Random Thoughts and Four Parallel Lines

B-Platoon.WinterOps

Training up future generations is becoming harder all the time. An officer needs to refine what is important and provide it, it is up to the firefighter to absorb it.

I’ll allow I’ve been busy lately. Going back to school. Self-improvement, …or maybe self-destruction, …not sure yet. But I’ve had this topic on my mind for months and wanted to get it out to you. Pour a cup and sit yourself down…

Its been that time of year for us. Twice a year our department is afflicted with the new and uninitiated, officially referred to as recruits or “probationary firefighter”. I say afflicted, maybe I should say blessed. But the desire to drink the amber liquid is certainly strong during these times.
The process renews itself again and you are constantly bumping into the inexperience and confusion of the newly assigned probies on the shift. There is that temptation to growl and take a good size chunk the minute you lock eyes with them. Come to think of it, even looking directly at you, eye to eye irritates you, something in you wants them to just get out of the way. They get the picture quickly and give a wide berth. Some of that comes from our exhaustion of having to constantly deal with the new and uninitiated. And some of it comes from a belief that the new folks can never live up to those who have moved on. So, with a sigh perhaps, we pour a strong cup of the good brew and attempt to bring them up to par.

Lovin' the job! I take every opportunity I can to keep them learning. Improving character is on them, but giving them the opportunities is on us. Photo by Author.

Where do we start? They of course go through the check offs and probie do’s and don’ts. But there is so much more than that. Especially nowadays. Sometimes we get those golden ones, those hell bent leatherhead’s that are on the move and practically were born with a fire helmet on. But that is getting rare. Most of them arrive having no idea what is expected. We need a vision to guide us in guiding them, a set of principles if you will. I speak this way because with all of the things that are bombarding the company officer on a daily basis, paying attention to the new jake on the rig is frequently becoming a lower and lower priority, whether the officer wants it that way or not. Time seems to be slipping through our fingers always.

Our rig slides to a stop in the icy lot, the air brakes hiss, with minimal verbage from me, the driver has placed the rig very well. Black smoke boils up in the air. I order a line pulled and make my way to the burning vehicle. Its got a good head of steam up, assisted by plenty of engine oil and a tire. “Bam!” The tire goes and now the exposure vehicle is beginning to suffer. Looking back, probie has the line on the ground, but only just so..Sighing, I patiently wait for the snarl to get worked out..I feel impatient. The pop and crackle ahead of me makes me think of the wall of spectators in the neighboring eight story building and that now-burning exposure. I feel a flicker of temper. Constantly having to start at square one with these people. Probie calls for water and the line goes to work. I direct the effort to save the exposure, the fireman on the irons does his job well and we quickly get results. All in all, not bad. We’ll spend more time on making the stretch in confined areas. The exposure has some paint damage and a melted bumper. Could have been worse.
Looking over at probie, he’s feeling the heat. Elated at having gotten his first fire, he’s also keenly aware that he made a disaster out of the his first-ever stretch. A dark thought dwells in my mind and the urge to lash out simmers inside me. In the past I might have torn him up over it, but I’ve grown old or something. I just look at him and smile a crooked grin. “Need to work on that..”

Its not that I’ve grown soft. And not that I am learning to control my knife hand or my drill instructor intensity. Nothing so noble as that. I think the difference is that I have become ever more convinced that it is ultimately my duty to not only see to their skills, but his or her whole being. If there is an issue there, it is my issue every bit as much as it may be theirs. But hidden in me, at times, a is a tired longing to just go kick back and say the hell with it. I could easily just adopt a different mode of operation: pull the lines myself, break the windows myself, force entry myself, put the wet stuff on the red stuff….myself..then go find the lazy boy and call it a day.

Some do so.

Sometimes I think it would be easier. I have certainly known more than one officer that preferred to do it that way and often they would just leave the crew at the door and take care of business themselves. After all, we are there to get the job done. I think this issue is as old as the hills. But that is exactly how my generation of firefighters found themselves without answers. Nobody took the time to show us. Some say that in the ’80s and ’90s they just lost interest in teaching the arts and reduced it instead to “Essentials” and certificates. “If you didn’t learn it there kid, you sure as hell won’t learn it here…” I tend to think that there is some truth in that. The new generations truly seem to have general traits or lack them, so did the ones that went before us. That buck stops with these pinned bugles, brothers! But I digress.

