I Will Be My Brother’s Keeper

* Image from Brodin Studios, Inc.

“You’re an a$$hole,” he seethed at me from behind his mask. “Sorry,” I replied as he made his way back out the window and onto the ladder he had just come off a minute before. I followed and held onto his SCBA straps as a safety. We didn’t need to hurt anyone for real during training. He went down a couple rungs and then looked back up at me again through his mask. Our eyes met. “You’re a dick!” I just waved, sighed and pulled back into the room waiting for the replacement crew to come rescue the victim that this now-burned firefighter could not. “Not my fault you took your gloves off,” I thought.

“This is stupid. This is going to get someone hurt,” was one of the first complaints I heard regarding a floor collapse prop I had built. “So how do we realistically prepare you for going through a floor and what to do to get out?” was my reply. “I’ve been here 26 years and haven’t come close to going through a floor yet! Be smart about it,” was the answer. “Congratulations,” I said. “I’m glad you’ve made it that long and haven’t had  any issues but you might five minutes from now. Or one of these new kids might in a day or a week and we need to train them as best we can to be ready to handle it.” The other firefighter took a long pull from his cigarette (don’t get me going on that dichotomy), shook his head and said, “It’s a bad idea.” We used the prop and did the training anyway.

“What would you do ‘Professor’?”

“Hey! Super-fireman! We need your expertise over here.”

“It’s easy to set up a sh*&$y drill when you don’t have to do it, huh?” (I’ve always done a drill I’ve set up, just for the record.)

It goes on and on. So why do those of us that stick our necks out in the training realms, be it at our department or in print, video or digital media, subject ourselves to the potential for conflict, frustration and occasional abuse? Because we have committed to being our brother’s keeper. And so should you, training staff or not.

I could have over-looked my brother taking off his gloves in drill. There was no fire in the room, no heat. But would I just be reinforcing bad behavior by doing so? Would I be letting him down in the future when he did it in a real fire without thinking and actually burned his hands? I would not be acting as his keeper if I hadn’t “burned” him and then followed up with a discussion later.

I could have just put another PowerPoint together talking about case studies where firefighters have been injured or killed in collapse situations and then gone over mayday procedures. But would that have been as effective as actually subjecting my brothers to a realistic drop; that moment of panic; in full gear; that disorientation and then making them call the mayday and manipulate their PASS and get out of the situation? If I did I wouldn’t be as good a keeper of my brother as I could be.

What if I just shied away from any sort of uncomfortable confrontation or corrective action? What if I just took the easy way out of every situation that required an instructor to stand up and say, “Stop! We need to talk about this.” Would I be acting as an advocate and protector of my brothers and sisters? Or would I simply be acting as a chump who wants some extra pay to do training, or some brownie points or whatever other selfish reasons people find to get involved not just with training but with other “extra” jobs around work?

This does not pertain just to me, however. Or to any of you who are training officers or instructors. It should pertain to all of us. Each and every one of us should be our brother and sister’s keeper when it comes to training and knowing our jobs. We should be holding each other accountable for our actions and knowledge. If you see a brother or sister that may not know the correct operation of a particular tool, offer to go over it with them. If you have a particular “thing”; EMS, pumping, ropes and knots, SCBA, whatever, pass on your knowledge every chance you see to those that are weaker in those areas. It is not just up to your training divisions and its staff. It’s up to each of us. We are all each other’s keeper’s. Or at least we should be.

I’ve said it in other posts and I’ll say it again. This job is too important to be taken casually. We need to be as absolutely proficient in every aspect of this job that our individual departments are responsible for. If we are not, we will be letting Mr. or Mrs. Smith down when we do not have the knowledge, cannot use a tool or perform a skill that is required in a given situation. Worse yet, we may not be able to do so when one of our Brothers or Sisters needs us to perform for them. And to me, that is unacceptable. That is why I continue to stick my neck out. That is why I continue to take the ribbings, good natured or not. That is why I continue to take the scrutiny that this blog is subjected to. Because maybe, just maybe, someone picks something up that makes them a better firefighter and may help them or someone else on the job one day. I am committed to being my Brother’s, and my Sister’s, keeper. It’s the way it is supposed to be. It’s what this job was based on.

Are you in?

Be safe!


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!