The Interaction Contradiction
Updated: Apr 5, 2018
Something that has been bothering me recently is the confusing message we are sending to the younger/newer members of our departments. I keep hearing and reading that anyone, regardless of rank, time, or experience level can have a great idea or change their organization. However, when new members give their opinion they are often cut down for trying to be involved and speaking their minds. Normally, their lack of time and experience is cited as the reason their opinions are not wanted. Please understand that we cannot say one thing and then do another. This constant contradictory cycle creates new firefighters who either become insubordinate or scared to speak up. Over time this can create self-conscious or gun shy members who will make poor decisions while operating. It also produces firefighters who will lack knowledge, fear education, perform timidly, and likely succumb to the status quo because they are too scared of being chastised for having and opinion or seeking clarification. Somehow we have created an expectation that our first day firefighters will show up knowing everything they need to know, but when they try to show us we simply beat them down. It is time to stop being lazy and get back to working on developing our people! We, as an occupation, are sending a very mixed message to our most impressionable members and we need to stop!
Let me first address the “everyone is a leader" phenomenon which seems to be slowly growing in organizations across the country. While in theory everyone is capable of leading, we have a rank structure for a reason. Rather than encourage the guy with 2 years on the job to strive to lead his crew, why not invest in the development of our people so the guy with 2 years on the job has positive role models to teach him the job? We have allowed too many private sector management techniques to infect our operational structure and gotten away from the traditions and paramilitary influence which have helped guide us through situations where there is no time to question orders. Once we engage in battle, the time for conversation has come and gone. There is no suggestion box, question and answer session, or round-table discussion occurring in a dark hallway as we advance a line. Promoting an atmosphere that allows the constant questioning of superiors will simply cause freelancing and insubordination during situations which have absolutely no place for it! I think we are simply ignoring our shortcomings and allowing too many people without a clue to be entrusted with managing and developing those under their command. To compensate we simply say that "everyone is a leader" rather than replacing those who can't hack it in leadership roles with people who can.
While the theory of “you can be a leader at any level of your organization” has some validity, it is being misconstrued into something which results in a lack of structure, insubordination, and undermining of leadership. Although it is true that there is always things that can be improved regardless of who is suggesting the change, I have learned during my career is that you have not matured enough in our craft early on to be as opinionated as many new members are today. Yes, I too was a snot nosed, know it all kid when I started as well, but I also had great role models who put me on short leash and yanked me back to reality anytime I tried to stray too far. They let me make my mistakes and then taught me where I had gone wrong. This is what we are missing in the fire service today! We have too many company officers who are scared to tell the back-step firefighter to shut up and listen. We have too many administrations which are taking that power away from the company officers for the sake of the “kinder and gentler” fire service. There are few things that piss me off more than watching someone with a handful of years on the job ignore or argue with a senior man or company officer while a higher ranking or Chief officer watches and says nothing!
In an occupation which constantly cites safety as the reason for change, we have sacrificed the biggest safety mechanism of all, a rigid chain of command, in fear of liability and complaints! If we are brave enough to mitigate all of the horrible situations our occupation presents us with, why are we no longer brave enough to tell a 20 year old kid to shut up and listen? Why are we too scared to tell the city manager there is a difference between discrimination and putting someone in their place? Why are we more worried about losing our jobs than we are losing our lives when the actions of someone who won’t listen cause a run to go bad? This is the atmosphere being created in our firehouses as we begin to recognize the chain of command only when convenient. The rank structure of our craft is more than brass insignia and flow charts; it is the mechanism that aims to place those with more knowledge and experience in decision making roles. We need to focus more on training and shaping leaders as they promote to company officer than we do on how we can be nicer to each other.
For all the young firefighters out there, these next few paragraphs are for you. I understand you are excited, hungry, and full of great ideas. We were all you when we started and believe it or not we all envy the traits of your character at that age. You are fearless, tireless, motivated, and hungry for the job. You are the workhorses of our crews and organizations and essential to mission success. It is very possible for you to have great ideas, ways to make positive change, and possess traits that will make you the great leaders of tomorrow. However, you haven’t been on enough runs to speak out of turn. You haven’t performed enough repetitions of a skill to be a master of it. You have not put in enough time to blatantly disrespect a fellow brother or sister with 30 to 40 years on the job, regardless of how they are treating you. If you cannot follow the chain of command for stupid things like being picked on or station chores how can we expect you to follow it at 0200 on a multiple alarm fire where I NEED you to listen and not talk?!
We want you to shut up and listen because we want to teach you how to stay alive. We give you shit because we like you and are testing your resolve! If no one is picking on you early on, you have reason to be concerned that you are not liked! Learn the appropriate time and place to interject your opinion. Learn the appropriate way to accept criticism and plead your case. Learn and follow how our traditions, chain of command, and unwritten rules effect how our firehouses run. Solve problems at the lowest possible level and lean on your senior firefighters. Stop being entitled and start working your ass off! We will tell you when you can slow down, relax, or pass certain responsibilities down; you don’t get to decide on your own! You will never know everything, you will never be too good to pick up a mop or wash a dish, and you are only as good as your entire crew; this isn’t an individual sport! The senior men and officers have already proven themselves to get to where they are, you are the one who has something to prove!
