The Finer Things – Leading Today’s Firemen, One Rung at a Time

Fire skills shouldn't wait for good weather.

Firefighting doesn't wait for good weather. Neither should you.

Its cold out here. Sub zero temperatures are not uncommon and in the mid-winter months, definitely the norm. So doing any kind of training at this time of year can be difficult. There are moments when pain and cold are predominant factors in the fireman’s life here in the North. On days when the mercury is below -20 degrees, we find “in-house” things to do.

So the other day, with little to do other than book work, office work and more office work, it was a pleasant change to have one of the guys come to me and let me know that he wanted to throw some ladders out back. I looked side like out the window at the sun hanging at its highest  point in the winter sky (which really isn’t saying much) and chuckled a bit. “Go for it”.  He enthusiastically headed for the engine bay. You know, I really envy youth. Today’s young guys are just as enthusiastic about firefighting as we were when we came on the job, and although there are differences, that passion is still there, waiting to be ignited by those who love the job.  That’s what I do, illuminate the job and kindle a flame.  Watching it take hold and grow provides incredible job satisfaction.   This department is unique, always at the forefront of the newest generation.  We don’t have the luxury of complaining about them and writing them off.  We have to find ways to be successful with them.

Ground ladders at -20 F

Ladders in the morning...

I watched for a while out the window, then got back to work. Four of my company members, throwing ground ladders outside on the icy ground at -20 is a motivating event. I love it when they take me seriously. There have always been those moments when someone is feeling cagey and whiney and drivels out one of those “we never get to do anything fun” remarks. In the early days I remember never having to deal with that, the earlier generation tackled things on their own. You sometimes had to hold them back a bit. But as the generations change, so do the motivations and enthusiasms. So it felt good to see them out there, in spite of the cold, working at perfecting an art form, a simple set of skills that could make all the difference in a life and death situation.

Perhaps I’m not making myself really clear. It’s not the cold that attracted my enthusiasm. These are tough young men, born and bred in one of the nations toughest climates, those that weren’t born here, tough up or leave.  But it wasn’t that. How many times have I taught ladders, how many times have I said you don’t need me standing there to practice this, to refine this…and now I’m looking out the window at them, working on getting it right, ….without me. It felt good. I felt like a dad watching his sons make a good play.

Leadership isn’t simple, it isn’t something you can define clearly for everyone nor can you simply read about it and make it work. You have to have some trial and error, huge mistakes, moments of mismanagement and disaster. It also helps to have moments of simple rewards. And moments like this.

I’m typing away at the reports on the data base, making a schedule, things that take me away from the company. I want to be with them, knowing it usually takes me to make these drills happen. But not today. Through the window you can hear the ladder scraping along the ice and the subtle “boom” as the fly hits home on the wall. The muffled voices, “Fingers and toes! Clear!” The rungs clunk, clunk on the dogs. Good work.

Glancing out the window, there’s more. I see camaraderie, I see teaching as the senior man steps aside and the junior enthusiastically tries something he’s been wanting to try to see how well he can do it. This is peer involvement in the drill, a learning environment where both confident and reluctant members can foster excellent teamwork. 

There are a few errors, I can’t help it, my eyes grab at these things after so many years like any instructor. But right now, I’m not the instructor, I’m the officer and there will be a time later to correct. Right now, I’m enjoying watching them teach each other and refine each other. Swords sharpening swords.

The Art of Ground Ladders

Ladderwork is excellent "Peer Training".

Being a good leader also involves letting these moments happen.  There are so many distractions now, you have to cultivate the atmosphere that lets them feel free and encouraged to get out and practice the art.  It’s also easy to discourage these attempts and destroy it.  I could get all bent oughta’ whack about the errors I pick up on, or I could be running out there to instruct and correct, I could be looking at the “safety violation” and gettin’ all bent about it. But they don’t need that. We can talk about those things later. Instead, since I couldn’t hold back in my paperwork when I’ve got the sound of lock pawls clankin’ in my ears, I slowly make my way outside after they been at it for a while and simply take a few pictures, smile some and look happy, generally. These are my boys and I do enjoy being their officer.

After a bit, I am too impatient to be left out any longer. I don leather helmet and gloves and we throw a few as fast as we can, with as little communication as we can, to test ourselves together. This brings up from them questions, viewpoints and good discussion. In my experience, this is one of the best ways to achieve information retention.

Leading firemen is never going to be easy, that’s what makes it worth doing.  I love days like this.


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