“Iron Sharpens Iron”: Company Officers in today’s Fire Service

Hey Brother,….The Good Book says in Proverbs, that “iron sharpens iron..” meaning that iron in one form can be sharpened by iron in another form (like a file).  It goes on to say that in a similar way,  good friends build each other up. Sometimes by being brutally honest with each other.  A skilled, attentive fire officer is much like that with his company.  Observing, critiquing, suggesting, …disciplining, but all the while remaining a “Brother”.  Like a file taking the burrs from an axe blade.  What kind of officer are you? Do you “hone” the firemen you lead?  Or are you like a grinding wheel, gouging, burning, removing too much steel?

Solnit Shoe Co. Fire, 2/22/1958, Truck 28 and Engines 6 and 10. Used with Permission www.LAFire.com

Years ago, before the world changed, Rescue 2 FDNY was headin’ back to quarters after yet another job (Rescue 2 had 2548 runs in 2001).  Author Tom Downey writes in his outstanding book, “Last Men Out”¹, that as the Rescue unit rolls through the city streets  Captain Philip Ruvolo is contemplating the current state of officer development within what is arguably one of the busiest companies in the nation.  The thought process went something like this, “We don’t get as many fires anymore, how am I going to prepare the next officer to take my place?”

As a young Captain in my small city, on the edge of the world, I read that and asked myself the same thing, but …with a twist.  If Rescue 2 can’t find enough consistent work to train an up and coming officer, how will I?  When I became an officer it was, “Without more fires, how will I gain enough experience?”  That was a long time ago.  We get some good working fires.  Between the city department an ours we see a healthy number.  But enough consistency to train new officers?  Nothing doin, not without that upcoming officer spending a few years.  In time experience comes.  Fortunately, there is more to officer training than going to fires.  Far more.

I was lookin’ at the above photo the other day.  I had asked the webmaster of LAFire.com to permit me the use of his site’s large photo collection sometime back earlier this past year.  This is one of my favorites.  When you look into the past like this, there is so much to see, especially if your ole’ eyes have been around awhile.  I love the fact that their totin’ a big line “up ‘ar” at the tip.  I’m sure they didn’t love it at the time.  but that was what the job required then.  This picture was taken in Los Angeles in 1958.  If you’re a history fanatic like me, I’m sure you’re pickin’ the “pic” apart as we speak.   But one of the things that draws my eye is the amount of firemen on that ladder.  It looks like everyone except the chief is workin’.  That’s what I call adequate manpower.

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"What kind of leader did you have to be to succeed with these elder brothers of ours? I'm for figuerin' it weren't easy. Iron men." Photo by A. Fellig. The Gordon Archive. Used with Permission.

Another thing that crosses my mind..What did it take to lead such men?  I’ll let you sip your Joe for half a mo’ and work that one over in your head.  Think about it.   1958.  Not a few of these guys are Korean War vets, I’m sure.  The older ones are likely personally familiar with WWII.  What kind of leader did you have to be to succeed with these elder brothers of ours?  I’m for figuerin’ it weren’t easy.  Iron men.

Now, I’ve done some reading and I’ve spent more than a little time studying this thought.  I know from my own experience and more than a few old books that poor leaders and good leaders abound in every regiment, every ship, every government and certainly in every fire house.  Excellent leaders, now that’s another thing.  Part of the reason for this has always been the lack of leadership training that should be taking place, but doesn’t.  Two predominant methods of teaching fire officers exist today; learn as you go and learn by rapid one to two week certification course provided by IFSAC or another like entity.  The current state of on the job training is sluggish at best for most of us.   Our call volume of working fires has dropped significantly.  The valuable thing about working jobs is that you not only learn to use effective tactics to achieve extinguishment, but we learn to “guide” our team to accomplish the goal.  We’ve all known officers that were good at cleaning the house, good at keeping the rigs clean, experts at technical stuff, but lacked the ability to lead where integrity or ethics count, or when their adrenaline is up or the situation calls for conflict “management” with subordinates.  These deficiencies can be overcome, but it takes time, learning self-discipline, understanding people and how to communicate.

Back in the day, you didn’t have to be good at leadership.  Shear physical mass could get you by.  Fists could get you by.  Seniority is always a sure win.   Or if you weren’t physically impressive, technical smarts could do it.  Then there were (and still are) those who get into position through personality, which in my book, doesn’t add up to leadership potential.  At least not automatically.  I imagine in some houses, its still that way, right or not.  There is something to be said for the old ways.  I had a SSgt. in the Marines that regularly wiped up the floor with me.  His punch felt like the kiss of a Mack truck.  The lessons in self defense continued, without explanation or “critique” for months from the moment I met him until I finally overcame my timidity of rank and struck him back in a way that earned his respect.  Why he chose me out of ten or fifteen other Marines I don’t know.  But he taught me an incredible lesson.  “Don’t make excuses, fight back, or suffer the consequences”.

