Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Those Three Little Words

During my first few months at the College Park fire station in the autumn of 1985, I learned several unique lessons.  Oddly, the most important rule I learned was not one I expected, but have come to truly understand.  It was all about the THREE LITTLE WORDS they never wanted to hear come from your pie hole. 
At first, the use of these three words seemed harmless, and not being allowed to say them felt like a silly, but manageable phase of initiation.  What harm could come from saying them.  They weren’t argumentative, offensive, racist, or harmful words.  They were simple words that would be used to start a sentence, to define a source, to establish validity of a story.  These were words often spoken with pride, yet here, they were poison. 
It soon became apparent that resisting was going to be difficult.  I found myself wanting to use these words … a lot.  As I became more comfortable in my new surroundings, I began to become frustrated by this seemingly ridiculous rule.  I tried and tried, but often had to catch myself as these words escaped my lips.  My frustration led to anger.  How dare these people restrict my language by eliminating these three little words?  I could understand eliminating phrases like, “I don’t think…”, or “I don’t wanna…”, or “Why must I…”, or “I just can’t…”   These negative statements should ALWAYS be avoided by anyone striving to achieve greatness.   In an organization that relies on teamwork, they could be considered rebellious.  Even Jeff Spicoli’s famous line, “I don’t know”, wasn’t restricted.  Thank Goodness Mr. Hand wasn’t a line officer, huh? 

The three words that seemed to get everyone’s panties in a bunch were “Back Home We”.  Nobody cared what you did “back home” at your fire station.  You were here in Prince George’s County, serving as a member of the College Park Volunteer Fire Department.  The only thing that mattered is that you knew how things were done HERE! 
It didn’t take me long to learn why “back home we” was so toxic.  The College Park Station was staffed by students in fire protection curriculums.  We had ALL come from rather progressive departments, and each of us represented the best of the youth from our respective departments.  That’s 12 smart individuals from 12 different departments, most of which did things a little different from the others.  This wasn’t the West Lawn Fire Company, and despite my beliefs at the time, there was always another way to do things.  If the CPVFD allowed the “back home” influence from every one of the probies that walked through their doors, their identity, traditions, reputation and sense of solidarity would be eroded. 
In time, as I progressed through the ranks and I had proven myself to the officers and members of the department, my opinion began to matter.  Once I had firmly implanted myself into the ways of the CPVFD, the knowledge I brought from the WLFC became relevant.  I am proud to say that some ideas that were born in little ‘ol West Lawn Borough were incorporated into programs in the City of College Park.  Eventually I was permitted to say “Back home, we…”, but not before I learned why I couldn’t as the new guy in the house. 
I learned to understand patience, and tolerance for others opinions.  I realized that I was the new guy in town, not the organization.  They had been hosin’ and truckin’ for decades before the mere consideration of my existence.  Despite how smart I thought I was, I thankfully learned that others may be smarter.  The humbling experience of being forced to forget the past and accept the present was a valuable lesson that now, makes all the sense in the world. 
This is a lesson that I have applied numerous times in my life.  As the new guy, I always take the time to get to know the people and the system that is in place, giving them every opportunity to show me what is already in place.  This open-mindedness has helped me learn quite a bit about organizational philosophies as well as individual capabilities.  I only wish others in my recent past would have learned the same lesson of respect that the CPVFD taught me.  THAT story, I will save for another time...
Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.  Enjoy a safe and wonderful time with your family and friends as we celebrate of the "things" we have in life .

