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,

Chris

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How Do You Coach?

* Image from Sports Coaching Brain website

Recently the head coach of the University of Illinois men’s basketball team, Bruce Weber, found himself in some hot water after making some comments to the press after another frustrating Illini loss. Coach Weber said, “The sad thing about the whole thing I guess is it’s my fault. Instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose all year. It’s sad to be honest, but it is what is.” Now, to give a little context, the Fighting Illini had started out the season 10 – 0. They currently sit at a mark of 16 – 10 and only 5 – 8 in the Big 10. The season has gone a little down hill since its lofty beginnings and Weber has found himself in a precarious position in regards to his on-going employment. These recent comments have had many speculating he may need to begin looking for other avenues of income generation. Personally, I don’t care. Never been an Illinois fan. I’m a Domer. As in, Notre Dame. So the Illini don’t really matter to me as a sports fan, but what drew my attention was Weber’s outlook on coaching. It got me thinking about how we in the fire service lead others and train for our job.

Instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose all year.” Do we do that as a profession? I think in a lot of ways we do. As an officer do you lead your company, battalion or department to truly excel or just not to get into trouble either by your higher-ups or by the residents or media? As training instructors do we train the troops to a level that is high-functioning and truly professional or do we do just enough to try and ensure no one gets hurt or killed? Do we see certain things like VES, aggressive Truck work or self-rescue techniques as too lofty a goal to attain and be proficient in or something our department is not capable of? Do we see our abilities as a department and our people as limitless or do we see them as restricted or capable of only so much and only to a certain, usually low, level? Are we constantly leading and training for mediocrity?

Whether you are an officer, at whatever level, or involved in training in some way your job is the same. You are a coach. You are a coach to a certain number of members. A company, a battalion or the whole darn department. Your job is to evaluate your team, find their strengths and weaknesses, improve on both of them through practice, evaluate the competition and come up with a game-plan that will lead to a successful outcome. How you lead these members gives a lot of insight as to what your goals and your organizational values are. Are you simply leading and training to get by or are you shooting for the upper reaches of performance? The big leagues or the minor leagues. Local competitions or the Olympics. Your people will pick up on it and some will seek to achieve only the level they perceive to be required of them. Others will look to surpass that level but will there be enough of those types of individuals to make a difference on a grander scale? If your officers or organization is setting a tone of, “just don’t lose“, or in our case, “Just don’t do something stupid to get us on the news,” or “Just be good enough so that we don’t routinely create new available parking spaces every time we have a fire,” will those over-achievers have enough influence on their own to raise the collective bar? Probably not.

Training can be looked at in the same way. Do we show up at the drill ground and simply go through the motions of whatever subject we are covering that day or do we challenge our students and ourselves in the course of meeting the objectives? I’ll admit that in some of the drills I have put on the scenarios or the situations in which the students find themselves may have been on the extreme or unrealistic side. I’ve caught flack for it too. “We’ll never be in that situation,” ” We would never do that,” “I’d never be stupid enough to get into that mess,” are all things I’ve heard regarding something I’ve put together. My opinion is that if we train on the extreme side then the routine (and I hate that word in regard to our profession) becomes easy. Or, at least, easier. Are we training to win, and to advance that line in difficult situations, or make those rescues under terrible conditions, or are we just training not to lose and advance the line with no obstacles or make rescues when the people are fully mobile and easily accessible? You can’t train day in and day out for Cactus League play (in honor of the Cubs pitchers and catchers reporting today) and then go out and expect to be able to face mid-season MLB competition the next. While the bread-and-butter residential structure fire may be what we face the most often we should still be training for the Paxton Hotel or Happy Land Social Club, in my humble opinion.

I’ve worked with a particular officer who’s only standing order is, “Just don’t get me in trouble.” I kind of equate that to what Coach Weber said and how it got him into trouble. I know I’m convoluted so try and stay with me, here. Essentially Coach Weber admitted to coaching his team not to go out and take a win as if it were the only option but to try and avoid losing if possible. Two totally different mindsets, yes? What I take away from this particular officer’s credo relates in a way (at least in my brain). Don’t do anything I’m going to have to answer for, i.e. don’t do anything that might make me lose my job. And, although not outright said, I take it as implied that a level of status quo is to be maintained. In my ears I hear, “Don’t go out there and achieve greatness, just don’t do anything that might draw attention to me.” Does that make sense? Now I’m even questioning my own line between the two points. Oh well, I know what I’m trying to say.

