looking for what can be improved upon and acting on it. Or is it full of meetings full of agendas that get tabled month after month, golf outings, more meetings that no one really knows why you have to be there or what it really has to do with the fire department but it seems like a good idea or opportunity to “show your face”, luncheons to tell each other how great you are and meetings with politicians to tell them how great they are?

If you skipped over the link to Bill Manning’s Editor’s Opinion, please, go back and read it. You will be absolutely amazed how something written 17 years ago is so scarily accurate today. The fire service needs leaders Brothers and Sisters.

Stay safe,