Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lead, Follow, AND Get Out of the Way!

We have all heard the phrase, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way”.  It has many kin, such as the more crude, “Shit or get off the pot”, or the touchy-feely “Don’t walk ahead of me; I may not follow… yada, yada, yada”.  But as a fire service leader, one must realize that this is not an all or nothing proposition.  In fact, a good leader will lead, follow, AND get out of the way.  A great leader will know exactly when to do which.
Certainly, a leader must lead!  That is the very purpose of leadership.  But leading comes in many forms and styles.  One of the more common and reasonably successful ways of leadership involves leading by example.  The “do as I say not as I do” method only last for a brief period before the subordinates catch on to the inequality of the situation.  A leader must demonstrate the desired characteristics of his troops.  “Do as I do” is the most primitive method of leadership, and one of the easiest to enact.  People look to leadership and often mimic the actions and behaviors of that leader.  It is not necessary for that leader to say “do this” or “act this way”.  Setting the example with consistency is the most effective method to teach a particular behavior.  These passive “decisions” must also be complimented with active decisions.  It is the roll of a leader to make clear, committed directives that are based on knowledge and experience.  Whether choosing a fire ground tactic to initiate, or creating a policy to enact, a quality leader must decide on a plan and direct its completion, making adjustments and modifications based on feedback and re-analysis along the way. 
Following is another characteristic that a leader needs to employ.  The most obvious aspect that needs to be followed is the leaders’ supervisor.  Yes, folks, no matter how high up the ladder you climb; there is always someone on a higher rung.  Whether that is a superior officer, a municipal manager, or some other “higher authority”, we all follow somebody.   Less apparent, is the need for a leader to follow his troops.  This does not imply that a leader needs to stay on his subordinates heels, watching their every move (although I know a few leaders who do this).  This means a leader should keep track of the personnel in their unit.  By following their activity and project progress, a good leader will be able to keep the group on the right track and on the proper pace.  Timely support of their activities will enable the leader to maintain accountability while maintaining a respected supervisory role. 
Somewhere between leading and following is where the real action is.  It is the meat and potatoes of the operation; where the “real” work gets done.   It is where the well trained crew knows their job well, and often better than the supervisor.  It is the place where seasoned crew members call upon years of experience and repetition of a task.  It is where the finely tuned tricks of the trade are employed by the veterans, while the fresh new technology of the recently-schooled probies is tested.   It is where teamwork is tested, under battle conditions.  It is not the time to teach or explain, or describe.  Nor is it the time to critique, analyze, or discourage.  This is the time and place for the leader to get out of the way!  It is not always easy to assign a task and let it go, but trust in the crew at this moment in time is paramount.  If a leader has done his job well, getting out of the way will be easy.  When properly prepared, equipped, trained, and  protected, a leader’s crew will safely and successfully accomplish any reasonable task it is assigned with a high degree of confidence and competence. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Near Cat-Astrophe

My department was faced with a rather challenging dilemma a few years ago.  This one involved Ferb, half of the domesticated feline duo of Phineas and Ferb belonging to the Smiths (Name changed to protect the innocent).   Ferb was missing for two days until he was discovered “up a tree” in front of a house a block away from home.  It was obvious that Ferb was not able to climb down on his own, and was frightened and unable to access food or drink.  The Smiths called 911, and the Communications Center dispatched for an Officer in Charge to contact them directly.  Our engine (I was in the “thinking seat”) was just clearing a call, so we decided to head over to see if there was anything we could do. 

I spoke with Mrs. Smith, discussed the many options, and explained the low odds of successful fire department intervention (I never met a cat in a tree that liked firefighters).  Memories of a cat tumbling from the grasp of a firefighter on the tip of a ladder truck reminded me that these calls can quickly become circus-like.  That day, I counted backwards, "9, 8, 7, 6, 5, ..." as this feline bounced and tumbled through the tree limbs.  I suspect he has 2 lives left when he hit the ground, feet down by the way, and darted away, never to be seen again.  Unfortunately, I did not have my stopwatch handy or I could have calculated the distance he fell using the formula:  d = (1/2) 9.8 (m/s2) t2 .  See kids, that junk you learn in physics class can be helpful later in life.  

