Investing Time: Know Your People

“Spend quality time with the team, learning who they are and what motivates them.” — Lt. Col Hal Moore, USA Ret.

Old Man Winter keeps crackin’ on here in the North. I’m lookin’ forward to Spring. Had a garage fire the other night. Two snowmachines (snow mobiles for those of you down in America), caught fire and the fella had the sense to shut the door behind him as he dee dee’d out o’ there! Never felt the heat till we opened the door from the backside and then she came with a vengeance. I was the dummy standing up…

"Hydrant Ops on Old 16"

“Old Man Winter keeps crackin’ on here in the North. Hasn’t loosened his grip just yet.” This is a great old rig, only drawback is the heater cuttin’ out with sub zero temps..Photo by author.

Before entry, I had popped the roll up door out front, lazy smoke came out. I shut it and we moved quick. Cody was on the fire before you could shake a stick and I caught up to him and the guy on the pipe. Cody’s proved himself to me before, so I didn’t bother telling him his business. The fire was locked up tight with sealed windows for the winter, it was lookin’ for a way out. We opened that door and started into arguin’ with it. Like I said, I was the dummy in the vertical position. A quick knockdown and that was it. Time to look for extension.

Should have been looking above the fire already, but up here in the North, especially in our department, fire ground officers and those with that kind of savvy are few. So it is expected that the officer be on the move and that meant I needed to get myself above the fire and start looking for heat. Now, that point, when you’re spread thin, you can opt to micro-manage..Right, be everywhere at once, trust no ones opinion, be the man of the hour and get it all done. Or…you can delegate. Delegation requires knowing your people. Cody hasn’t seen a lot of working fire, but he’s no novice either. But I have known him for a time, he used to work for me and he has a passion for the job. He’s not looking for handouts either. He earns his way. Knowing this, I can leave him to snuff the fire and get myself upstairs to do the rest of the job. Its a critical moment. You may not have the fire licked. Construction can betray you and especially Alaskan Type Six. So turning overhaul and chasing that fire over to Cody took an intentional choice on my part.

"Nordale Hotel Fire"

My heritage. Most firemen in Fairbanks are from somewhere else. I’m no different. This was the Nordale Hotel fire (Feb. 22, 1972), back in the day. +4 degrees and bitter cold. Our people were on that fire, in the cold, all night long. University’s firefighters have always been young, leading them is a decades old privilege. Photo clipping from an old copy of the Daily News Miner.

Let me change gears here for a moment. Fill your cup, lets continue our discussion with Leadership Principle #3, “Know your firefighters and look out for their welfare.”

You should know your firefighters and how they react to different situations. This knowledge can save lives. Knowledge of your members personalities will enable you, as the leader, to decide how best to employ each member in a way that will make the most of their personal skill set.

In our little department, morning debrief is still done the old fashioned way and is probably one of those things that the guys would do away with if they could, no one really enjoys it. Especially me, I have to leave my coffee behind on the desk. You know, setting the example…

No one would say they enjoy the morning line up, (especially when nursing a headache from last nights festivities), but it functions well in communicating information to the oncoming crews and that face to face interchange is beneficial, even in our small organization. The Chief feels that it really contributes a lot to our department and therefore, its here to stay for the time being. The contrast would be the way other departments allow their members to go as soon as the relief is in. We have often been envious of that. But I must admit, I do like the effect debrief has in that as the other officer and I line up, we get a moment to see the members in their glory ….or lack thereof. Disheveled, needing a shave, (for cryin’ out loud cut that mop on your grape!), gear missing, or the critical component, the member him/herself, completely absent or standing tall and looking ready to go to work. This is not a moment for persecution, but a moment to be a leader, to issue out a little grace, a moment to be real and connect with your people. As company officers, how many of you take this opportunity to know your people?

Once the other shift fades away, I take center stage. Usually I take shot across the bow of the first soul that presents a target. A little humor at the price of one of their com-padres lets the company get a feel for my mood and I them. I can instantly pick up on the sullen one, the eager one, and the one who is lacking the most situational awareness that morning, …or every morning as the case may be. This is another opportunity to learn your people.

Know Your People

"17 Engine, rolling out on a run"..

17′s in Marion County, heading out on a run. Scott’s got a great crew, good guys. A large part of that is his leadership. He has invested time into them and into their well-being. Its shows. They follow him enthusiastically. Photo by author,..after a great meal and fellowship.

