Swimming in the Current, Standing Like a Rock.

The following diatribe is written poorly at a late hour.  My sincere apologies.  But I would like to take the time to dedicate this declaration to the five highly dedicated firemen that have helped me this far acting out the foriegn roles of drill instructors.  They have followed my lead, endeavored to meet it and have succeeded.  Without them, the span of control would be way out o’whack!

Well, I can’t complain. When the moment comes, you swim with the current. I think Thomas Jefferson said that. I saw it on . Sno. 7’s mentoring page and I have to admit, although not a big “Tom Jeff” kinda guy, I do admire that particular sentiment. I like the second part best. “In matters of principle, stand like a rock.” I can dig that.

Morning Inspection and Drill, "Ears! OPEN! Eyeballs! CLICK!"

The Academy is in its third week and so far we have done exceedingly well. This academy is fast paced and those not prepared have difficulty staying in the current. We hit them hard the first day, flushed them out to stand the line like a herd of cattle. From that moment on the pressure has been on and they have more than risen to the occasion. I have to admit, my tenth class has grown on me a bit. They’re good young men. Not all in shape, not all even first string, but their desire to not only achieve, but also to understand and overcome the challenges before them has as a group surpassed many I have known in recent years.

In this class, we have one who survives a father who has fallen in the war, one has lost his father to illness, one who returns to the structure side of the house from wildland and is by far the old man of the class. One who is so young he can’t find whiskers for shaving, one who has been flying aircraft with his father since he was five and another who is taking his third basic course because having moved to Alaska, he feels he cannot afford to leave anything undone and why not start at the beginning and get it right, his career will be the better for it. Who can’t win with such fine young men? We have them from California, Oregon, Washington and our own L.A. (Lower Alaska). We even have a feller with a Southern drawl and he hails from North Carolina. We call him Elvis though.
But I digress. Things are going along well.

The senior officer must set the example, establish respect and authority, but have a realness and humanity. We are not soldiers, ..we are public servants.

My job as Drill Master has been rewarding. Marching is going well and discipline is excellent. Morale is high and visible demonstrations of team building within the individual squads are showing more and more every day.  Strangers have begun to bond.  In the third week, I now have to hunt for reasons to administer the beloved set of mountain climbers or push ups. Today a hook was left tines up, safety hazard, they all paid. Yesterday a squad leader was late, they paid.  But the point is, I have to hunt for infractions. Day one, infractions were so numerous we had done 90 push-ups by lunchtime. Now I’m hard pressed to get in twenty unless I’m dishonest about it. These guys are squared away.  But once again, the point is..why? What is it that makes them submit to this? I thought this was the generation that is wedded to Facebook and their I-phones. I haven’t heard a phone buzz or jingle since I outlawed them on day one. Only the program assistant’s phone interrupts everything as he takes yet another order for supplies on the Vent Prop.
So what is it that is working here? Could it be that I am such a phenomenal instructor? Am I so fearsome that they dare not defy me? Don’t bet on it. It’s just not that simple. It isn’t that we set the bar high, although that’s part of it. Could it be the opportunity to work in the frozen tundra streets of Alaska? I don’t thinks so.

Using even some of the youngest but most enthusiastic and hardest working firemen in our department gives the candidate someone they can relate to and ask questions of and expect some measure of empathy and camaraderie.

We are succeeding so well because of many things that are sewn together into the fabric of what we are doing. The department and the college are of one mind. I and my cadre represent the department. The program head represents the school. We are working to support each other. Clear expectations are laid out and each Candidate agrees to them or leaves at the beginning to go be a plumber.  A high bar has been set. Failure is a possible option, not everyone is cut out to be a firefighter. My cadre and I are committed. We speak with clear, loud and authoritative voices, Candidates are expected to move out with due urgency.  Rank is respected, but not worshipped.  Seniority is respected but not an entitlement to abuse, first names are not used.  We ourselves represent and display what we wish to see. Every day, for two weeks straight we have represented the structure of the engine company in the firehouse and operated in a similar fashion. Senior men are respected, work is delegated and channeled towards the particular strengths of each drill instructor. The candidates see this.

Drill Instructors, representing the department are integral to the Academy. They set the standard even more so than the senior officer. These are the ones we want them to emulate.

Mistakes made by the candidates are rapidly addressed and failure by the individual is dealt with quickly without humiliation. We have passed a small part of our authority onto the Guide and Squadleaders. They in turn are encouraged to set the bar high within their small company.  With no recourse to discipline or eject a non-performing member, leadership must be achieved through developing successful traits.  You either sink or swim. 

There is no abuse.  All actions are taken for the good of the Academy Company, the Squad and the individual.  We expect them to succeed and encourage them daily to do so.  If one of them should fail, it will not be because we didn’t provide them with every measure of help.  Even while issuing a fresh ration of mountain climbers or push ups “until I get tired” we are actually encouraging them to reach further to succeed.  We do not humiliate them or treat them like second-rate citizens.

And every day, we stop, I call “Tailboard” and all the structure disappears for a few minutes.  They gather around me, a guest instructor or the Chief and we take our rank off.  We discuss values and qualities that make us “firemen” versus just “firefighters” and why our profession is so different.  We talk about tradition, history and remembering fallen brothers.  And on the wall the Candidates themselves had been required to define Honor, Integrity, Duty, Judgement and Fortitude.  Some of these words they have never even heard in use before.

I don’t know.  Maybe it is all a waste of time as they nay-sayers insist.  Maybe so.  I really don’t know.  Its late, we’re going into action again in the morning with hose lays.  I can’t spend any more time writing.  Coffee will taste good in the a.m.  I’ll tell you this though, we are making waves and people are stopping to gawk.  The proof will be when they have blended into our departments and shown their metal and how they learned to love the job.

Para-military drill fosters the team work and coordination for greater and more important things. Ladders UP!

Anyone can teach you to pass the test and get a certification.  But it takes a far greater effort to create young firefighters with the hearts of firemen.  This generation has not known or understood the idea of suffering for the greater good of the common man.  Unless they have served our country, that is not what our society has taught them.  So it is up to us to do it.  They are willing to embrace the job, but you have to lead the way!

You know  the DC that helped me start this back in the day, you remember.. in my previous post, “Why Am I Here?”, he stopped by the other day to talk with a few of the candidates.  He heard me barking and a smile came to his face.  What memories.  He still believes we were on the right track back in that first class before the bomb dropped.  He stuck by his principles.  I have stuck to mine.  And here we are again, having stayed afloat in the current for a decade, given new life by a new chief and new program head, and twenty-two highly dedicated young men.  I think we are doing the right thing and as a Leatherhead, no less can be expected.  See you on the drill ground, Brothers.  I’ll have a fresh cup o’ joe ready for you…

Love what you do! The Senior Drill Master must be enthusiastic and create an environment for learning, but also for pursuing excellence. But most important, must demonstrate honor, integrity and fortitude himself, or no one will buy into it.

1 Comment

  • Steve Adams says:

    Good writing following great performance. No room for wondering if what you are doing is important – it is ! And every youngster would benefit from this type of training, in whatever their future efforts. You are teaching values that will hold every one of them in good stead in their futures, and I hope some day each of them will contact you and thank you for helping them succeed.

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