Sometimes I think about those days and get so frustrated with the fact that I am forced to lead without having the privilege of taking the smart-assed punk out to the “Whiskey Locker” to enforce my will.  Not only is it not an option, but it is no longer a method I can respect.  Times have changed long ago.  Instead, firefighters must lead by example, good, clear communication and by skill.  A much harder way to get results, requiring a much different kind of leader.  I’m not saying quality leaders didn’t exist back then, its just that such leaders have always been the exception, rather than the rule.  I can still remember looking up from the floor as the “Top” walked by on his way to his office, fully aware and ignoring the fact that one of his Marines was receiving a “lesson” in the old way.  If this happened to other Marines in my Squadron, I do not remember.  But that SSgt. was not your average Aviation Marine.  He thought and acted much like a Marine infantryman (which I believe made his life away from the workplace hell) and it was to this standard that he wanted me to live up to.    He was one of two Marines in my service that took a second look at me and intentionally chipped away at my character, ..incessantly.  I have been forever grateful.  The officer I am, the leader I try to be, the endurance I put forth comes in no small part, from those two Marines.  Many other influences as well, no doubt, but they played a valuable role.  Using pain, they taught me not to fear my mistakes, but to move beyond them.

Fighting Fire in as much as -40. We still make firefighters out of Iron...From a photo by D. Waisenan

The difference today, twenty-five years later, is that I do not have the privilege, nor the right to physically or mentally attack the members of my company in order to get my way or teach them lessons.  Throwing fits, verbal harassment, intimidation, bein’ a spaz, avoiding confrontation at all or placing blame on the chief are also not acceptable choices.  Developing your skills as a leader is the key.  And further, realizing that the study of leadership is not only a study of yourself, but even more a study of the people you lead and what makes them tic.  Cluing into that opens the doors.  Once you see what’s there, you realize that true leadership takes some humility, fortitude and a dose of courage.  For some of us, the path to becoming a good leader is littered with mistakes and failed attempts.  But you keep moving forward.

So, …leadership skills.  What are those?  Leadership skills are the gathering of natural talents, traits and nuggets of experience you bring to the job of Company Officer that make it possible for you to be affective.  Simple enough.  Ah,…where are they?  Are they in a file drawer?  Did you leave them at home?  Are they supposed to be issued? Have you checked your pockets?   Oh,…yes, I see.  Its management’s fault.  Its Facebook, its Xbox, volunteerism isn’t what it used to be, its the Generation Y folks, its all because you can’t take ’em out back and work’em over like we used to do!  Yeah…

So often, “Leadership” training focuses on decision-making, administration, incident command, size-up, yada, yada all necessary… but so little is devoted to the meat and potatoes of leadership.  The actual leadership of men and women you are responsible for.  The reasons for this state of affairs are many, but instead of blame, lets examine the affect for a minute;  lack of trust, lack of faith in subordinate’s skills, decrease in company motivation and lack of self-confidence in the company and department as a whole.  Low morale, bad attitudes…  Nasty enough?..Like residue from a really bad cup of coffee.

It is incumbent on each one of us who is appointed as an officer, to LEAD our people, not drive them, not to let them drive us and not to abdicate our role.  One of the finest traits of the American fire service has been the handing down of knowledge on how to do the job.  This should include how to lead our people.  In today’s fire service, that is no small challenge, and modern culture, Facebook, texting, special individuality and all the other distractions are major factors.  But it all boils down to your willingness to become a part of their lives.  After all, you live together, you may die together, your influence in their lives may save your own life at some point.  Engage them, show interest in them, challenge them, inspire them.  Don’t know how?  Learn.  Find a mentor and learn what to do.  I have been told that leadership(the way I speak of it), won’t work in this department or that department..”it just isn’t that simple”, “they’re too stubborn”.  True, its never simple and yes, many departments possess a challenging mix of old dogs and dedicated shift lawyers, but leadership principles work regardless of age or experience of those you are proposing to lead.  Your talents, traits and skill in the application of those principles is what defines the leader and makes him or her successful.

The "Lost" Book of Leadership, Seek it out. Photo by author.