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Memorable Beginning

It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago, but it has been over 27 years since I started my second tour of duty as a fire department “probie”.  I was 21 years old, and was certain that I had all the answers.  Up to this point, I had been hanging around my hometown fire company for as long as I could remember, and knew every inch of the apparatus, had polished, painted, or sharpened every tool, knew every knot in the book, and was a sponge for training classes.  I had officially joined the fire service on my 16th birthday, but already knew the names and locations of all the equipment as well as the current members.  After graduating with honors with my Associates Degree in Fire Technology from my regional community college, I was ready for the big time; I was accepted into the University of Maryland at College Park. 
As the opening semester approached, I was still uncertain where I would be living.  I didn’t want the normal housing arrangements of a transfer student; I wanted to live in a fire station.  As my parents would likely attest, I was pretty much living at my local firehouse already, so It shouldn’t be much of an adjustment.  Other than being responsible for my own laundry and running considerably more calls, how much different could it be?   
 The University placed me at the Hyattsville Station, a few miles south of the campus.  I visited the station, met Chief Moltrup, and a few of the members gave me the tour of the place.  As excited as I was to be in a “big city” station, I was a bit disappointed.  I knew several past alumni of the College Park Station, and my heart was set on living there.  I wanted to be part of the stories that are told by the great achievers in the fire service who rode proudly out of the 12 house.  Most importantly, I wanted to be on campus, and surrounded by students that shared my goals of fire service greatness. 
There was something special about the fire station at 7507 Baltimore Boulevard.  The building wasn’t going to win any beauty contests.  It had been “rode hard and put away wet”.  It lacked many modern amenities, but it had an alluring charm.  From the rub marks on the bay door trim from the apparatus squeaking through, to the personalized cubicles in the student “sackroom”, this old place was calling my name, and I was ready to jump aboard.  Sadly, all the spots for the upcoming semester were spoken for.  It didn’t stop me from visiting, several times that summer, each time telling my saga to another few members I had the opportunity to meet.  I memorized the phone numbers as well; and I am sure the chief was tired of hearing me beg for a spot.  Finally, another visit to the station put me in the company of Fred “Hacksaw” Welsh, the chief in charge of filling the Sackroom.  He informed me that one of the candidates that were to report for the fall semester had not been returning his calls to verify acceptance of his spot.  I am not sure whether he was tired of me pestering him, or if I managed some award-winning puppy-dog eyes and sad-sack pout, but Hacksaw (you know, I never found out exactly why he got that nickname) gave me the best news I had heard in months.  “I’ll tell you what, If I don’t hear from this guy by 6:00 p.m. tomorrow, the spot is yours.” 
The next 22 and-a-half hours seemed to crawl by, but as promised, I received the phone call at exactly 6:06 the next evening.  I was IN, and with only 22 days to go before the start of the semester.   It was the beginning of an amazing period of growth and discovery.  The 28 months I spent serving the College Park Volunteer Fire Department met or exceeded every expectation I had, and I have a truckload of friends, stories, memories, and life experiences that have become part of me. 
I am not sure what the best part of the experience was, there were so many.   Was it the college education I earned, the campus life experience, the diversity of people I interacted with, the tradition I was a part of, the friends I met, the life lessons I learned?  Perhaps it was all of it!  For such a brief period of my life, that window of time certainly stands out, and still does to this day.  I am sure I didn’t know it at the time, but it is all very clear to me know.                 
It makes me wonder who is in my life that is going through one of those life defining periods of their lives right now.  If I am a part of their memory 27 years from now, I sure hope the memory is a good one. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Staff Infection

For decades, the volunteer fire service has been struggling with staffing issues.  Decreasing numbers of volunteers have been the topic of fire service discussions across the country.  The reasons are plentiful: the economy, the changing domestic profile, other worthy causes biding for our time, the increasing risks, the elevated training requirements, etc…  
While these reasons have some degree of validity, there are plenty of solutions to help relieve them as valid excuses.  We are just too lazy to give the effort it would take to solve those problems.  The sad truth is that we have a manpower problem because we don’t know how to manage people!    Situations can be managed, things can be managed, time can be managed, money can be managed, and even groups of people can be managed.  But I am not talking about TEAM management here; I am referring to the management of a single person.  Also known as, “how to treat people”
Sadly, many of today’s fire service leaders do not have the skills to properly manage themselves, let alone another individual.  Most develop an image of exactly how their “soldiers” should be; make a plan that utilizes those soldiers, then cast off anyone that doesn’t fit their mold.  A baker who uses a cookie cutter will always gather the leftover dough, re-roll it, and make a few more cookies.  Sometimes the leftovers can be molded into some other culinary treat, but nothing ever goes to waste.  Not in the fire service, however.  One by one, we cast off perfectly good “dough”, and discard it without any thought of what that one extra “cookie” could mean to the organization one day.  Those with pet dogs know that once the scrap hits the floor, you simply aren’t getting it back. 
Today’s leaders lack the ability to nurture, develop, and utilize the variety of people that come in the door, willing to help.  They wastefully discard people like they are an endless commodity because it is much easier than “dealing with” the challenges that some people present.  Worse yet, these leaders are breeding an entire generation of like-minded thinkers.  These little bullies are pushing away great people… smart people… dedicated people… people whose only weakness is the unwillingness to tolerate the bullshit that gets flung around a fire station.  I’m not just talking about the narrow-minded veterans who only know one way to get things done.  I am also talking about the 2/20 guy whose duffle bag is still swinging on the hook. 
I would love to staff a fire department with all the individuals who left the fire service because of the way they were treated.  I think of all the years of training and experience that are being wasted because we simply don’t know how to treat people right.  I have had several long conversations with former members of the fire service, and the underlying theme is interesting.  They feel abandoned, under-appreciated, and unwelcome.  These men and women still have the desire to serve, the willingness to sacrifice, and the ability to be great assets to the organizations that left them behind.  Sadly, the leaders of those organizations have done little or nothing to reel them back in; they never investigated the problem, therefore they didn’t need to execute a solution.  They just kept spinning the revolving door, wondering why their staffing levels aren’t a robust as they want them to be. 
THESE past members are the people who should write the books on recruitment and retention.  Their wisdom and experience could go a long way toward solving the staffing crisis.  Here are a few of the topics they would likely suggest:
·         Be fair to everyone.  If you make a rule, make it for everybody.
·         Don’t make rules that hamper your effectiveness.
·         Communicate, communicate, and communicate.  Secrets demoralize troops!
·         Understand that individuals have lives outside the firehouse; support that notion.
·         Not everyone has to be the nozzleman, if you have a happy hydrant man, be happy to have him.
·         Politicians should not dictate fire service operations, despite how powerful they think they are.
·         What motivates some doesn’t work on all.  Be flexible, be creative.
·         A dangling carrot nets better results than a prodding pitchfork.
·         People like to be lead, so if you are a leader of the organization, LEAD already!
·         Take notice of the positives, and stop dwelling on the negatives.
·         Give everyone the opportunity to achieve the greatness they seek.
·         Everyone is an expert at something.  If you don’t think so, you are missing out!
·         Honor, respect, appreciate, and encourage.
Take notice that most of these suggestions are about how to treat people, not how many certificates you have.  Firefighters are people first, and if we keep forgetting that, all the wisdom in the world won’t help solve our staffing issues. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Concrete Training

