Recently, while teaching a hands-on-engine class in Delaware, my younger and wittier teaching companion Roger Steger found it was time for our traditional protein bar and Monster (drink) run. As he headed out the gate, he stopped and asked me if I needed some Metamucil to go with my Ensure. This was his not-so-subtle way of reminding me that I am old. It was day two of running long-lines, pushing in with large lines and box-alarm drills, and on top of that it was 97 degrees. I needed no reminders. As I get ready to cross the threshold into my 38th year in the fire service I can honestly say that I have seen the ebbs and flows of change; some good, some bad and some outright failures.
For those of you who will be quick to judge me as a Neanderthal, opposed to any form of change, do your homework. One of the most fundamental beliefs I have is that we should always challenge ourselves to find better ways to do our jobs; we owe that to the communities we serve and our membership. The key word here is BETTER.
During my weekly perusing of youtube fire videos, I came upon what I will say is one of the most tragic and disturbing videos I have ever seen. I will spare the details, not because I am against calling this department out, but because I believe this incident will likely end up in a court of law with the charge of malfeasance. This was just one in a series of several hundred (no exaggeration) horrible fireground operations that I have viewed in the past year; each one leaving me more and more at a loss for words. I have been spending a tremendous amount of time trying to figure out how we got so far of track.
This is the first of a three part blog where I will share my personal opinions on the possibilities. It’s fair to assess that this deterioration is a result of many issues; however, I have chosen to focus on what I perceive as the top three: New Deal, Raw Deal or the Wizard of Oz, The 9-11 Infatuation, and It’s All About Me.
As I watched that video I quickly digressed to an article that I had recently read where the author wrote “too much change can result in confusion, disorganization, and lack of competence.”
My friends I am telling you, as a whole, we have lost our way (mission confusion) and as a direct result have seen a growing decay in job performance and competency at every level.
In the early 1980’s, many great thinkers in the fire service hypothesized that if the fire service didn’t create a new mission and completely overhaul the fire service we would quickly lose our relevancy in the community and become extinct. They deduced that fires were quickly becoming a thing of the past and so would the fire service as a whole if we didn’t become more agents of change. This led to formation of fire service think-tanks filled with progressive change agents.
These think tanks began proposing a host of schemes and ideas intended to transform us from a vanishing, outdated government service straight to the top of the Forbes 500 list. Higher education emerged as one of the cornerstones of the future. Transforming ourselves from a blue collar workforce to a white collar establishment was key. Higher education was proposed as the way forward and mastery of skill and experience was staged on side Charlie.
Promotion exams and executive job descriptions were rewritten, placing emphasis on educational accomplishments over past achievements, hard work, competency and job knowledge. In fact, those who lacked a formal degree were often viewed as outdated; stuck in the past and an obstacle to creativity and change.
The list of progressive leaders began to grow and so did the number of think-tanks. There was a rush to see who would have the honor of sitting at the right hand of Ben Franklin as they rewrote fire service history. Some executives showed just how progressive they were by trading in their work uniform for a three piece suit. The demolition of the traditional service had begun.
Taking a page from President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 New Deal, Fire Chiefs everywhere began reengineering the fire service through countless experimental projects and programs, most (not all) of which had little to nothing to do with delivery of basic services.
I suppose this could have all worked out great except for one minor issue; the demands for our basic services (the preservation of life and property and helping those who are sick or injured) never went away and in fact have continued to increase exponentially. Many departments around the country are seeing record increases in service demand. It wasn’t the New Deal, it was the Raw Deal.
Today, we are the lynch pin holding the EMS system together, we regularly respond to fires, we are involved in technical rescues and have taken a lead role in issues of homeland security and emergency management. What do all of these services have in common? They each require a workforce, that is highly skilled at operating in the most stressful and dangerous environments with the greatest degree of competency, professionalism and compassion. Any of that sound familiar to you? It’s like the scene from the Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy clicks her heel three times and discovers “there’s no place like home”.
Today, we look at the rising level of incompetency and point the finger at things I call “modern excuses”. This list includes things such as; modern fire behavior, wind-driven fires, new construction, workforce generational differences, safety first etc. While each of these are worthy of greater discussion, none of them are acceptable excuses. Quite honestly, the public doesn’t care about any of these issues. They expect a timely, professional and compassionate response to a 911 call and quite frankly, that’s what we should expect of ourselves.
The fact is we (the fire service) allowed ourselves to be bamboozled into redefining our mission, purpose, and focus. We took a noble mission and viable service (which for more than 200 years our communities overwhelmingly valued) and attempted to redefine it; based on what we thought was best for us (fire service). In doing so we broke the cardinal rule of public service which is – doing what’s best for the community ahead of doing what’s best for us.
The service we have been delivering for more than 200 years and continue to deliver today will likely never go away. If the fire service fails or becomes irrelevant it will do so from the inside out, not the other way around. That means we created the demise, not the public. So here is my warning: Continuing down the path of attempting to redefine our mission and purpose is the greatest risk to our service. The “safety first”, “your safety is the most important” mentality not only misses the mark of achieving maximum safety, it places greater emphasis on us and less emphasis on those we are sworn to protect (just go to the video tape). Continuing to hire or recruit (career or volunteer) a workforce, that lacks a desire to help people (compassion), lacks integrity and lacks capability will assure complete mission failure. Continuing to promote officers who lack experience and skill-set or who can’t or won’t lead will result in more confusion, disorganization, and loss of competency.
Please don’t get me wrong, the “traditional” fire service was in no way perfect. In fact something’s were outright inappropriate on every level. The foundation however, provides a blueprint for what success should look like. Failing to lead and losing focus on mission and purpose has created unintended consequences. Attempting to justify those consequences by applying modern excuses is disingenuous and distracting to finding our way home.