It is really easy to get discouraged when you are new because it feels like everyone is trying to bring you down. Yes, we all have assholes who love to pick on new guys. However, we also all have all-stars who will point them out to you and are looking out for you even when you don’t realize it. On the outside it seems like you have more responsibilities than everyone else, but trust me the rest of the crew does more than you see. Never forget that every one of us was in your shoes at some point. We know how you feel, we went through the same things you are, and we grew in our careers by doing the things I have suggested above. Never give up, never give in, and never stop learning our craft. Listen to your superiors, make suggestions or clarify lessons in an appropriate manner/place, and make sure you learn something every tour! You are a part of the greatest job on earth, never forget it no matter how bad things get!
Now it is your turn company officers, you are not exempt by any means! First and foremost let me congratulate you on being put in what I consider the best role in the fire service. You are directly responsible for leading, shaping, managing, and teaching firefighters at all levels of your department. You have also found yourself in a leadership role which still allows you the opportunity to get dirty and fight fire. You have proven (hopefully) that you are capable and deserving of such a position. In my opinion making company officer is the equivalent of having your cake and eating it too. Now in case no one told you, we all know you have a different color lid and brass, we know you have a fancy title, and we know you are in charge so quit reminding us every tour. If you have to tell your crew who is running the show than guess what, you aren’t! Get over yourself and your position because you are simply part of the team. Your crew puts the majority of the labor on their shoulders and makes you look good. Just because they “have” to listen to you doesn’t mean they will or should. Your rank is not an excuse to work less; it is a privilege to work more because you now work for them, your crew! Respect is earned not given!
These new guys are no different than you were when you came on the job. Stop pretending that this generation is the end of the fire service. The only thing this generation is missing is GUIDANCE, and that guidance comes from you! A younger member asking a question is not being rude or insubordinate; it is them asking you to teach them! Stop being an asshole, get off the couch, and feed them knowledge! If you are fed up with everyone getting a trophy, STOP HANDING THEM OUT! It is your job to teach them and that includes when and how it is appropriate to ask questions. It is up to you to set the standard for how things go. Stop telling them that their opinion matters and then telling them they have no business giving one. Either you want their opinion or you don’t. Regardless of which avenue you choose, they need to know why and you need to be consistent. The only person to blame for an insubordinate crew member is yourself. You have many tools at your disposable to fix the problem from remediation to a recommendation for termination. Stop being their friend and be their boss. When things are going bad and they are forced to tap into their training, they won’t care if you were friendly or not.
Stop being too proud to learn something from a first year guy! It is so disheartening to watch someone with 20 or 30 years on the job throw a temper tantrum because someone has opposed them or proven another method to be better. If you want the newer members to recognize your time and experience you cannot act like a toddler every time you don’t get your way! A great idea is a great idea regardless of where it comes from. At some point we have got to put down our pride and do what is best for our crew and community. The younger members have access to a vast amount of information most of us couldn’t have dreamed of when we started. While all of the information out there is not good information, it is our job as company officers to help our people filter through it and select what is good and what is bad. This is done by conducting training evolutions or discussions and encouraging everyone on the crew to give input. The key is setting the standard for when it is appropriate to speak up and when it is not.
I am sorry but I simply don’t agree with the “everyone is a leader” flavor of the month. I think everyone can have a great idea, but without followers there is no such thing as leaders. I believe in setting up systems and procedures which groom and promote leaders. The right people in the right positions know how to grow new firefighters into senior firefighters, and eventually company officers. If your company officers are honoring their leadership role you shouldn’t need leaders at every level. Don’t misinterpret the message of this article; anyone in any position can make a positive impact and improve the team. However, where we are falling short as an occupation is how we extract these ideas and implement them. Find ways to allow your junior members to be involved but still understand their role and place in the crew and chain of command. Furnish methods and training which allow their ideas to be attempted but also show them the other methods you have learned along the way. Give credit where credit is due and remember, just because you are the company officer does not mean you are always right or always have the best way. The key is dictating when and how your crew can go about making suggestions. I am pretty open with my crew, but they also know the situations where what I say goes without question. Figure out what works for your crew!
Everyone reaches a point in their career where their head gets a little too big for their lid and position. I have been there many times in my career and have been fortunate enough to find the advice and experience of some great mentors along the way who have kept my passion and motivation on the right course. It is up to us to stop whining about the way things are going and start implementing solutions to get them back on track. Never forget that we operate with a chain of command for a reason. I see too many places that are showing up with individuals and using freelancing as their primary tactic hidden under the guise of limited manpower. With fires down in many corners of the country, it is more important than ever to make sure we are operating as one cohesive team when a working run comes in! It all starts with setting a standard and developing your people from day one!