Nothing beats real world, on-the-job training; particularly in the fire service. 
It has always been a major challenge of the fire suppression providers to simulate real world scenarios.  How do you create a potentially deadly, deteriorating atmosphere in an unknown location with the urgency of saving a life (while preserving your own) without destroying property and killing recruits? 
There are hundreds of ways to development skills needed to function in an actual burning building.  We negotiate mazes with blanked out SCBA masks (like blind mice looking for cheese), repetitively practice with our equipment to hone technical skills into thoughtless reflexes (while sitting on a chair in the engine room), we flow nozzles (onto sunny parking lots) to give pump operators and nozzle jockeys time to develop natural reactions and thought processes.  We watch videos, we tell stories, and we read articles and books.  We pre-plan, chalk talk, and “what if” ourselves to death.  We participate in scheduled drills, we attend structured classes, and we obtain “certifications” by jumping through some carefully monitored and well documented “hoops”.  While these tasks may prepare us for the real deal, they certainly don’t recreate it. 
Many will argue that live burn sessions are the only way to properly prepare a firefighter for the real action he or she may face, and in many way, this type of training is very helpful to measure one’s abilities in certain areas.  Certainly, a live burn will assure that a candidate understands the purpose of the PPE, and the importance of maintaining it and wearing it properly.  It is an important tool for measuring one’s ability to remain calm, tolerate heat, and negotiate with limited visibility.  There is also no better way to drive home the lessons about staying low, NOT opening a fog pattern into a superheated space that you occupy, the importance of good timing with your ventilation techniques, or why proper radio use is so very important. 
Then there are the drawbacks to this type of training… The things it can’t teach...  Worse yet, are the habits we can develop when we train in a concrete prop more than we fight real fire.  Such as:
·         Real fire doesn’t check your schedule…or the weather
·         Real fires require overhaul… LOTS of overhaul
·         Real fires threaten property that can be SALVAGED
·         Real fires aren’t over in 4 minutes
·         Real fires decompose buildings in short periods of time
·         Real fires should be completely extinguished the first time
·         Real fires don’t wait until your crew, back-up crew, vent team, RIT team and water supply are all set and ready to go
·         Real fires don’t let you try it again
·         Real fires don’t show you the floor plan and escape doors
·         Real fires ignore the safety rules
A live burn session is a great tool to use to help teach a firefighter, but FAR from a simulation, and certainly not the ONLY tool that should be used to measure a firefighter’s ability…that’s what certifications are for, right?  More on that powder keg topic next time…
Stay safe Brothers and Sisters!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I Am Not Sure Where This Is Headed...

