Why Am I Here? Someone Please Remind Me…

I am a machine…no really..  I tow the line, I represent the department and the service well.  I am the professional.  I keep going, even when they are stacking the cards against me.  At least that’s how I feel sometimes….I’d like to go fishing..But I am a devoted Leatherhead, which means that I will do what is right for the department, for the brotherhood.  I’m not alone in this.  There are many like me.

Fishing is good this time of year!

Its summer.  Summer in the Northland is a beautiful time of year.  Its short-lived and is gone before you know it.  The waters are clear, the sky mushrooms with huge clouds and the Midnight Sun is up forever.  The fish will take almost any fly on the river, life is good.  It’s also the only time we can efficiently train recruits…and again, so much for fishing.  What was that?…Oh, yes,…you spilled your coffee…excuse me..

I did say “Recruits”..yes the bane of my summer existence.  I used to fish, I used to go camping a lot, but for the past nine years, I train recruits.  How did this begin?  Can’t we just put a badge on them and train them on the side?  OJT?  Isn’t that how its done in most places?  Why do I give up my summer, year after year to these people?  What is wrong with me?  Why do I put myself though this?

"In the beginning", my first class of recruits. Photo by Author.

Many years ago, I was tasked with bumping up the level of training given to our recruit classes.   At the time, the deputy chief of the department felt that a little “military bearing” might add something to the quality and help to draw recruits in our direction.  We were doubling the staffing in the department and the deputy chief knew that meant we needed to change.  The DC and I had a talk.  I wanted to be the go to guy.  I thought I could make a difference.  The result was a very intense academy, the weeks sailed by as I threw myself into the effort.  I found that I had the knack.  I had never been a Drill Instructor in the Marines, I was just another Jarhead.  But I discovered a real monster hanging out within, just waiting to come out the first time I stepped in front of a line of recruits.  It was as if an abused child had arrived home to roost.  The first day, the look on the DC’s face was priceless, he looked like he was gonna have a coronary.  I asked him, “You want me to back off?”  He said, “No, I am out of my element, …but I have never seen so much accomplished in so short a time.  Keep it up, I’ll go protect your job!” 

He was good as his word and I kept at it and we had a great recruit class, remembered for the quality it produced.  Officers and firefighters alike agreed, these recruits are well-trained and dedicated.  I heard comments like “I wish I’d gone through an academy like that..” and similar sentiments.  We’d hit the mark.  Also during that academy a chief officer sat and watched with a frown on his face, I asked him what was wrong, he said, “I feel cheated!…I feel like I should have gotten to go through this kind of training.”  We had achieved our goal.  Now to seal it, make it the norm…

But times change, chiefs change, the budget changes, leadership changes.  Everyone liked the quality, but folks weren’t really excited about the tradition and military bearing stuff.  Before long, all that was pushed aside.  Then it would come back in a lesser form a year down the road.  The next year all but gone, then back again.  The lack of para-military efficiency makes it very hard to train 25 – 30 recruits without a lot of problems.  Trying to blend all those personalities into functional firefighters takes coordination.  All too frequently, administrators and chief officers make the mistake of thinking that Firefighter Certification training and recruit training is the same thing.  It’s not.  Introducing recruits to your department’s culture can be done gradually or all at once, but either way indoctrination is a critical part of bringing in new people  and my experience is that when adding large numbers of recruits the hodge podge “Howdy” style fails as wide of the target.  You are bringing in a large force for change, for the good of your organization, its important to control that force.  Without it, …  CHAOS.  These people will be a part of the fire service and your department for a long time, good or bad.  Why wouldn’t you want to get it right?

FDNY Funeral

This isn't the only place where tradition and service play a role. The two combined can help prevent loss of life as well. Photo borrowed from the web, with all due respect.

 Over the next several years, my fellow officers and I struggled through academy after academy, taught on shift, on weekends, disrupting our operational training and everything else.  Every year was different, trying to work out the bugs.  We could still pull off a pretty good academy, but the drain on the department was enormous and the results and quality a mixed bag.

By the time last year rolled around we were on our 9th version of recruit training since I started doing this.   The old DC has long since retired and the support for a highly efficient, para-military recruit training academy was an all but forgotten memory.  “Just get er done!” had become the mantra.   Plow through.  Check ’em off.  We train hard, push ’em hard, get it done…screw the military crap, just get it done.  As I stood in front of last year’s class I thought, “I don’t want to do this anymore..I don’t want to teach anymore” and I began to get very, very tired.  And I wasn’t alone.  For one reason or another, most of the guys assisting and instructing felt the same way.  “I’m done…”  I realized that my desire to keep the para-military standard was not in keeping with what the department wanted.  It was not important to anyone but me apparently, at least I was the only one fighting for it.  I had hoped for nine years that we could get back to really training firemen about the fire service, instead of certification.  But I was apparently missing the mark that had been set.  It’s not welcome here.  So I was finally ready to surrender to reality. 

