Rocket Propelled Fire Engines and Leading Up In Front

“You young men of the department today will perhaps see fire apparatus propelled or driven by a rocket, and many new evolutions to fight fires. In time to come the lessening of fires by fire resisting material will cut your work down. Yes, we men of 1909 have lived to see rapid advances in fire work, just as you will see. So time and the world travels on.” – CAPT. H. J. GRIFFIN, LAFD Retired*

Live burn training per NFPA. New studies by UL involving fire behavior and ventilation practices are revealing important fire dynamics affected by modern fire load and building construction that every fire officer should be familiar with. Tupperware can change your life….Photo from Author’s Collection.

To fight fire. Its never been an easy job. Oh, we will admit, not all firefighters have to work at the same level of intensity on a regular basis. But when there is a job to get done, its a job. Fire is an impartial taskmaster. There are houses that have never ceased to be busy, in spite of economic change, always work to do. When I was new to the job, the Loo told me to get to a busy house and I managed to start off in one, but as I have moved up in rank there have many hours in various houses, waiting and waiting for the call to come in. If you’re not living in a Metropolitan area, you are unlikely to have a working fire per shift, let alone two. Although, even in small cities, there are days….Sit down. Coffee’s hot, pour yourself a cup and we’ll talk some more about these things called “Leadership Principles”.

Leadership Principle #2 Be technically and tactically proficient”

The officer and men of LAFD’s Engine 36 in the year 1915. Used with permission. The Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Archive,

Maintain a high level of competence in your fire profession throughout your career. If you’re on the truck, be a top shelf Truckie! If you’re on the Engine, make it your passion! If you’re like me and you run on a Quint, you best be good at both! Your proficiency will earn the respect of your firefighters. All of us, regardless of the number of runs we log, are responsible to our members for the level of proficiency we provide to them. Back in the days of old, when our job consisted primarily of fire runs, the list of competencies was minimal compared to today. But proficiency to some degree came with the job back then. Knowing how to fight fire was similar to most blue collar trades. Constant repetition of skills and technological advances taking place at a moderate pace in the work place, enabled a hard working stiff to move up in the ranks with time in,.. perhaps some schooling on the side. No school like the old school. Hard work, a lot of guts. Plus many of these men had worked other trades and that experience was brought into the fire house. Looking among old photos of crews lined up for a pride shot, there is a mix of ages. Sometimes the company officers are surprisingly youthful. Usually these men are marked by a confident look in the eye. Others are middle aged, looking tolerant and gruff and so is the Chauffeur or Engineer. The hose jockeys are often very young and full of mischief, helmets and hats tilted at a rakish angle. Those are things that haven’t changed much due to the nature of the job and the kind of people it attracts. But what has changed is the place where the job is done and the wide range of knowledge that the officer must master. Leadership remains an art, a skill that you must develop to be a leader of firemen. True yesterday and still very true today.

The crew of Engine Co. 27, also taken in 1915. The two men in front are the officers, the whole crew is fairly young. Used by Permission. The Los Angels Fire Department Historical Archive.

Part of that leadership skill is maintaining your tactical and technological edge. Not only your skill as a firefighter, but your knowledge of the profession is observed and tested by the men and women you lead. They expect you to have a solid foundation in such things, they have been led to believe that you do. They are a little disappointed when that foundation isn’t there. Such are the things an officer must do to earn the respect and cooperation of those he or she leads. Being knowledgeable and proficient in the job is one of the primary ones and sadly is often one of the first to slip. And we get away with it for a while. I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. I know there are many excellent officers out there. I applaud the example they set. But there are also many who spend there days doing everything except preparing themselves for the test to come. If you’re in a small town, the chances of your knowledge being put to the test in front of the crew (or worse; leading to their injury or death), are reduced. If you’re in a big city working on the edge of “Crack St. and Central” then the chances of your knowledge and proficiency being tested are certainly higher, but usually in a focused area. In my first due, it isn’t the fully involved structure that concerns me, its the room and contents fires, the basement fires, the lightweight construction.. those fires, will test me. And that is just the fire end of this business. A small town fire officer must excel or be well versed at being an EMT or a Paramedic, NIMS, Hazmat, extrication and technical rescue, an instructor, and familiar with an ever expanding set of technologically advanced equipment. The list is long.

I’m probably preaching to the choir on this one. After all, if you’re reading this, than you’re probably already lined out in this department. But be careful. Complacency creeps in on even the best of us. Fighting the inevitable lack of desire to keep moving forward is critical for the “Battle Ready” officer. I don’t always like the changes I see, but I don’t want to be left behind in the dust, either. So I purposely focus on the things that are most likely to affect the people I lead and the job we do. The changes Captain Griffin referred to back in 1944 have already come about in so many ways. Although he was off a bit on the rocket propelled fire engines, he wasn’t that far off, .. was he. Change is happening constantly now. We have to keep up. The lives of your crew members may depend on it. Even though they may never give voice to it, their confidence in you and their respect for you is based in some part on your mastery of this job. You convey that mastery by being open and honest with them about what you do and do not know and what you are doing to improve. A good example of this is the work that Underwriter’s Laboratories has been doing: There is some very valuable information revealed here for any officer to take note of. How many have? Perhaps not as many as you might think.