Deeply rooted in the volunteer fire service, I evolved from a system with ample manpower.  If you were slow getting to the fire station, you didn’t have a place to ride.  We filled cabs, tailboards, and even rode the hose bed to fire calls.  I know what you are thinking; I cringed when I typed that as well.  What can I say; we have come a long way in regards to firefighter safety in 32 years!
I could write volumes about how technology has changed the fire service, and I imagine in time, I will.  But lately, I have been thinking about the issues of manpower.  The most irreplaceable commodity of the fire service is staffing, and the willingness and ability of qualified personnel to overcome fear and risk self-preservation in order to accomplish extraordinarily heroic acts to save life, property and community. 
How that staffing is amassed differs from community to community, sparking ongoing debates about certification requirements, qualification standards, and career vs. volunteer debates.  Originally staffed by the entire able-bodied population, armies of volunteers managed to get wet stuff on the wet stuff, and preserve their communities.  Over time, the evolution of the fire service staff has taken many different twists and turns.  Firefighting has become more technical, standards of training have been developed to offset liability concerns, and the demographic of the American family has drastically changed.  While some communities manage to maintain their fire protection with an all-volunteer staff, many municipalities have adopted a combination-department, where volunteers are supplemented with career staff.  Still others have turned into an era where the staffing is primarily career, and supplemented by volunteers.  Finally, there are areas (mostly metropolitan regions) that are staffed by career firefighters, and volunteers do not exist. 
The city of Reading, Pennsylvania, for example, is home to one of the oldest functioning volunteer fire companies in the country; although their presence on the fire ground is barely noticed.  This city of 88,000, people, situated on 6400 acres, is protected by an on-duty staff of just 18 firefighters; a dangerous situation for the overworked staff, their force limited by budget restrictions by the cash-strapped city.   Injury rates have increased by 80%, likely caused by the stress of working overtime to fill staffing minimums, and being forced to accomplish the work of several personnel because of the staffing shortage.  Volunteer support within the department, while technically present, is realistically non-existent.
Conversely, Dover, The capital of the state of Delaware, which encompasses an area 4 times the size of Reading, but less than half the population, is still protected by an all-volunteer department, the Robbins Hose Company.  A recent two-vehicle accident in town brought well over 20 firefighters to the scene, less than 25% of the “available” volunteers on their roster.  Dover, however, is still growing.  One must wonder how long the tradition of being 100% volunteer can be maintained.  All it takes is one bad leader, one poor governmental decision, one tragic event, and the atmosphere could change overnight. 
To the unaware bystander, there is no difference to the service rendered by the heroes who arrive on the BRT’s (Big Red Trucks) in each of these towns.  The expectation of a professional solution to the emergency at hand by the experts on the scene dressed in the turnout gear does not change from town to town, or state to state.   However, to the “seasoned” veteran, who has been involved in and studied the evolution of the fire service, the differences are enormous.  I am not choosing sides, or pitching one system over another.  I have tremendous admiration for BOTH groups for what they accomplish given the resources they are offered.  In Dover, it is clear to me that some of the municipal dollars saved by avoiding the need for payroll associated with a career staff has been spent on equipment.  The age, amount, customization, and technological level of the apparatus and portable equipment gives the volunteers the best tools to work with to do their job, all while maintaining the sense of appreciation from the community leaders that likely inspires them to continue to commit their time to their community.  Meanwhile, in Reading, the thinning, aging fleet is “urbanized” and the equipment is fiscally selected and well used, but the staff is well-trained, job-tested, and hardcore. 
So here we are, in 2012, with the ongoing debates and senseless arguments.  Volunteers scoff at career firefighters, thinking they “only do it for the money”.  Their self-righteousness clouds the fact that the career firefighters are being asked to do twice the workload with a fraction of the resources.  Meanwhile career firefighters critique the “whackers” for inadequate experience, lack of training, and over-chromed “parade pieces”.  The battles are senseless and immature.  Both sides have very valid points, but you are comparing apples to oranges.  It is a debate that I avoid, mainly because I could make a good case for either side.  In combination departments, these skirmishes often exist in the same room, among “friends”… brothers who may be side by side in a few moments facing the most challenging predicament of their lives … TOGETHER!   It is not a very comfortable place for the weak-minded, and the toll such childishness takes wears out even the most committed public servant over time.  I digress; I will save that sizzling story for a later time.  No sense burning a bridge I am still standing near.  
As the title of this post said, I am not sure where I was going with my thoughts today.  So I will wrap this post up with a few general, but time tested axioms.  While the evolution of the fire service continues, these few principles remain:
·         Every firefighter should strive to be the best prepared that he/she can
·         Professionalism is an attitude not an economic standard
·         In the, end, we are all trying to accomplish the same thing
·         None of us are better than everyone at everything
·         If they wear a helmet,  one day your life may depend on them
·         If YOU wear a helmet, one day THEIR life may, depend on YOU.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Am I on Candid Camera?

