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!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Finders Keepers

Two very important words in the vocabulary of fire service leaders today are recruitment and retention.  I don’t care if you are a career, volunteer, or combination station, finding quality people, and subsequently keeping them is one of the greatest challenges we face.  In fact, the old grade school axiom “Finders keepers, losers weepers” is the basis for today’s blog post.
To begin, I researched the word “recruit” and was reminded that it is both a noun, and a verb.  We need to recruit recruits!  How catchy!  There are other interesting words that come up with that definition: enlist, draft, enroll, strengthen, supply, recover, replenish, renew, restore.  I never considered the “re-“ to be a prefix, since as a prefix it means “to do again”.  Then I thought, “Of course, we are always re-casting the net for new members”, or, I suppose, “CRUITS”.  But what bait do we use to catch these “cruits”? 
If they were fish, we would study what they eat, where they eat, and when they eat.  Then we would tempt them with their favorite snack attached to a barbed hook, and snag them through the lip and reel them in.  I suggested this at our last staff meeting, and we collectively decided this would not have any positive long term effects on our membership ranks.  Not literally, anyway.  I wanted to focus on young men and women and the volunteer fire service, so I set out to study these little guppies to see what “lures” them to join.  Like puppets, they said all the correct canned answers: help my community, be a good citizen, yada, yada, yada.  I immediately called “bullshit”!  Young people join the fire department because they are the leftovers, the outcasts, and the visionless who have not been able to carve another social niche for themselves.  They know the fire service, in general, is starving for warm bodies and willing souls.  Let’s face it, we pretty much believe we can mold any of these bewildered humanoids into mean lean firefighting machines, so we sign them up, and take them in.  We attract them with bright shiny trucks full of really cool tools, promise to dress them up in an awesome set of protective equipment, and take them “beyond the yellow tape” where mere mortals seldom trod, and let them break stuff in the name of public service. 
THEN, they discover they actually need to learn stuff… lots of stuff… hard stuff.  Science and physics and math and reading and all the other things they loathed in school are all part of the business.  Then there is the discipline!  In school, they were herded around in groups of people very similar to themselves, and the teachers and school officials made and enforced rules made popular by guards at a reformatory.  Discovering that the fire service is a very diverse group of ages, races, educational levels, shapes and sizes, and is run by several sets of rules (emergency rules, and non-emergency rules) is enough to scare away the weak-hearted.  This is why retention begins immediately after recruitment.

Retention: to continue, keep, hold, and preserve the ranks.  After learning that “re-“ in recruitment meant to do again, I tried that same rule with the word retention and immediately realized how messed up the English language really is.  Why can’t we just use “Obtain and Retain” or better yet, “Finders Keepers”.  Retention of the ranks is an ongoing tactic that we sadly do not put enough effort into.  I could staff 2 or 3 good-sized stations with the quality people I know who have left the fire service for one reason or another. Sadly, I am sure that my actions or even my mere presence may have contributed to one or more of those departures, but I digress.  The best way to retain an individual is to continue to satisfy that individual’s appetite for what bait got him hooked in the first place.  That’s right, every individual needs a bit of specifically designed, personalized “atta boys” or “atta girls” to maintain their desire to continue service with the department.  On a larger scale, a clear and precise departmental vision must be developed, defined, and communicated.  Clear organizational goals must be shared with every member so they can each feel like an important part of the whole puzzle.   It is leadership’s responsibility to outline the specific points of that plan and steer the group’s actions toward the accomplishment of that pre-planned greatness.  THAT is what will help retain membership.
So, to review:
FINDERS:  Look everywhere, discount no-one, open your doors, sell your organization.
KEEPERS: Once you begin to invest in them, protect your investment so interest is compounded.
LOSERS: Passing up a potential piece of the puzzle is a mistake.  Don’t let the big one get away.
WEEPERS: Those who failed to focus on recruitment and retention as a vital resource. 
Your turn… GO FISH!