There are officers who put up a fantastic front. Their convincing mastery of the profession is based on their behavior around the fire station, perhaps a reputation for being extremely aggressive at fires, being the tough talker or just simply getting lucky over the years. But where previous generations of young firefighters were willing to work hard, put up with verbal abuse and risk their lives without asking why, this generation of young people is a little different. They are also not afraid to work hard, not afraid to risk their lives. But they are not inclined to listen to bravado unaccompanied by action and they also like to know the why…they like to feel as though you value their view of things and can offer them a valid reason as to why something is or is not done a certain way. Many of them are better read on tactics and the latest studies than the older crowd, and they like to show that knowledge off. If you aren’t up to speed, you will not be able to offer wise counsel on the value of the latest article or blog post. Like it or not, this is how they function today. They will be able to “fact check” you on the web before you can finish blowing smoke up their backsides. Many officers are so busy with the business of administration these days, that they have little time or energy left to take on new tactics and new technology. Just when you felt like you had learned it all and you could relax a bit, they go and introduce something new on you. Then there are those of you who received your bugles through no merit or display of tactical ability, but simply by attending a certification course and putting in your time. Now, you do have to earn it. For those of you in that boat, stay out to sea, don’t give fate a chance to come calling. Someone might pay for it with their lives.

“ have to make time to participate.” Training with your people is a way to demonstrate your proficiency, show them your willingness to learn and teach them by apply experience to problems and procedures. Photo from Author’s Collection.

This is also a generation of adventurers. They like to train. They like to go farther and push harder and you, with the reports due, the projects that you have been assigned by your battalion, the inventory, the SOP contribution you are making, have to make time and participate, to show them you are not ready to be put on the shelf..AND, you need to be there through the training to help them see the positive or negative affects of the latest fad in roof cuts, ladder tosses and nozzle moves. If your presence isn’t felt here, you are abdicating your leadership. Somebody will lead in your absence, for better or worse. That being said, it is not productive to crash your way into their efforts to learn something new just so that you can show them you’re savvy and already an expert. This is where the leader’s character traits of Enthusiasm and Knowledge must be balanced out with good Judgement and Tact.

I’ll leave you with the following thoughts:

1. Be real and transparent with those you lead. We all need improvement, we all get complacent, we all make mistakes. Own up.  Don’t try to snow them with your objections to something you haven’t studied up on and therefore can’t credibly defend your stance. “We don’t do it that way” no longer holds any sway. They want to know why it CAN’T be done that way.

2. Be knowledgeable in current fire service issues. Be able to say to them, “Yeah, I read about that, and this is the question I’m asking myself…” or “True, but the other side of that argument is…” For instance, Captain, what is your department’s stance on Survival Profiling? Do you know? Are you well versed in the debate? How will you justify your actions on the fire ground to those you lead?

3. Train with them. Show them what you know and allow them to see that you don’t know everything and are willing to improve your understanding. Your followers will really value that kind of honesty. I have made plenty of gaffs in front of the members I lead. I find they are eager to show what they have learned, especially if I am willing to be teachable. This in turn requires me to have a solid grasp in the basics so I can validate the knew information.

4. Teach them what you know. Don’t know what you know? Well, what are you doing wearing bugles then? Maybe you should be back in the bucket? Oh, ..yeah. Need the nice paycheck, or maybe no one ever asked you, they just promoted you…Well, Captain…its not too late. Begin by learning something so that you can teach them. Teaching increases the teacher’s knowledge through preparation and application as well as those being taught.

5. Lastly, if nothing else, know your organization’s standard operating procedures, and apply them according to sound principle. If we want our people to follow our leadership, we must also demonstrate for them our own followership to those above us. Don’t just do what the department says because the department says. Gain understanding of the reasons and thinking behind the decisions made by your superiors.  If there is anything we can quickly learn from the young people filling our fire houses it’s that they don’t follow blindly. Most of them expect to be told why before they buy into commitment. But if you know and can explain, then they will most often jump on board and be enthusiastic.

One more thing. I look at the issue this way. Many officers are promoted beyond their ability or ambition. You may not have realized when you put that brass on your collar that you had stepped into the position of role model and mentor. Well you’re there. If you set a bad example, many of those who follow you will adopt your mode and methodology. If you are honest and upfront with your short comings, you might find that they’ll cut you some slack. But don’t take that to the bank. It will stretch only as far as a bumper line. You will still have to earn it. As the old saying goes, “Lead, or git oughta the way..”, there’s a rocket propelled pumper comin’ through!
*Excerpt from “Fireman’s Line Up”. THE GRAPEVINE, June 1944.

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