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.