Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ernest Hemingway, Poetry, and Firefighting: Yes They Do Go Together

One skill that all firefighters have in abundance is the ability to complain.  That’s not a criticism, but simply a statement of fact.  Rather than go down that road, at least right now, I want to talk about one heartening thing I see in the fire service today;  a group of younger firefighters who are smart, aggressive, respectful of tradition, but progressive in outlook.  I wish this group was bigger than it is, but there is room for growth. 

These troops make up what I hope will become the leadership; the movers-and-shakers of the next generation.  They will have tremendous challenges to address, some of which only time will reveal. 
I want to offer some advice to this group, and most of it has nothing to do with the day to day application of wet stuff on red stuff. 
Let’s start with one of the basics, education; you need to get it.  Yes, you’re busy—some of you have a spouse and young kids.  They definitely need to come first, but it can be done, even if it is one course at a time.  Can’t see the end of the rainbow of a bachelor’s degree because of the number of credits?  Start with an Associates.  Get that done and you’re halfway home.  The question I hear is why? “I can take the fire science or emergency planning classes that interest me.  I don’t need the History, English, Science and other stupid stuff like that for this job.  I didn’t like that crap in high school.  Why should I take it now just to get a piece of paper? “
There are a couple of reasons.  The first, and probably less important is perception.  The more bugles on your collar, the more individuals with degrees you will be dealing with on a regular basis.  While not necessarily right, some of those people make snap judgments based on educational back ground.  If you don’t have one, you automatically start at a disadvantage with these folks.
“Well screw them; I’m just as smart as they are.”  Probably so, and maybe smarter—especially in your discipline, but perception is reality. 
The second and most important reason is that these “crap” courses teach you to think.  Taught correctly, history isn’t about memorizing dates and places.  It’s about looking at the past and trying to figure out what happened and why.  What were the variables that influenced an event?  How did people react?  Has the interpretation of something changed over time?  Any of this sound familiar? 
Science is a bit easier to understand.  Chemistry knowledge is useful for hazardous materials and we use physics, like it or not, on many rescue applications.  It takes math skills to do both the above. 
English; oh no, not that.  I don’t want to waste my time sitting around reading poems or Ernest Hemingway.”  It isn’t about reading, it’s about writing.  But to learn how to write well, you need to read, and the more the better.  Virtually every successful writer will tell you reading is one of the most important things they did (and continue to do) which aids their writing.  The higher you go, the more important your writing skills will become.  If you don’t know the difference between there, their, and they’re, and I see this all the time; no one is going to take you seriously. 
The longer you are out of school, the more difficult it can be to motivate yourself to start again and to remember (or develop) your study skills.  It really can be a great experience.  I went back to school for a Masters degree in my late 40s, and found it challenging…and one of the most enjoyable educational endeavors I ever undertook.  Believe it or not; learning and education should and can be a life long process.
On another topic, it may sound obvious, but you need to develop mentors.  There is a tremendous institutional memory available and ripe for the picking in the old breed firefighters.  This is, however, a perishable commodity.  Use it while it is still on the shelves.  You don’t have to agree with everything they tell you, but it costs nothing to listen.  It is amazing how much can be learned around the kitchen table. 
Develop relationships with ranking officers.  I don’t mean brown-nosing or ass kissing, but a true mutual respect two way street type deal.   Let them know you’re looking to learn, and interesting projects and assignments may come your way. 
Hemingway was an old guy.  Make him one of your mentors.  Follow even some of these suggestions, and the sky is the limit. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Montgomery County, MD Public Safety Valor Awards

A few of my favorite shots from the ceremonies.  Master Firefighter Michael Ryman received a Bronze medal
Mike and Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Chief Richard Bowers

Receiving the medal from Chief Bowers

The Truck 715 Crew:  Master Firefighter Steven Wiseman, Master Firefighter Christopher Reilly, and Master Firefighter Michael Ryman with Chief Bowers

Me and Mike

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Traditionalists Take Note

There are a lot of good things one can say about being considered a traditionalist.  Stability, solid values, and steadiness are among them.  Not all the traits ascribed to this term, however, are considered positive.   Skeptics, intellectuals, and those who think outside the box, are commonly at odds with traditionalists.  The challenge is to combine the best of these worlds. 

In the current environment when many of our communities have decided that they can and will pay only X amount for fire protection; we can do one of two things.  We can take the traditional route and rationalize that our citizens don’t care or understand our needs (it’s all about us, right?) and complain that we can’t provide adequate service and will be endangering firefighter and civilian lives.  Or, we can understand the fiscal realities and explore alternatives in delivery of service, methodologies, staffing, multi-community alliances, on down to tactical changes.  Thinking outside the conventional system to allow us to provide the best and safest services possible within the inherent financial limits imposed by our citizens may result in some positive surprises. 
We need to be open to some “unpleasant” and mind challenging alternatives.  One area is the research and testing completed and still to be conducted on the many hard fast rules of strategic and tactical operations (attack modes, ventilation priorities and methods, etc.) may upset many traditionalists.  We learned these methods through historic experience and development and “know” the correctness of them.  Examining the validity of these “known” truths using scientific and engineering principles won’t change anything; after all, we’ve been successful for years this way.  Some folks may not like these results. 
Care in evaluating the validity of the test protocols and methodology used is vitally important.  After all, a test can be designed to prove almost anything.  But when care is taken to design testing to be as free of bias as possible, we need to give attention to the results, even if they were not what we expected (or hoped) to see. 
Reading a great book about the culture of U.S. Army leadership since World War II (The Generals by Thomas Ricks) got me thinking about much of this, especially after coming across a great quote.  Colonel Paul Yingling, who unfortunately retired after battles with Army traditionalists, noted that “Intellectuals are most valued when the dominant paradigm begins to break down.  In this moment of crisis, the heretics become heroes, as they have already constructed alternative paradigms that others haven’t considered.”  He closed with “…the challenge is to keep the skeptics from becoming extinct.” 
I don’t believe the fire service has reached that point, and hopefully never will.  Abandoning our past and traditions simply for the sake of change is a bad idea, but we all could take a lesson from this and try to remain open and intellectually curious.   Our fellow firefighters and the citizens we protect deserve nothing less.