As officers you can’t just lead to get the members to follow your wishes, they’re going to do that anyway simply due to your rank. You need to try and lead them in such a that makes them want to achieve greater levels of proficiency. Greater levels of responsibility. A great “can do” attitude. And that starts with you and how you coach them. As instructors we need to challenge our students and make them overachievers. We need to coach them as if every game is the Super Bowl, because if we treat every game as if it doesn’t really matter then we’re never going to get there.

Stay safe!

Chris

Big Announcement

Hey everybody. So in case you haven’t heard there’s a new kid on the block for fire and EMS training in the conference setting. Go>Forward Fire and Leadership Training is hosting their inaugural training conferences coming up later this year. If Go>Forward looks familiar it’s because it is to many of you. Go>Forward Fire Training is a division of G0>Forward Media which created FireEMSBlogs.com web-world, JEMS magazine’s web-world and Law Officer magazine’s web-world. They also own and operate Fire-Rescue magazine and its website. Many of the blogs you and I visit on a regular basis are a part of the Fire EMS Blogs community and of course many of you are familiar with their print-work from the magazines.

So, Go>Forward branched out and partnered with Firefighternation.com and FireEMSBlogs.com to really trying to revolutionize the way a conference style learning experience happens. They are not trying to copy or out-do FDIC, Fire-Rescue International, Fire House Expo or any of our other trade conferences. They are trying to take training at these conferences in a whole new direction. You know how it goes. You register for one of the big trade shows and pay a fairly sizable fee. Then you have to try and find an available hotel room, again at an inflated cost. Then you have to try and get into the classes you want. When you do get into a class you may be one of several hundred in the room or at the hands-on and your learning experience may be less than optimal. Go>Forward is looking to change all that. They are looking for a smaller, more affordable, more intimate venue with smaller class sizes for both lecture and hands-on. More one-on-one instructor-student time and interaction and the development of a relationship between the two that hopefully lasts well after the conference has ended. It is going to be dynamic, exciting, informative and hopefully groundbreaking.

So why the big plug? Well, here’s where the big announcement comes in. Go>Forward has asked Hallway Sledge himself to be a presenter at the very first conference that is to be held October 21 – 23 in St. Charles, Missouri at the AmeriStar Hotel, Resort and Casino. Check out the announcement on Go>Forward’s event page here. The conference has been appropriately named the Gateway Midwest Fire & Leadership Conference and will feature some of the top names in our industry such as Alan Brunacini, Tim Sendelbach and Brotherhood Instructors. Oh, yeah and my name will be on there too. I know what you just did. You did the, “Oh snap!” head thing and said, “What did you say Sledge? Your name?” Yup folks, the veil of secrecy is going to come off. If you attend the conference you can say you were among the first to find out who Hallway Sledge really is! This will more than likely result in some changes to the website, but that’s ok. I really don’t mind at this point.

‘Ole Sledge is going to be making a presentation entitled, “Selling Out to the Fire Service,” which will examine doing exactly that. Selling yourself out to our beloved job and committing fully to it. I have designed this class to be applicable to everyone from the Explorer or Junior firefighter to the 25+ year vet to the Chief himself. It will examine why we all got into this line or work, why we should have gotten into this line of work, respect for the job, ourselves and our peers as well as those we serve. I will hopefully be able to ignite some fire in our younger members and maybe re-ignite the spark in some of us that have been around the block a time or two. Don’t worry. It won’t be death by PowerPoint or anything. I’m hoping to make it an interesting lecture with stories, true examples and analogies and maybe even some class participation. The great thing about the way Go>Forward has designed the conference is that once I give my witty last line of the presentation I’m not going anywhere. They have built-in a 2 hour block of time for the presenter and the students to hang-out, chat, meet each other, network and ask questions and hopefully learn from each other. I’m excited. I hope to finally meet some of you and to learn from you as well. I really think it is going to be not only worthwhile but a great time as well.

So, go check out Go>Forward’s event page, sign up for the conference and we’ll see you there!

Stay safe!

Hallway Sledge a.k.a………………..?