There was significant public attention to the crisis, so the crew opted to attempt a simple lure and grab rescue, using a can of cat food as “bait”.  As we suspected, Ferb was more scared than hungry, and darted for higher ground as soon as we began to ascend the ladder.  We place the can of food on a large branch, so Ferb could eat and keep his strength up, and left…humbled and disappointed that we could not “save the day”.  And if you are wondering... Yes, it was very difficult to tell the neighbors that we have never seen a cat skeleton in a tree.  

The next day, before noon, another neighbor, Mr. Brown, called the Communications Center requesting assistance.  He was also “kind enough” to notify the newspaper and local TV station., in attempt to “draw attention to this situation and get some results!"  (Thanks, Mr. "Helper")  I reported to the tree and spoke again to the pet owners.  No other agency was willing to respond to assist, so I developed a plan and advised them that I would stop back later in the afternoon if Ferb still had not come down on his own. 

Shortly after 3:00, I returned and found Ferb still in the tree, a news cameraman, worried children, a rickety wooden ladder that someone had attempted to scale the tree with, and a general community feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction with the lack of assistance available to them.  I knew it was time to take action once again.  I gathered a crew for the engine from the fire station and headed out to put the new plan in effect.  Using a ground ladder once again, the crew fastened a Have-A-Heart trap to one of the major horizontal branches in the tree.  The thought was that the cat could make it to the trap, and could be captured, at which time we would return and lower the cat safely to the ground without the chance for injury to our personnel, helpful do-gooders, and Ferb.  Within 20 minutes, the trap was set and baited, and I provided my phone number to the owners, instructing them to call me when Ferb was in the cage. 

At 0700 the next morning, I was awoken by my phone.  Mr. Smith said Mr Brown called him to report the cat was in the trap exactly as planned.  I dressed quickly and reported to the scene with a boastful swagger to view my success.  Upon arrival, however, the cage was not sprung, and there was no cat in the cage.  Helper Brown swears he looked out his bedroom window and saw the cat in the trap!  Sadly, he was mistaken.  However, what NONE of us saw, was Ferb in the tree!  He was gone!  Thoughts of worry began to swirl again… was he injured and suffering in a new hiding place, was he dinner for a predator, or was he just up on a limb where we could not see him? 

Finally, at noon on day 4 of the fiasco, Ferb showed up at home, thin and dehydrated, but otherwise uninjured.  The fire department involvement was rewarded only by the local appreciation for the EFFORT.

This event brought about several discussions between members, fellow officers, career staff, colleagues of mine from out of the area, and I am sure MANY conversations I was not present for or invited to participate in!  While I fully support the notion of “risk little to save little”  I viewed the suffering of a beloved pet of one of our citizens more than just a “little thing” .  I view it as the type of service that our community rightfully expects from its municipal departments.  It is more than just a “cat” we saved that weekend, but  the public opinion of the entire department. We have vowed to save lives, not just human lives.  It is one of the fundamental reasons for our existence.  

I know my decisions from that weekend were being questioned by many in the aftermath.  While we may not have SAVED a cat, we did save our IMAGE, gained community respect and admiration, and may have just convinced a young lad or two to become volunteer firemen when they get older.  Would I do it again?  Absolutely!  Would YOU?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Super Bowl

Ah, yes, Super Bowl Sunday.  This is the day that signifies the end of the NFL season.  What can I say?  As a life long Dolphins fan, the Super Bowl hasn’t excited me in two decades.  The salt in the wounds is watching the Brady bunch playing again!  Don’t get me wrong, I watch every play, every year.  I enjoy the bigness of the game, the commercials, the halftime performance, and subsequent internet bashing of the performance.  After all, this is supposed to be the two best teams in the league playing.  But is it really?  I am sure there are some fans in Green Bay (1 loss in regular season), or Philadelphia (beat the Giants twice this year) that would dispute that fact. 

The truth is that the Giants and the Patriots are just the two most fortunate teams.  That is usually the case.  Injuries, luck, weather, match-ups, coaching calls, and inches make the difference in many games throughout the season and the playoffs.  This game was no exception.  The Giants running back, unable to stop short of the end zone so they could run out the clock and kick a game-winning field goal, gave the Pats a chance to win it in the last minute (something we have seen Brady do more than once).  As the final second ticked off the clock, the ball bounced inches out of the grasp of one of the best tight ends in the game.  That’s right… I said “second” and I said “inches”.  All those practices, scrimmages, weekly games, playoffs come down to a few seconds and a few inches.  It really makes you wonder who the best team in the league really is. My hat goes off to the Giants!  Just showing that a 9 win team can win the super bowl gives my Phins hope! 