Why is it important to teach our recruits in para-military fashion anyway?  I am often reminded that other firefighters do fine without it.  What’s the big deal?  Is it just another excuse for power abuse?  It can be.  But in absolute truth, I find that those who are abusive in a para-military system are usually not those who come from highly trained military experience.  It’s usually those who don’t know anything about authority and therefore they use it incorrectly.

"Taking Up the Roofer" a healthy confidence builder for the new recruit. Discipline makes for a safer drill ground. Photo by Author.

Have you ever spent time with Marines?  Let me tell you, they can be difficult.  I R 1.  But spend any time at all with them and you begin to notice something about them that sets them apart.  It’s not that they are better at soldiering, it’s not that they shoot better or are more hard-core.  It’s that they know who they are, where they are going and what they are to do, and they believe in themselves.  They believe they are America’s First to Fight.  So you better step aside..

How do you train a force of some 190,000 men and women to have that kind of attitude?  By instilling in them a sense of who they are, who went before them and forcing them to endure their training to the final goal.. , by letting them see you weed out the weak, and by letting them see you devote yourself to them.  And here’s a gem, ..the people we want, hard-working, driven, self-motivated, capable, mentally healthy people, thrive in such training!  They want us to challenge them!  They want to feel tested, they want to see the weak and unsuited drop by the side, they want to know they are among the finest, the bravest.

The goal of para-military recruit training is not, contrary to myth, designed to create automatons.  Its purpose is to instill discipline and teach untrained novices to function within a system.  Good instructors also instill independent action and thought once the basic rules and policies are well established, they also instill a sense of duty, pride, es spirit de corps, and the beginnings of an understanding of brotherhood.  And none of it ever needs to become harassing or bullying.  Well disciplined instructors do not need to resort to this.  The message and mission are just the opposite.  Create good building blocks through positive re-enforcement, rewarding action and initiative in the right direction, and fostering leadership and teamwork.  If this generation struggles with the ideals of the fire service, then a para-military academy environment is a perfect training ground to teach them what we believe in.

Mentoring is a part of recruit training. Bringing in experienced firefighters to encourage and motivate helps to cross over generational struggles. Photo by Author

But why is that so important to the fire service?  That should be self-evident.  Because, now more than ever, as generational differences and economic hardship are brought to bear, teaching new firefighters who they are, who went before them and how to endure can hold things together in the hardest of times.  We need to be lean and efficient.  You can’t be that way with undisciplined employees.  We need to quit losing our people in costly mistakes and you can’t do that without disciplined officers, you can’t have disciplined officers without training them to be disciplined in the first place, self-motivated, knowledge seeking, goal setting firemen first.  You can’t lead people effectively unless you establish a strong, well-built foundation.  Yes, you can have a fine work force without all that, but that is what it is.  A work force.  And in good times, with lots of $$ and good contracts everyone is happy.  But that is not long-lasting.  People are fickle.  And morale goes in the tank as soon as the good times go away.  The fire service mission isn’t based on whether or not the times are good.  Its based on service in the difficult times.

The Venerable Bunker Drill. Photo by Author

We don’t need the highest paid firefighters (we need firemen paid enough to take care of their families so they can focus on their job), we don’t need the most tricked out engines (although its nice), we don’t need the pimped out fire station (we need to take excellent care of what we are given by the public so we can justify the need for better).  We need good recruits to help us through the tough times.  We need people who will think on their own, abiding by the procedures and policies provided, that will seek to minimize public loss without needlessly costing us lives or equipment.  We need firemen that are worthy of the title.  We need people who will devote themselves to the public good.  That’s what the para-military training style CAN do, if done right and re-enforced on the line. ……. Did you catch that last part?  IF RE-ENFORCED ON THE LINE.  It is all for naught if you don’t walk your own talk.

Enter the new fire chief.  You know that guy, I’ve written about him before.  He’s a Leatherhead, a fireman’s fireman and he wants the job done right.  So we’re trying a different model.  The college will take over the academy, freeing us up to function, we can take the burden off the department, it won’t drain our training budget and our manpower, we just need someone to provide that military polish……

My fishing pole is on the workbench in my garage.  Maybe on weekends.  Recruit school starts in a few weeks.  We’ll hit’em hard the first day out, old school uniforms, growling and marching and “yes sir, no sir!”  The beat of the heel on pavement.  “To slow, …get back!!!”  Respect to the flag, respect to the chief.  They’ll mold or they’ll be gone.  And I am right where I need to be.   Just right now, I’m dreading it.  I’m a creature of the shift life.  I don’t want to get up at the crack of dawn for all those weeks.  I don’t want to give up my company, or to be honest, miss out on any good calls.  But I know when I step in front of the line of recruits that first day, that ole monster will come back and I ‘ll resemble something out of their nightmares and it will all be an act designed to help them come to grips with the life we lead, the sacrifices we make and the duty we embrace for the best job on earth!