Company Officer vs. Company Manager

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of the company officer and in particular about what that means in a suburban fire department. Most of us, I would think, work in a suburban department. For the purposes of this discussion lets define suburban as towns with populations less than, say, 100,000 people. Most of our response areas are primarily residential in nature with some commercial spread in and maybe even a little light industry. Others of us are primarily residential and agricultural with pretty wide-open spaces. Either way, we do not respond in what we would term a “big city” district. Why is this significant? Well, in my experience these small to medium-size departments are caught in a conundrum (there’s my second minor in English Lit paying off). Our departments are just big enough to be able to deliver certain levels of service but just small enough not to be able to do them all well or efficiently enough. Training immediately jumps to mind, especially since I am involved with it at my department. We train most every day for 3 hours. The bulk of this training is delivered by the Training Officer who is a company Lieutenant assigned to a regular 24/48 shift. He is assisted by shift-instructors spread out amongst the three shifts. It works ok, but if the T.O. doesn’t deliver the drill on all three shifts then the message may not be uniform for all members. We are just big enough to need and perform training every day on a set schedule with a dedicated T.O. but we are just small enough that we realistically cannot afford a full-time T.O. not assigned to shift and dedicated instructors assigned to a separate Training Division. I would think most of us are in this situation. This problem also bleeds over to the Company Officer position as well.

Most suburban company officers are caught in a difficult position. They are both company leaders as well as pseudo-management. Now, we all know the company officer’s job description calls for managerial skills so why is being a pseudo-manager a problem? I mean it in the sense of upper Administration assigning areas of responsibility and projects onto company officers that in larger departments are handled by staff officers or even civilian employees. For example, my Lieutenant is responsible for both grant writing for our department and Public Education. Arguably both those jobs could be combined to create a full-time position of their own. But, my Lieutenant works shift and takes care of all that while on shift or, quite frequently, at home on his off time. So what does this do to his traditional company officer role? I can tell you that it causes the traditional company officer role to suffer. That is not a slam against my Lieutenant, it’s just the nature of the beast. If you have all the daily paperwork, training, calls, next-shift scheduling, house-duties (ok, that was kind of a joke), spider-solitaire (that was not a joke) and the additional administrative duties thrown in on top there isn’t lot of time left-over for those “traditional” duties. What do I mean by “traditional duties”? Let me ‘splain Lucy.

When I think of a Company Officer I think of someone who is a smattering manager, drill Sergeant, counselor, enforcer and yes, to a certain extent, buddy. But above all else my ideal company officer is a leader. He (and I am using “he” in a gender-neutral way, ladies) is the guy who evaluates his company’s readiness, their abilities and their performance. He drills with them to improve operational readiness and preparedness above and beyond what is mandated by the department’s drill schedule. He keeps his firefighters informed of new trends and tactics and strategies. He is a wealth of experience and information, or if one or perhaps both of those are in short supply, he is wise enough to tap senior members for theirs. He is driven to be better and more knowledgeable and to ensure that his firefighters are as well. He should be someone whom his charges trust and whom they look to for guidance, not someone who is tolerated or largely ignored unless the words, “that’s an order,” cross his lips. That’s my vision of a Company Officer and the one I hope to be someday.

Unfortunately, the suburban fire service is in short supply of those real Company Officers. Whether it be the demands of the shift-level as well as the administrative level responsibilities forcing these officers into a different role or the testing process itself that leads to the promotion of a certain kind of individual I’m not one-hundred percent certain. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. I can tell you two personal experiences that makes me tend to lean towards the promotional process, at least in my area.

The first occurred during a conversation with the Chief (see “Hello World!”, below). During this conversation he was talking to me about the desirable qualities of a leader and how they relate to a company officer. In describing these qualities he made the comment, paraphrasing here, “I mean let’s face it. An officer doesn’t have to be as good tactically because we don’t get fires anymore, right?” I was stunned by this comment and still don’t really know if he meant it the way it sounds or if he was trying to make some other kind of statement which I didn’t pick up on. The second example was the last promotional test for the rank of Lieutenant. During the oral interview each candidate was given five questions. They had a moment to formulate their answers and then deliver their responses. Everyone was given the same five questions. Not a single question was tactical in nature or dealt with any sort of emergency scene management. All five questions were personnel or national standard (2-in, 2-out) based. These two examples, I think, speak volumes as to which kind of company officer our organization desires, and it’s a company manager. Someone who will enforce the rules, regulations and SOP’s of the organization, ensure the proper paperwork gets done, the rigs and house are clean and is able to get special projects done when assigned. Being a tactically sound fire officer, a true leader and teacher is secondary at best. And that is unfortunate.

Perhaps the company manager position in our small to mid-size departments are inevitable for the reasons I mentioned earlier. Perhaps I am idealistic or old fashioned and am not keeping up with the changing face of the fire service. I do not think that the paperwork doesn’t need to get done or that if you are assigned a project that does not directly relate to emergency scene work that it should be ignored. I am not that naive. I do believe, however, that being a true Company Officer should be the main focus. If you operate as a true Company Officer the administrative type things will fall into place.

Stay safe!

Hallway Sledge