I was only on the job for about two weeks.  As the Fire Safety Technician for the University, I was responsible for the engineering, education, and enforcement of all things related to fire safety on the campus.  As I read my morning e-mails, I was alerted that the fire department had been to our campus the night before for a small fire that was discovered by a security guard making his rounds in the human resources building.  This un-occupied single-story 4000 s.f. building had a small lunchroom where a haze of smoke was discovered at about 2 o’clock in the morning.  Responders determined that combustibles stacked on and around a small toaster oven were showing effects of pyrolysis due to the toaster oven being turned on.  They unplugged the unit, and left the area otherwise untouched, as to allow for a proper investigation of the incident.  I was excited to be “on the case” and ready to wield my investigative skills and determine exactly what happened and who was responsible for the event.
I immediately became suspicious of the setting and began to photograph the area and documented the history of the occupants in the building over the past 24 hours.  I was convinced that someone wanted to burn down the building and make it look like an accident.  Other clues of potential foul play included two ceiling tiles that had been dislodged, broken, and tossed to the floor, an artificial ficus tree that was knocked over, and a few papers uncharacteristically strewn about the floor.  Otherwise, nothing had been disturbed or was found missing.  There were no signs of forced entry, so I suspected an inside job.  Was it the guard looking for the status of “hero” for saving the day?  Was it a disgruntled employee? 
I first needed to eliminate any and all accidental causes.  Was the switch on the oven defective?  No, it seemed to be working fine.  Did someone accidently leave the unit turned on? No, employees in the building assured that no one has used the oven for month (explaining why it was hazardously buried in paper products and condiment packaging).   Every (or so I thought) possible accidental cause I could imagine was eliminated from probability, so I began to formulate my arson hypothesis. 
Later that afternoon, I was consulting with the campus police about how deeply we would investigate this incident when I heard a call for maintenance to report to the Human Resources building for assistance.  Workers there were hearing strange noises above the ceiling and wanted it checked out.  As expected, the noise went away whenever the mechanics were in the building.  However, after several return calls throughout the day, and HVAC technician discovered a squirrel in a utility closet.  The circus-like activity that ensued was hysterical.  Fans of the movie “Christmas Vacation” should be able to visualize the chaos that followed the rodent discovery.  Finally, after 35 minutes of all-out warfare, the squirrel was evicted, and order was restored.
That is when the light bulb turned on!  The squirrel did it!  It all made sense!  The “perp” entered the building through a small hole in the roof flashing, and eventually dislodged the ceiling tiles to gain access to the rest of the building.  Using the ficus tree as an escalator, the nut-muncher accessed his new playground and began to forage.  The counter in the lunch room was filled with packaged yum-yums that proved to be too good to pass up, and the squirrel started rooting through the area looking for a treat.  At some point, while trying to reach a higher shelf, the little bugger must have stepped on the button that turned the oven on, starting the warming process and setting into motion one of my most memorable fire investigations. 
I began tapping away on my keyboard, documenting my findings in the most professional manner I could muster.  After all, this was my first incident investigation, and I wanted to make a good impression.  About half way through my report, however, I got an empty feeling in my gut.  Was I being set up?  Was this all an elaborate hoax to haze the new guy?  I prepared myself mentally for the “Bazinga”, and finished my report with every ounce of cautious professionalism I could muster. 
To this day, I still wonder…