We’ll talk more, there is much more to discuss on this topic.  But for now, I challenge you to examine yourself.  What kind of leader are you?  What kind of leader do you wish to be?  How do you find your way there?  One place to start is by consuming information about the Art of Leadership itself.  Unfortunately, few “Fire Service Leadership” classes and  texts are really about leading firemen.  They’re usually about the nuts and bolts of managing resources.  Many that are touted as leadership “training” are really about getting your employees to bring you better profits, written from a business point of view.

Yeah, ..thanks.   We need books written for F-I-R-E-Fighters…But things are beginning to change.  I recently proof read a manuscript that I think will help if people are willing to read.  Plus there are some great mentoring efforts going on among the Brotherhood.  Great articles are being written every day on the web by the brothers that are doing the job.  It crosses my mind that to tell the folks that read this blog to “read about leadership” may be preaching to the choir.  But you’d be amazed how many people can’t sit still and read books anymore.  If its not on a screen, it doesn’t get read.  And among the old dusty books of the old World, there is one no longer printed, that shines above all others.  “IFTSA Leadership in the Fire Service“.  Hard to find.  You should seek it out.  In its pages you’ll find that although printed first in the early 1960’s, it contains everything you really need to be a leader of firemen in the year 2012.  The struggles with leading people change in subject matter, but not in human terms.  People are still just people.  Male and female, firemen are firemen.  You’ll find it in the fire department training library, stuck between shelves, yellowed cover, and it hasn’t been read since the beginning of the Vietnam War.  Ok, that’s pushing it, but you may be one of the few people to crack the cover…

¹Downey, “Last Men Out”  T.  Holt, Henry & Company, Inc. 2005

6 Comments

  • L.Hodges says:

    Theres so much I want to say,but I’ve started this comment over three times now. The jis is I try to do the right thing day in and day out. On shift and off shift. I was once told by an old timer that “We are always being watched”, that for every 100 things we do right, we’ll be called out on the one thing we do wrong. My personality, my ethics, my morals come from my up bringing. Treat others the way I want to be treated with respect and honor. That going to bed physically tired is a good thing and more of it is needed with the younger generation. That Leadership is doing the right thing when no one is around. Its not always easy, but thats what makes a Leader. As a Leader we must set the example and live the example otherwise we’er just out taking a walk by ourselves.

    Thank You for your time and thoughts Cap. your words are truly understood and are taking action in many.

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Brother Larry,

      Thank you for your comments. Even more so, I thank you for pointing out what is so important, that the words reach the intended target. Without someone taking them in and receiving them, acting on them, they are just empty words. Glad to know you are back on duty and feeling like your old self!

  • Roland M. says:

    I actually read this on shift while drinking a cup of joe, Ben…..one of my EMT trainees came in and read part of it-he said “Sounds like you when you talk to us post-incident”

    I said. “Not hardly. This man gets truly it.”

    Gabe (the kid) ” You get it too, Sir. You guide us and you teach us out there and in here. Jackie (another one of my trainees) said the other day in class that you really understand what we feel and how we feel-you teach us to think.”

    I didn’t know what to say to that remark, Ben. All I had in HM A school and FMSS were great instructors and leaders….I just learned from them and from experinence.

    BTW – Happy New Year to you.

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Hey Roland,

      Sorry I didn’t see this comment earlier, I would have been quicker on the response. Good leaders inspire those around them, throughout their lives. While we grow as leaders, we sometimes have greater affect than we did before. Sometimes during the growing process, I have found there are some seriously humbling moments when I fail to apply what I have learned and when I was younger, tilting at windmills. We are always watched, whether good leaders or poor ones. I’m glad you have been blessed with people who not only recognize your quality, but care to encourage you in your endeavor to guide them. ..And Happy New Year!

      Ben

  • Roland M says:

    Not a problem, Ben.I know you are busy up there.

    I recall one of my early mentors-a guy named Vic Norris……he told me once “I can teach you or anyone the skills to be a Corpsman; I can’t make you succeed as a Corpsman. You have to do that yourself.”

    I didn’t really understand what he meant back then. I do now…..the job back then and now is not just teaching-it is getting them to learn and trust in themselves and each other.

    Sometimes Ben that means you have to look mighty deep inside yourself to put in a perspective they can understand and use.

    One of the biggest kicks I have is when they get “IT”-I am sure you know what I mean.

  • Hudson Babler says:

    Cap,
    I just wanted to let you know that due to this post I was inspired to search out that IFSTA text. I finally purchased and received it this week. I have to agree with what you wrote about in regards to this book, this is a great text and it is disappointing that it is no longer in print. Keep up the good work and stay warm as it gets cold up that way.
    Hudson

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