Rolling With the Punch

We resist change because when something works well, we ask, why change it?  Change comes at us constantly..Photo by author.  2013.

We resist change because when something works well, we ask, why change it? Change comes at us constantly..Photo by author. 2013.

 

Change sweeps over us all, sometimes like an on rushing train.  As the fire service leadership, we must lead our organizations successfully through it, while making sure we ourselves are still on the train.

Back in the early ’90’s, I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with an old Baltimore fireman, my uncle.  I was still very new to the job, was still paid-on call at the time, I think.  He took the opportunity to let me know that he was ready to retire and had put in his notice.  I was taken by surprise, although 30 years is certainly prepping for the gold watch.  Really I was just sad to find out that he was leaving just as I was coming in.  Mentors were few and far between and heck, I love the guy.

So I asked him what brought about the move toward civildom, and he tells me that “times were changin'”.  He wasn’t wanting to go, but he wasn’t willing to be kicked to the curb either.  He would walk out the door, not be carried.  I instinctively respected that.  After all, though it is hard to explain, and though not everyone can relate, you have to respect a man’s right to take himself out with honor and respect.  You see, the Loo had seen too many older firemen get harassed and ignored by the younger generation.   He meant my generation, the college educated, averaging wealthier backgrounds, and overall lacking servant-minded up-bringing.  It was hard to watch.  Old blue-collar boys, worked hard for the dollar in their pocket, raised in the depression, finally making it to their senior positions, only to be laughed at or sidelined.  Things had begun to change too fast for them.  It used to be you just showed up, went to the fire.   Was it this way everywhere?  I don’t know.  No internet back then, no Surverymonkey..but it was that way in his house and he wanted to move on.  I think for a long time, it depended on where you were, whether or not you were confronted by this blue collar/white collar mentality change.  On the West Coast where I was, the college educated fireman was already well entrenched, so it didn’t seem like a major issue there, but then again, I didn’t have a college education and didn’t get full time on the municipal side until I did.  That battle had already been fought on the Left Coast.

So often I have directed my writing towards those new to leadership and my advice for my peers was pretty limited to subtle jibes and off-hand snarks.  However, I’m thinking some thoughts in the more senior direction would be a good idea.  Many of us are going through a lot of not-so-subtle change these days.

The newest piece in our fleet has so many burps, tweets and screens in the cab it make this pre-21st Century brain power go into overload....I never would have made a good F-16 pilot..Photo by author.  2015

The newest piece in our fleet has so many burps, tweets and screens in the cab it make this pre-21st Century brain power go into overload….I never would have made a good F-16 pilot..Photo by author. 2015

In my department, change is the constant…This year we finally jumped into the modern age in communications, going from the old-style 3 binder map book to the MDT/CAD on board, with minimal radio use, dispatch changes, software and NFIRS changes, all since the New Year pretty much.  Talk about dynamic!  One week we had to learn the MDT, next week…that was old hat, the NFIRS was completely new all over again..and the struggle that some guys have (including yours truly) can be almost comical.   My fine motor skills are such that while being jolted around in the front seat of the cab it is not hard for me to attack the screen and keyboard like my fingers are as big as dog paws.   I have at times after locking up the keyboard on a run, just chuckled to myself and thought, “what are they gonna do?  Send me to ‘Nam?”  (Funny thing is that when I started in Southern California, ..we had all this in DOS format)..

And lets not even begin to talk about the “new science of firefighting”…I would venture to say that unless your department has embraced the changes and made them into SOP’s, unless they spend time on the internet or reading the periodicals, many, many of our brothers and sisters don’t even know what the new science is yet and when they do hear about it, they’re not necessarily convinced that it applies to them.  I know one officer who insists that the changes in fire occurred long ago (back in the ’80s) and plastics have been predominant ever since, so what’s so new now?

Things to keep in focus every tour:

1)  AS the good Col. said, “Three strikes and you’re not out!”  Don’t give up, don’t quit just because your comfort zone is getting bracketed by incoming fire.  Evaluate, seek advice and take another approach.  One thing I’ve learned nearly the 50 year old mark, you don’t stop needing a mentor.  Seek advice if you’re up against a wall of change.

2)  Keep yourself in the learning environment.   Our world of steady, reliable employment, reliable retirement and consistent work environment is rapidly  evaporating.  Change is constant and our older generations don’t like this much.  But if your not ready to punch the clock for the last time, you need to keep on the move and keep pace with the changes.  This takes a mind willing to admit that while things use to work well the way “we did it back then”, there may now be a different way that is comparable or even better..

3)  You can always move on.….this is not an option for many of us.  We tell the new members all the time, “You don’t like it, go flip burgers!!”.  But in truth, the same can be said to us, especially in the modern world where the value of time on the job isn’t the same value as it once was.  Its still a great job, you have to keep yourself in the mix.  But if you are unwilling to change, you are in danger of becoming a severe roadblock and that can be significant, depending on what position you hold.  I have begun to ask myself, “Is it time to go elsewhere?  Am I a roadblock for the organization?” I want to be willing to look there.  Doesn’t mean I have to do it, just be willing to look and be honest with myself.

"Just a small sample of the books I'm tackling in my pursuit of more education.  Some old, some new, some I should have read a long time ago.."  Photo by author. 2015

“Just a small sample of the books I’m tackling in my pursuit of more education. Some old, some new, some I should have read a long time ago..” Photo by author. 2015

One of the things I’ve done that has really been a challenge is to go back to school for my BA.  It has stretched my brain four ways to Sunday, let me tell you..but it gives me several advantages.  One is that I am working my brain in new areas that maybe had gotten a little soft since probie days and another is that I’m learning with younger people which helps me identify a bit with their viewpoint.  I am also being forced to work on my communication and writing skills in ways not normal for me.  As a blogger, I tend to write like I’m thinking, but truly professional writing is much different and is a real hurdle.

I’ve a long ways to go yet before full retirement comes my way.  But at my age, with well over twenty years on the job, I think about retirement much more than I did before and my values are very different today than they were when I was sitting backwards and riding a tailboard.  Change is never going to stop and is only coming at us faster and faster.  If I’m going to make it, change has to begin with me.  In discussing life impacting change and fire service leadership with one of my mentors, he said, “We are often seen as the conductors on the train..but really, we are the passengers.”  Change sweeps over us all, and as the fire service leadership, we must lead our organizations successfully through it, while making sure we ourselves are still on the train.

 

5 Comments

  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    great read brother, just what I needed this morning.

    Thanks…..

  • H. Babler says:

    Great word as always cap. It’s important for us young guys to be respectful of the experience that the old heads have and of the fact that the fire service is changing at a rapid pace. Keep up the good work, and stay safe.

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Brother Babler! Good to hear from you. Yes, its important that the younger crowd be willing to listen and be respectful, but that does not mean that every old dog has got it right. Let them earn it, again and again. You can get rusty in a dusty old reputation. So they have experience, are they showing the benefit of it? Are they still learning themselves?

  • Paul Hapke says:

    Great post. Time and time again the younger crowd doesn’t want to listen because they know everything. http://www.Truck55fire.com i wrote an article about that.

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