Friday, May 18, 2012

Roll with the Flow

I will be the first one to admit, I live in the fast lane.  No, not THAT fast lane, I am getting too old for that.  I am referring to the fast lane of the highway.  Occasionally I will slide in to the right lane and go with the flow with the normal folks, but I am usually looking forward to reaching my destination, and the sooner the better.  I like speed, and I like the challenge of beating my Garmin’s estimated time of arrival.  I agree with the late George Carlin, who noted that “anyone that is going slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac”.  While the fuzz on the side of the road with the radar gun may disagree, I believe I set a safe but efficient pace for the fast lane. 
Of course, this only applies when there is room to run.  Once highway traffic is congested to the point where speedy travel becomes impossible, I submit to the situation and “go with the flow”.  This is usually the case during certain parts of my daily commute.  Anyone who has ever had the “pleasure” of traveling 222 between Reading and Allentown understands my plight.  Ten miles of outdated, single lane, overcrowded asphalt, choked by heavy trucks, thousands of commuters, Amish kids on bikes, and way too many cross streets is exacerbated by a few agonizing traffic lights, strategically placed to eliminate any possibility of smooth sailing on all but the luckiest of days.  In this situation, the choices are to “go with the masses”, or challenge yourself with the winding back roads that bypass the masses!  Those “shortcuts” don’t make the commute any shorter or quicker, but it sure seems like it does. 
The real analysis of humanity occurs on extremely congested super-highways.  Those that travel rush hour (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) in a major metropolitan area understand this plight.  I recently made a trip On Philadelphia’s “Blue Route” during the afternoon commuter hour.  I was making my way to the Philadelphia International Airport at 5:30 on a weekday when both the Phillies (always a sellout crowd) and the Sixers (poised to eliminate the Bulls from the playoffs) were playing across the street from each other in South Philly.  I was merely a speck in the river of cars that were crawling along the winding 4-lane strip of striped concrete toward Interstate 95. 
In these scenarios, there is no sense trying to “make good time”.  You simply must tune in a good radio station, pick a lane, and “go with the flow”.  When the speed limit is 65 and you are going 15, it is time to concede to the voice of your navigation device… there will be no checkered flag at the end of this excursion.  What you CAN do, however, is pick out the asshats that still believe they can beat the system.  They dart from lane to lane, trying to make up a car length or two by jumping into the lane that seems to be moving faster than the others.  Since their like-minded friends do the same thing, it is usually a few minutes until that lane becomes the idle lane and you see them again, trying to cut back into your lane, which is now steadily flowing by.  It reminds me of the “Tortoise and the Hare” fable.  I was playing the role of tortoise and stayed in my lane of choice, but in this case, the “hares” include the snotty, Armani suit-wearin’ Mercedes pilot, the punk in the multi-colored subcompact with the mosquito mufflers, the young clueless girl on the cell phone in the beat-up duct-taped sedan, or the blue collar contractor with the ladder rack and the squeaky brakes. 
I narrate the movements of these four targeted strategists, since texting while driving is no longer legal in Pennsylvania.  The entertainment keeps my mind off the clock, and is really quite comical.  They dart left, they dart right, and they occupy any gap they think will give them the positional advantage.  They piss people off by cutting in on a smoothly flowing line of traffic.  Brake lights flash like a disco on No-Doze.  The masses lurch forward, the masses stop, the masses repeat…   We are thousands of individuals with a common goal.  I am certain that if we would all work together, we could all enjoy more consistent movement and efficient travel.
I suppose this is where today’s lesson lies.  There are times when we all need to stay with the pack, and understand that “Together Everyone Accomplishes More” (TEAM).  Teamwork produces success.  Long distance runners know this, bikers in the Tour de France know this, herds of animals in the wild know this, and schools of fish know this.   Even NASCAR drivers, who are trying to be the individual that “gets to the finish line first”, know that if they don’t work with the other drivers, including their foes, they will lose!  Within a team, there will members who may be stronger, faster, smarter, or better than the others in some way.  Those individuals also have some shortcomings that can be compensated for by other teammates with different strengths.  That is the concept of a winning team: sticking together, remaining unselfish, supporting teammates who are struggling, using your strength to boost others forward, and staying focused on the group goal.  Even strangers on a highway can function as a team.
After 35 minutes of automotive crawl, the congestion seemed to magically dissipate, with no obvious reason for the sluggishness.  I was free to accelerate for the final 2 miles of my commute.  Not just me, though.  Me,  the “suit” in the Benz, the exhaust buzzing Technicolor Toyota, the chatterbox in the rattlebox, and Marlboro Man look-alike.  I shot past them, grinning at their futile attempt to break from the pack and selfishly navigate past my team of commuters. 
Woops, there is my exit already!  I Gotta go catch a plane!  Ciao.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