“Well”, (sipping your coffee), “what’s so difficult about that? I’ve been on this crew a long time, they know me, I know them.” So you say. But do you? Folks seem to think its no big deal to be a company officer, but there’s way too much lack of leadership displayed on a daily basis for that to be true. The finest organizations in the world stress involved leadership. I trust you are aware of each of your members struggles, background, success stories, home life. Many of you probably are, but many of you I suspect deal with the same thing I do, a constantly changing line up. Not every day, but likely, ever couple months or so. Usually in the lower ranks, the folks are moving about trying to find their place, looking for the best opportunity and often, trying to figure out where they fit. Each person, should they stick, will add some value to your crew’s efficiency, although often that is not readily apparent, is it…

I will admit, I have high expectations for those who work with me. I also am very relaxed (I think) in letting the members of my company have their own way in many of the daily decisions that are made. I take that approach because often I am not particular, but also, it gives me an opportunity to give them a chance to exercise their own will and decision making. Its the standard I am looking to keep. I’m willing to negotiate on how we get there. Therefore, I am inviting them to invest in the company, the piece, the house, the department. If they do not take the opportunity, I quickly rearrange the leadership profile and they meet the more aggressive style I harbor within. There is little gray area on my crew. I prefer you participate willingly, but I don’t mind driving you to participate either. We will get the job done and leave nothing behind for the oncoming platoon to deal with. But mostly, I’d like it to be something you want to do.

The crew at Fire Station 36, LAFD. Circa 1925. Take a look at this ole’ pic. Not all are old Smoke Eaters. Some look just like my whole crew, …shaving has yet to be a meaningful experience. Photo used by permission,

Here’s the catch. In order to find our way as leaders, we need to know our people well. This includes learning about their goals, concerns, hopes, fears and struggles. This is where a skilled leader, not just an officer, uses the all important element of CARE. In so many ways, this investment of time in learning about what is important to your people will pay great rewards. Often our time with some of them is limited, so you must take the time available and pursue it. I spend time getting to know every one of my members, and even those that I am likely to come into contact with on a trade. I want to be able to lead them as effectively if I’m working over on their platoon or if they are doing so on mine. This builds familiarity and in so doing, provides the leader with the knowledge necessary to make effective assignments. As you know, these assignments can make all the difference in efficiency for the tour, and therefore also on the run later that night when the lives of the public and or just your crew members are at stake.

"Attack Ops"

Our guys are young. But no younger than those fighting in our wars or down the road at your local volley house. But in order to lead them, and to help them become skilled leaders themselves, you have to get to know them. That includes training with them to see how they roll! Photo by author.

What about delegation? If you know your members well, or …the member working over, then you can take advantage of his or her strengths and abilities. On that garage fire the other night I did so, taking the mission statement of our department at face value, I left Cody in charge of mopping up the fire compartment immediately after knocking the fire, (our Lieutenants are student firefighters who likely do not have more than four years on the job at best), while I moved up to the second floor to look for extension. I was working over that night. So in delegation, I was banking on knowledge of the Lieutenant’s past performance, enthusiasm for the job, and experience. As I said earlier, manning in our town being what it is, my fellow officers and I are often alone in getting the supervision done for some time until the recall has generated some help. I can put our best and brightest to work, in spite of their youth, or I can stretch myself thin to the point where I am inefficient and risking mistakes. I choose to believe in our people. If I did not have that confidence in him, I would not have been able to thoroughly trust his judgement. This would have led to me, as the one held responsible, to go back and check his work, sending a message that his years with us have not resulted in the department having confidence in his efforts. It also sends a message that I don’t believe in our own department’s ability to create good leaders and skilled firefighters. THAT is NOT a message I want to send…

What if we were faced with life and death? Or a very high level of risk? Who will you trust? Who will you delegate to? In a perfect world, we would all work downtown, with plenty of manning, 30 plus veterans on every fire, and we would all spend every off shift with each other and be a big family. But that isn’t reality is it? It seems like a No Brainer..but teamwork and high performance don’t come about without leadership, both formal and informal. If you haven’t invested yourself in your company members, how then can you claim you don’t understand these young people today? Yelling at them from the door of your office while you plan your next hunting trip or work on your finances is not leadership, that’s being a manager (of sorts)..and if that is how you intend to lead your company, then you deserve to reap your harvest. The real question is, ..did they deserve to reap yours?

Well, I better shut up before you fellers leave me at the table talkin’ to myself…

Leadership Principles adapted from “The Eleven Leadership Principles, United States Marine Corps”


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