Refining skills is a constant.  Its is up to the company officer to foster an environment where they can be developed..."gain character"..Photo by author.

The probie. He’ll get it. Repetition, coaching, demonstration…”no, it needs to be done like this, not like that..its important, let me explain why..” Keeping to the basics. “Son, …you’re efforts at making coffee are lacking…you really thought I’d drink this?”. (I need to find that coffee check sheet that Leblanc sent me). Demonstrating and communicating what we want to see is not one of our finer points as firefighters. We like them to learn by some sort of osmosis. But like I said earlier, just because this was done to us doesn’t make it a successful tactic when leading those behind us. We have this nasty habit of pointing out the poorer aspects of our new people’s skill and lack of craft, but how many of us are quick to don the gear and gloves, demonstrating our own prowess and skill? Sometimes I’m not the best at a basic skill. Either the bones hurt or I don’t perform it often enough. So along with the will to demonstrate, needs to be the willingness to be humbled from time to time. Especially as you get older. There’s that slip and fall technique on the ice, where you brush the snow off your knees and backside and say, “humpf…, yeah, I figured that’d be as good a place to lie down as any..” Its’ all in the presentation. And so the winter days go up here in the north.

But here is another nugget. The modern leader is also respected if he demonstrates that he or she is teachable and can absorb information and new ideas from the environment and from those they are leading. Today, studies of leadership in combat and other highly dangerous situations reveal that what causes respect for a leader, like other things in this fast-paced world, is changing. Specifically in how the leader is perceived by those being led. I’ll say more on this over other cups of Joe, but for now it is simply important to point out that of all the things that are important among those facing death or injury in combat, police work or even in the fire service, the leader’s ability to learn and adapt quickly to the changing environment is paramount. To put it another way, if you are entrenched in the methodology of your past and rigidly adhere to that knowledge base, you will grow stagnant in this fast changing world. And those you lead will not only fear your lack of ability to change and learn, but will not be as likely to follow you if they are given a choice.

Keeping yourself in a place where you can learn and be teachable is important.  Uncomfortable at times, but important.  Bob Pressler at FDTN.   Photo by Author

Let me put it a third way. Talk all the talk you want. Bully and push, growl and mock. Once they begin to see that you don’t know what is going on, that you have failed to keep current in your own profession, this generation will lose faith in your ability to lead them and you will be left behind. They are dazzled by your sooted helmet and your bent bugles for a bit, yes. Eventually though, like we were at one point, they need you to present them with something of more substance. This is the failing point for so many of us.

If you’re reading this, you’re maybe getting a little tired of my rant and looking for my point. Top off your cup..

Maybe training isn’t the issue, but understanding what they need is..May I recommend adopting a stance of the Four Parallel Lines. Shall I explain?

Four Parallel Lines. They define who we are and what we do, and we lay them down continually. They are invisible, but very tangible. They are our heart beat, our knowledge, our craft. They are our heritage and tradition and our survival. They are there but we give them little thought. The recruit’s ability to see these lines and learn them makes the difference between a fire service with a well defined mission and vision, and one that is lost and wandering. Our job as company officers is to illuminate them…so to speak.

The first line is the body. Throughout our career, our body’s health and continual maintenance is essential. Without it, even for a short time, we are not ridin’ the red rig. The new folks have a much better foundation for physical health than we did at their age, but they lack application and temperance. With them its all out, all the time. Find ways to demonstrate and teach them pacing and moderation. Brute strength is not always best, I would much rather rely on someone who can go the long haul on a job and endure the job. The pounding our system takes just pulling a tour at the station is physically wearing. It may not show now, but it definitely shows as we age.

The second line is the brain. Constantly in need of growth and challenge. There is so much to learn, they really cannot afford to kick back and coast along. So even if you are time limited, fire something at them. How is that building constructed? What are the three priorities for hose placement? Explain to me what the UL/NIST studies are doing to fire tactics right now? What killed the Wooster Six, how about SFD in the Pang Fire? ‘What? You don’t know about the Wooster Six?” And …let them see you working your brain! If they don’t see you learning, if they don’t see you seeking answers, they will not have a model to go by. Teach them to seek out knowledge and understanding. Require much of them here.