RLS Syndrome

If I were to ask a layperson what they thought the greatest risk a firefighter faces, I am sure some of the answers would be: Being burned, falling off a ladder, caught in an explosion, lost in smoke, or even trapped by a building collapse.  Health conscience people would turn to the risks associated with cardio-vascular health and the stresses placed on the firefighter’s body as the major concern.  I imagine very few would even mention “responding to a call” as a dangerous activity.  The facts are clear that transportation accidents are one of the leading causes of death and serious injury among emergency responders, and it is the activity that takes place on every incident.  Today’s blog will address some of the reasons this activity presents such a risk.
The average citizen sees a fire engine roaring through traffic and dreams of the invincibility of carving, unobstructed, through rush hour, bypassing lines of stopped cars that pull aside to allow you to pass and disregarding pesky crimson signs and lights that require others to come to a stop.  Before I proceed, I need to dispel some misconceptions about man’s laws of the road and nature’s laws of physics. 
Fire engines are NOT permitted to disregard safety rules of the road while responding.  They may proceed past a stop signal ONLY when it has been deemed to do so safety.  They are required to maintain a safe speed which includes decreasing speed during adverse weather conditions.  Most importantly, they are often held responsible for mishaps that occur if they fail to respect these regulations.  From the scientific side of the analysis, a fire engine does not have “magic tires” that grip the road better than any other truck on the road, “super-braking powers” that allow them to stop quicker than other vehicles on the road of similar size, nor an “invisible force field” that protects them from the other vehicles on the road.  In fact, many fire department vehicles push the envelope of their designed weight rating because of the water and equipment they carry.  They are simply very bright, very loud versions of every other vehicle on the road. 
There are several other variables, however, that make these vehicles even more dangerous than others:
·         The skills and experience of the driver may not be very sharp.  Particularly in a volunteer department, where the driver of this 40,000 pound monster might be much more accustomed to driving his 3500 pound Honda Accord.
·         The driver may be focused on the details of the incident they are responding to and the urgency to arrive quickly due to on-scene reports of rapidly spreading fire, or victims in peril.
·         The unpredictability of what the other drivers on the road will do in their pathway.  For every 20 drivers that do the right thing, there will be one who makes a contradictory evasive maneuver.
·         Believe it or not, despite the flashing lights and the blaring siren, some drivers are oblivious to the approaching emergency vehicle due to loud stereos, well insulated vehicles, or driver distraction.
I have personally logged thousands of miles in the driver’s seat of an emergency vehicle during my career, and admittedly, my attitude toward maneuvering through traffic en route to an emergency has evolved over time.  I have had a few close calls, but fortunately have never unintentionally bent and metal because of my driving.  The one time I did, was with the permission of a county police officer, but I digress.  I have witnessed people do some crazy things in front of my fire truck, from driving over a curb to get out of my way, to slamming on the brakes and covering their eyes right in the middle of an intersection.  I always attempted to maintain what I call “smooth control” of my vehicle, whether I was driving a medic unit with a class 1 trauma patient in the back, a fire engine through suburbia, or a ladder truck through rush-hour “inside the beltway” traffic.  AWARENESS and CONTROL are the key words to safe response. 
Another portion of my career was spent in the “thinking chair”, more commonly referred to as the Officers Seat.  In this position, you share the responsibility of safe operation of the vehicle through your awareness, but unfortunately have zero control over the operation of the rig.  Believe me, there were more than a few times I stomped on the imaginary brake pedal on the right side of the fire engine cab.  That is the seat where your only control is the ability to coach the driver through a safe response by maintaining a calm atmosphere, and a focused attention on the road conditions.  This is an impossible task if the operator of the rig is experiencing an attack of RLS syndrome.
RLS, or “Red Lights & Siren” syndrome can occur with any emergency driver from time to time.  I admit there were times when I believed that my siren and air horns had the power to move cars out of my path, and I know there were times where I was thinking about everything except the road when I was en route to an incident.  Every driver is susceptible to RLS, and some suffer from it repeatedly.  It is a period of perceived invincibility, where poor judgment reigns supreme, and tunnel vision closes in tight.  It is dangerous, and it can be deadly.
Until scientists develop a vaccine, RLS syndrome must be controlled through diligent screening of potential operators, repetitive training and practice of driving skills, established standard department guidelines regarding vehicle operation, and respectful rapport development between drivers and officers alike.  

Friday, April 13, 2012

I Will Always Remember…

It is one of those moments that I will always remember… 
People always talk about these moments because they capture our hearts with such shock and sadness that they burn an indelible snapshot of time into our souls.  The end of World War II, the Kennedy assassination, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon are a few examples that many people will always remember.  They can tell you where they were, and how they felt, with chilling accuracy, when they heard the news.  We share these moments because they affected all of us, and we can all relate to the emotions expressed by others.  They united us because of their global impact.
Then there are very personal and private moments we each hold quietly in our memories; the death of a family member or pet, the moment of birth of our children, a marriage proposal, getting our driver’s license.  These moments bond us together in a different way.  We each experienced these moments at some point in our lives, but in our own personal space, in our own personal time.  They are similar stories with similar emotions, but vastly different details, locations, and characters.
Then there are the events in between global and private.  The concentric circles of impact reaching levels of notice globally, levels of sadness regionally, and levels of grief and devastation at the personal level.  I am referencing the tragic assassination of Kyle D. Pagerly.  Kyle was gunned down by a cowardly fugitive whose blatant disregard for human life took from our world, an amazing young man.
It is one of those moments that I will always remember… 
I took the phone call from my department chief that evening with no expectation of the news that would buckle my knees and temporarily drain my face of its blood supply.  This was followed by a wave of changing emotions that overlapped so frequently I lost track of my senses.  I was in denial.  I was in shock.  I was angry.  I was sick to my stomach.  That news derailed my understanding of mankind, and I suspect I will be forever changed by Kyle’s sudden passing. 
Though I was 20 years his senior, I watched Kyle live like few others ever dared.  I admired his energy, his up-beat, can-do attitude.  I watched him grow as a determined fire lieutenant, a loving young husband, a proud patriot, a dedicated public servant, and a friend.  He would have been an amazing father to Savannah Kylie, his daughter that he will never get to hold in his arms.  It doesn’t seem fair that a man with so much love of life was taken from us at such a young age.  The loss of Kyle will sadly be one of those moments we all will remember, but most importantly, his LIFE will be something that will be remembered as well.  Despite his age, and even without his knowledge, Kyle taught me many things about life.  I never had the opportunity to tell him, and I will always regret that.  Perhaps I didn’t realize just how much he taught us all until after he left.  Now, almost 10 months after his tragic death, I still hear his voice, picture his smile, and mourn the fact that he is gone.
I was proud to be on the fringes of his life.  I can only imagine the sadness felt by those even closer to him.  His loving wife, Alecia, is an amazing woman.  I am awed by the strength she shows as she fights through the tears of life without Kyle, always standing proud at the events honoring Kyle’s life. 
Thank you Kyle, for all you have given to your family, friends, associates, co-workers, and comrades. 
Loved my many, forgotten by none!