"Long days of training" Photo by Author, Prop built by H. McConnell.

Is it the best way to do it?  I don’t know.  I don’t have that answer.  But I believe in it.  I believe that if done right and with good leadership when they move to the line, it makes a high-quality fireman and public servant, and forgive me for asking, ….but isn’t that what we are all about?  Isn’t that what we are paid to be?

Back in that first academy, I borrowed a phrase from an unknown author and I have taught it to every recruit I have had anything to do with ever since.  I teach it to them, then I have them repeat it back, over and over, until it is etched into them.  I want it to stick.  I want it to be burned into them so that when they are faced with hardship, or lack of courage to face down the many issues and challenges we are up against in this modern age, they will not falter, but will remember.

“I am not here for me, I am here for we, and we….are here for them!”

The drill ground awaits.  Fishing will have to wait.  There is work to be done within the brotherhood.  You will know where to find me and you will know whom I have trained.  It will show.


  • Matt VanGiesen says:

    Well said… you’re not alone. There will be many days for fishing when the ones we train relieve us on the watch, and we will fish in peace, knowing they are ready to face the job. Thanks for sharing a great post!

    • You are absolutely right about that, Matt, but with young children and a wife I am deeply in love with, time is of the essense. I never used to struggle with that, but now I do a great deal. So it must be time well spent if it is going to be a cost to my family. Some guys can do this stuff without a blink and seem to go from family life to fire life without skipping a beat, but I don’t think too many. If you’re going to really do a good job, you have to throw yourself into it. That costs time and mental energy in other places.

  • Brother, you are surely the wordsmithing firehouse poet. I love reading your work, it’s always top notch! Like you, I am torn by the duality of my life: Love for my wife and 3 young sons in constant conflict with love for this great profession. Some days I feel like a carnie in the sideshow doing a juggling act attempting to balance it all and keep my world in motion. I spend a great deal of time off duty training new guys and there are surely times it strains the rest of my life, therefore I make it my goal to make the sacrifice of my time for the education of probes worth it. I heard a long time ago this wonderful saying: A fireman is only as good as what he leaves behind. If he’s worth his salt, his instruction to those who came behind him will live longer than his memory ever will. Press on brother, those pike will be there for ya’ ! I ‘d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little jealous!

    • Thanks for you encouragement and empathy Brother! As I have gotten to know many of the firemen across the country that I now have the greatest admiration for I find they fall into three categories. There are those who cannot hold back from the job and they have usually been divorced a time or two because of it. There is also the group that crashes headlong into the job, then pull back almost as much as they put in due to the family reaction. Then there are those who, as you say are juggling both, trying to make it work out for the benefit of both. I also know a lot of fine firemen that simply get off duty and go fishing, …a lot. We then are that condemned few who find it hard to turn away when the tour is over. Find it hard to leave in the morning as our wives stand at the door and the children are sleeping soundly. It is our effort at the firehouse that will help to keep every firefighter coming home to those little ones. Somebody has to make the time. Here’s to your struggle and your young sons! As Matt said before you, it is better that they respect what we do than to resent the fire service because it took us away from them. FTM-PTB-DTRT

  • robfisher72 says:

    Another great article brother!

    Please visit the Mentoring Blog for follow-up discussions on this issue.

    Looking forward to having a beer with you and your chief in Atlanta.

    – Rob

  • Steve Adams says:

    Why are you here ? Easy answer….you are here because it is the time and place that what you are doing needs to be done! I just started reading your blog this afternoon, and I have to tell you – I’m impressed !!!

    I would add for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t know me, that I’m an old fire horse that it takes a lot to impress ! If you don’t believe that, ask the author of this and other fine writing, leatherhead109

    I have been watching the 2011 Academy Class coming together – and am convinced that at the end of the day, when all this grueling traning has been completed, that the final product will far exceed to sum of it’s parts!

    My thanks to you… and to your family as well…

    Semper fi

    • Steve, knowing how seriously you take such issues I am pleased that you approve. My intent here is to throw things out to firemen of like mind, generating thought to bounce off each other and find common ground. Your support and opinion is highly valued. Thanks.

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