This is nothing new in sports, particularly in football.  Any fan of college football will tell you the “National Championship” is ALWAYS disputed, and the NCAA basketball tournament will crown the most fortunate team at the end of March Madness, but arguable not always the best team.  Once you make the post season, anything can happen.  The trophy usually goes to the hottest team, and/or the luckiest team when the games count the most.  Just ask the Packers!

So the next time you are riding the rig to an incident, think of the super bowl.  Is your team “hot” or are you in a slump?  Do you have some key “injuries” to members on your roster, keeping them from playing in the game?  Is the weather or the venue for your next event going to create a problem for your execution of your game plan?  Do you have the proper personnel to match up with the “opponent”, knowing clearly that this call will never be the same as your last one?  Will your “coaches” make the correct calls in a timely fashion to give you the best chance to win?  We know firefighting is a strategic battle against time, and we have no time-outs left. 

The biggest advantage we have is the access to the opponents’ playbook.  Now all we have to do is convince all of our players to study it.  Fire will always sneak in a trick-play, but understanding the basic game plan it normally uses will help us win our own “super bowl”.  Read the periodicals, watch the video accounts of incidents, study your area, and always keep your head in the game.  Be a champion on every call, and save the goofy victory dances for those who are surprised when they do well. 

Now, when do pitchers and catchers report???

Friday, February 3, 2012

Service Engine Soon

She is a faithful girl born in Dearborn, Michigan, who I affectionately call Veronica, and has been with me for over 10 years, despite the abuse I inflict on her.  I wake her up on cold mornings and demand she get moving immediately, I don’t bathe her very often, and I make her carry my crap everywhere we go.  I make her run around in all sorts of weather, leave her in strange places for hours on end, and make her listen to me try to sing along with the music (I change pitch at will, and often make up my own words to songs when I can’t understand the real lyrics).  She complains, but I just turn up the music louder so I can’t hear her whining. I am not a complete monster, though.  I feed her often (she has a voracious appetite), give her plenty of fluids, buy new shoes for her from time to time, and take her for a check-up every year.  Despite her age, she is still in good shape, despite her creaking and groaning, and I love her.

She kept hinting to me that she wasn’t feeling well, and every once in awhile, she blew a fuse.  I placated her, and gave her a new bauble, and that shut her up for awhile, but I knew deep in my heart that something was wrong.  I would always leave some spare change in the cup holder for her, stick on a new tattoo on her rear end and spritz her with some spice scented perfume every now and then, plus there was the occasional snack I would let slip between the seats for her to enjoy.  But I knew our relationship was strained.  The tension was mounting.  She was very bossy every time we went for a ride, always “recalculating”, but never just let me go MY way! 

Recently, she showed me that she was not to be neglected any more.  She broke the news to me as I was trying to turn left in front of a gasoline tanker that was traveling faster than I expected.  Like the cold slap in the face of a “Dear John” letter, she told me it was over!  I had experienced with the dreaded “Check Engine Soon” light before, but never with such drama.  Like the others who were with me before (Bu, Sunshine, Grey, Spookie, and Blackie), our relationship seemed to have reached the end.  I begged with her, and swore at her, and finally at the last moment, she lurched forward, and saved my life.  Maybe she still did love me? 

I took her outburst and immediately headed for some long-overdue therapy.  The “doctor” heard the symptoms, took some tests, and told me what I had known all along.  It was her, not me that had flaws… 10 of them to be exact!  He referred me to a specialist, and naturally, this would not be covered by her insurance.  Fortunately, she only had a few screws loose, and before long, she was back in my arms.

We had a long talk that night, and I promised her I would be more attentive to her needs.  I will try to be more responsive to her minor complaints.  Better yet, I have vowed to be thoughtful enough to know what she needs BEFORE she needs it, and tend to those needs promptly.  She is mine, for better or worse, in good times and bad, till death do us part.    

How do you manage your relationships?  Are you attentive to the little hints and your intuition or do you wait for the buzzers and flashing warning lights?  Take it from me (and Ben Franklin), “a stitch in time, saves nine”.  So listen carefully to your partner, and take preemptive action as necessary.  Work together, communicate often, and treat each other with kindness.  Meanwhile, check back later when I blog about properly maintaining your automobile.