Please honor Kyle, by rewarding his K-9 partner, Jynx with the honor he earned as well.  Jynx’s actions saved many lives that warm summer evening.  Vote every day at THIS LINK .  Thanks.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Son of a…

Even a casual glance across the rosters of the volunteer fire service reveals a pattern of family involvement.  Family values and traditions play a large role toward an inherited desire to volunteer in the local fire department.  It is not uncommon to see at least one father/son or brother/brother tandem on any fire department roster.  In fact, I recently examined my region (60+ fire suppression agencies) and discovered a family tandem in over 75% of those departments.  Many had more than one pair of relatives actively serving.  The longevity and commitment to the fire service created by this type of family-based value shows in the number of these relationships that included one or more leaders of their respective organizations.  My family, for example, includes a grandfather, father, mother, sister, cousin and daughter who either serve, or served the organization in some capacity, most rising to a successful position of leadership.
On my sixteenth birthday, I got a fire helmet from my parents.  While that may seem a bit presumptuous, it was one of my most memorable gifts I ever received.  I had already spent several years watching and learning.  You see, my father was the fire chief; it was fairly certain that I would follow in his footsteps. 
Those of you who have followed your parents into an “occupation” understand that often means more hurdles than advantages.  The volunteer fire service is no different.  The expectations are set much higher, and you can’t simple “stay home” if you didn’t feel like participating, without lots of explaining and guilt.  Please understand that these represent the “good” part of having family in the business; built in motivation, insights into the behind-the-scenes issues, etc.  It makes me appreciate the “generic”, non-family connected volunteer even more!  Choosing to serve the fire department takes a lot of guts and commitment…and sacrifice!

The challenges that are even more difficult are the ones that come from outside the family, and outside the scope of evaluation of a traditional member.  It is the expectation and assumption of the masses that an offspring of a leader has greater opportunity for advancement and acknowledgement, yet nothing could be farther from the truth.  While I will admit that having a family heritage in the fire service certainly made me aware of the opportunities available to me, the path to success was certainly as difficult, and even MORE difficult because of the perceptions of nepotism that needed to be overcome. 

I knew from the beginning of my career in the fire service, that I would have to work harder, study more, attain more certifications, practice more intently, be more uniquely creative, and set my own personal bar higher than most simply to overcome the assumption that I got something I didn’t earn.  Hearing the phrase “…because you’re the chief’s kid” was something that made me so angry I could spit!  That phrase was my motivation to rise above the presumption through endless hard work and personal accomplishment. 

My father didn’t make it easy either.  His fire service career is adorned with many great accomplishments that have made the Hostetter name well known in the emergency services network.  I marvel at the number of people who I meet who give me that awestruck look as they ask, “Are you related to Glen?”, as if I am some sort of heir to a throne.  It is a bittersweet feeling of being directly associated with such a great community leader, while never being able to step clear from the shadow he casts. 

THAT, however, remains my goal.  In the words of Napoleon Hill, “The strongest oak of the forest is not the one that is protected from the storm and hidden from the sun. It's the one that stands in the open where it is compelled to struggle for existence against the winds and rains and the scorching sun.  In an effort to be that mighty oak, I have become so resistant to accepting help from the trees around me.  I have steered away from the support and protection of one of the mightiest oaks I know in an effort to be strong, resilient, and self-sufficient.  I have done so with such resolve that I have carried that independent characteristic into professional relationships beyond those between my father and me.  Sadly, this independent drive is sometimes misinterpreted as isolation, unwillingness to work within a team, or “standoffishness”.  Wow, spell check didn’t underline that word; I am glad someone understands me!

While it may seem noble and honorable to desire acknowledgement and reward based solely on individual measurable achievement, I have, once again, discovered that the world doesn’t always work that way.  There is more than just black and white, there are many shades of gray that come from blending the measurable with the immeasurable.  I can only hope that before my career ends, I learn to dip my fingers in the paint and smear myself a new opportunity that mixes my personal accomplishments with all those career boosting, wheel greasing traits that I have trained myself to avoid for the past 32 years.  I just hope after all these years, my paint hasn’t dried up!