It was a good fight. The attack line had followed me into the main room of the warehouse and though we took a beating, we were beginning to see some progress. I had expected a worker with this one on entry. The smoke was dark, lazy and had that murkiness to it that I often associate with burning foam insulation. This job smacked of being the kind of fire you don’t take for granted.
We pushed through what seemed like a hallway and came to a door. I couldn’t feel heat, but behind the door it sounded like someone was tearing the hell out of the place. We made entry into the fire area and we quickly cooled the steel above before placing the line down into the source. There was so much overhead area, it took some time to feel a change in the heat. When it did change, it was punishing. By cooling off the ceiling then hitting the base of the fire, we may have deterred any possible collapse dangers but we also messed up the heat layers and they came at us with a vengeance. We all felt the heat roll over us and come in on our left hard. The skin on my neck and my ear felt the temperature change and I was glad I remembered my ear flaps. Large objects crashed down all around us and although we had no idea what they were, they sounded heavy and menacing. I didn’t want one of my firemen gettin’ smashed by whatever was raining down on us.
Our efforts began to pay off and after retreating to the doorway once to let the fire have its fit, we went back at it to finish the job. But the bottles were running low, the tipman and I were both flashing yellow on our Heads Up display (HUD) and in the new way of the world, it was time for us to work our way along the line and get out for some new air. The playpipe arrived behind me and was ready to open up, and as I passed the fight off to my brother officer, I knew we’d be wrapping it up soon. But being addicted to the job like the fireman that I am, I had every intention of coming back in and finishing the job.
We followed the hose out and before we reached the door you could stand up and walk out. That meant we were making progress. As the two of us emerged from the smoke and stepped passed another one of our boys on the large line in the door way, I looked up to see the new chief of department standing in the snow next to my boss, the battalion chief. The new fire chief was not in uniform and is not a tall man. Everything about him appears to be humble, but confident. The man knows his business. And for the second time that night, the chief was on a fire with us, watching how we do business. Seeing him there, gave me a sense of pride and confidence I hadn’t felt in some time.
I could see that the battalion chief was talking with him and gesturing towards the fire and the chief was nodding his head and responding as chiefs will. I was tempted to go over and eavesdrop, expecting to hear some negative aspect of my efforts inside. The battalion is an aggressive firefighter and we were attacking aggressively, but our efforts to communicate that had not been successful. I could tell he wanted to see us show up on the other side of the structure. We couldn’t. But we were hitting the fire and we were getting results. But it is hard for the fireground commander to see that sometimes. Perhaps I wasn’t being aggressive enough or maybe they didn’t have a fricken clue what we were trying to do in there, but whatever it is, I felt they didn’t really understand the progress we were making. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Such is communication via radio, in spite of the modern age.
Instead of hearing what they had to say, I headed to the side of the truck and called for a fresh SCBA bottle and focused on getting that squared away. I needed to be quick before the other officer’s airpack inside ran too low, he had told me he would need to leave as soon as I got back. I bent over to allow someone to change my bottle. Snot ran down my face and made my mask that much more uncomfortable. I felt very cold suddenly after the heat of the building and the steam hitting the side of my head. The slap on my back to me my pack was ready and stood up, tightened my helmet and looked at the fire building. Smoke was still pumping up from the roofline in back, we weren’t done yet.
I took a deep breath and headed over to where the battalion chief stood to have a face-to-face and hear what he and the fire chief had to say before I went back in. To my surprise as I walked up I heard the fire chief telling battalion, “they’ve got it,.. you’re good.” He had walked around the building himself and could see from outside what we couldn’t inside, that the fire was being hit and knocked down. He seemed pleased and so did the battalion. I was encouraged to push hard and finish it off and sent back in. Battalion gripped my arm, leaned close to be heard over the engines, “Do you need anything?” I was asked, and really I was unprepared for such a question..
When was the last time a fire chief responded to your efforts with “You’re doing great! What can I do to help you?” You hear tales of good leaders and stories about “the Chief” and how he was well liked or really knew what he was doing, but how often do you hear stories about a chief that listened? How many new chief officers take over in their first few weeks and start things off by taking off your leash and saying, “All right, get on with it, you know your job. Lets see you do it!” There wasn’t any “Well, I can’t let you do this or that…”, no excuses why things can’t be done, no “Next time…”. Just the opposite really, “Lets not dwell on what when wrong before”. For the first time in a very, very long time, I feel set free to do my job. And that night, during that fire, it was obvious how well such freedom can produce results. Not that we wouldn’t have put the fire out under someone elses guidance, but we did a really good job under difficult circumstances, making decisions that we wanted to make, in the manner that we felt would work best and we knew the boss was pleased. And even more so, the new fire chief. I must say that felt really good. He didn’t say anything about how “he would have done it”. He just smiled. But that environment where the battalion was allowed to create such freedom had to in turn be supported by the chief and that is where the difference is.
I’ve waited two decades of service for this. That’s a long, long time. I’ve known really good leaders, I’ve known men I wanted to work for, I have worked for some guys I really respected, but just right now, this moment, I am finally working for two men whom I know have absolute confidence in me and respect for the firefighter that I am and they continually show it. It feels a little bit like when you’re sucking that last bit of air in your SCOTT and you finally whip that mask off and get that fresh breath of invigorating air. Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. A good firehouse story is always best with some embellishment. But no, not this time. The new boss is really one of the best chief’ officers I’ve ever met. The rest of us can’t help but move forward toward his level of leadership.
It’s sad to think that good solid leadership principles are so hard to come by, and I’m really only using one example here, there are so many that could be used. But when you think about it, where are the training courses that teach officers to be honest, have integrity, loyalty, diligence, selflessness, openness and releasing your people to do their very best. That takes confidence. Confidence is created by allowing people to do what they have been trained to do, letting them make mistakes and not being afraid to trust them with your reputation. Such training courses just don’t exist in the fire service today. At least, not in the official training manual.