The third line is character. New firefighters are constantly being taught skills and advanced or more experienced firefighters are constantly in need of refreshing these skills. Our skills, while dictated by our profession are really no different from other professions, they are essential steps in order to accomplish the task before us. If we were linemen or mechanics, would it be any different? But along with the skills, we are hopefully or should be learning character. Character is an intangible, which shows itself as we mature. Our character guides us in applying our skills. Another word for it might be assembling experience, which lends itself to helping us choose the right sets of skills for a given situation. This used to be taught on the job in the busy fire years of decades ago, but those days are fast disappearing and this character must be developed in training and daily fire house life. Character is largely developed over time and at ones own pace, absorbed from this firefighter and that officer. A continual process.

The Spirit of the fire service is here and there, all you have to do is pick it up and breathe it in.  �Michael Dick http://www.fdnysbravest.com/  Used by permission.

The fourth line, is the spirit. Spirit is loosely used to define the personality or consciousness of a being. A metaphysical concept. No doubt you realize I’m referring to the “Spirit” of the company, the house, the department, the fire service itself. You really cannot teach this. It has to be found, lying amidst the tossed and forgotten boots on the bay floor, the helmets on the hook, the tools in the compartment, the sound of the laughter and banter in the beanery and bunk rooms. A quiet cup of joe and a cigar out back on a summer night. The wail of the “Q” as your company leads in. This last line is the greatest gift that can be given to a new fireman. Its to be found lying about for anyone who has the ability to sense it, the discernment to take it in and the wisdom to use it to further the mission. It is who we have been, who we are now and most importantly, where we are going. Without it, this is just another job and sometimes they need us to help them become aware of it. Once again, the best way is to model it yourself.

5 Comments

  • H Babler says:

    Great word as always Cap!
    As one of the new guys I appreciate your wisdom through this blog and the challenges that you provide to encourage me to be a better firefighter. I agree with your article whole heartedly as a rookie one of the things that has surprised me is how few of the old heads are truly students of the job. I have yet to be at a station that has current issues of any firehouse magazines, or one that does extra training, now don’t get me wrong I have met some amazing firemen and worked for some great officers but very few who are willing to devote personal time to being better at our calling. Like you state in the article it makes it harder to continue my training when no one around me is doing any. Thanks for the great post, I am on my second trip through it now. Stay safe,
    H. Babler

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Hey Brother,
      Sorry to take so much time to answer your comment, but I was expanding my USAR horizons this past week. We have all known some excellent firemen that are good at what they do and they are solid professionals, ..when on duty. Others, volunteer on their off days and just can’t seem to get enough, although that breed is beginning to fade a bit I think as modern life brings changes. Then there are those who do the job and instead of being a roofer or brick layer on the side, (which are traditional pastimes for off-duty firemen) they are instead occupying their days with furthering the craft. They are called the 1%’ers and they are devoted to the service. They often feel very alone and misunderstood by those who do not appreciate or understand the drive these fellows possess. ..and that’s okay. If the fire service was made up of all 1%’ers, well, …that wouldn’t work either. We have a hard enough time as it is. However, my point is that you begin where you are. The REAL fireman is looking back at you in the mirror. Bring it into your house, walk it, live it. Its not bluster and “I’ll fight what you fear!” , its solid, quiet, knowledge, hands on, always learning, always aware, always wanting to move forward. Its infectious…FTM-PTB-RFB-KTF-DTRT-EGH!!

  • Matt says:

    Mighty good, Ben. I found this really inspiring. And as usual very engagingly written. Solid nickel core.

  • Bobby Halton says:

    Hey Ben here are some of my un-important and inconsequential thoughts, George Orwell the author of 1984 and Animal Farm had this to say about generational perspectives.
    “Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser
    than the one that comes after it.”
    It turns out if you have said something disparaging of the next generation you are in some pretty
    good company.

    Take for example another quote,
    “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners,
    contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise;
    they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company;
    gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”
    That small piece of wisdom came to us from none other than Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher
    who died 400 years before Jesus was born!

    I love your for parallel lines it is up to all of us those who call themselves 1% to be models of good behavior and good character, to be kind to those who are trying to learn and understanding of those who are trying to become the best they can be.

    Absolutely loved your piece, can’t wait to see you at the international.
    Your fellow Leatherhead Bobby

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