The Best Damn Department In The Fire Service


Everybody got they're cup of regulah? Everyone comfortable? Good.

So I'm sitting on the tailboard the other shift with the rest of my crew and we're talking about general happenings and scuttlebutt around the department. Soon the conversation turns to the general problem-solving and saving of the planet. Of course, me bein' me, I offer my 2 cents on a couple topics. One of the guys who's been around long enough to be able to say something like this says, "Oh, speakin' from your many yeahs experience as Chief, Kenny?" So I kindly replied, "No ya' chowdahead. Speakin' from my many years experience as a fireman." That got a laugh, even from my buddy who was trying to bust my stones. But I did mean it the way I spoke to it.

Sometimes, and it seems with increasing frequency in the last many years, the people who are being tapped to run our jobs didn't spend a whole lotta time learning the job before they get the big bump. Sometimes this is the result of the department's own rules and regs that allow a junior member, say someone just off probation or with only a couple years in, to challenge a promotional exam. Other times it's as a result of the "skyrocket" or "golden child" who seems to garner the favor of the powers that be and finds the path to success is a little easier than it is for other candidates. It's no secret we have better educated firefighters on the job today. Many of the younger jakes are coming on with Associates, Bachelor's and sometimes even Master's degrees. All this studying, writing and memorization helps them when it comes to a promotional test. Now I'm not bashing education, I'm all for it. But the books have gotta be balanced with some experience as well.

There's that saying in the fire service that, "I may have to respect his rank but I don't have to respect him." I've been hearing that one whipped out more and more often lately. A while ago we had a bit of a problem child with us. Many of us tried counseling him individually on separate occasions but it didn't really help. Finally, we decided it was time for an intervention. We called that show on A&E, you know, the one you want to watch to feel better about your own life, the one that does the interventions with all the skeeves and drunks? But they weren't interested. Don't judge, even a jake can get something outta watching it. Anyway, being a senior member I went to the Lieutenant and talked to him about it to see how he wanted it handled. He told me to handle it on our level and then if it didn't get better he'd be the hammer. So the entire shift sat down with this kid and had a chat. We didn't jump him, didn't humiliate him but examples were certainly brought out regarding his less than exceptional performance and how it needed to change. One of the comments he made during the chat still rings in my ears. He said, "What's with you guys? Am I gonna have to fight a fire or make a grab or something before you guys respect me?!" We sat there stunned. I looked at another guy who had more time on than me and he just shook his head, grabbed his cup and left the table. A couple other guys scoffed and just shook their heads. I simply said, "That might help. But you better pray you do it right instead of the way you have been doing it." Fast forward a few years. This particular individual transferred out of our house and went somewhere slower, a little more remote from other houses and we didn't hear much from or about him. Until the recent Lufts list came out. There he was, just about at the top and certainly within reach of that first bugle. Now go back and read the first line of this paragraph again.

I took a trip not long ago to see some family. While we were in town there was the usual family dinners with plenty of time to have some beers and chat. One of my cousins is a firefighter in the area so we were catching up and swapping stories. My cousin's department is small. A couple stations, about 30 guys on three shifts, a couple thousand runs a year fire and EMS. He then began to tell me about the new chief that was recently promoted. This particular person spent three years as a firefighter on my cousin's job. Three frickin' years. He then got promoted to Captain, and then two years later was tapped as the Chief-of-Department. You could almost see the steam coming out of my cousin's ears as he relayed the story. But it wasn't the anger of jealousy or of being slighted or passed over, it was the anger of seeing an injustice taking place and being powerless to do anything about it. You see, this guy has a Bachelor's in some sort of Business Management and a Master's in some sort of Emergency Management or something. Again, please don't misunderstand me, I think the education this guy has is great. But where's the experience to draw from? Where's the foundation in tactics and strategy? Where's the background in what works in theory and what works at 2 A.M. in the street? Evidently the politicos in my cousin's City Hall just want someone to try and balance the budget or steer the ship through the tumultuous economic downturn times or something. So now this guys got one bugle for every year experience he has. Again, see pre-ceeding paragraph's first line.

Even though I'm not promoted I believe in readying yourself as much as possible beforehand, not after you've got the bump. So I read. And I study. And I talk to people. And I train. And I take classes I don't have to. All in an effort that someday, when the devil himself is playing hockey on his own personal rink, I get the bump I'll hopefully be ready. One of the books I've read that influenced me the most has nothing to do with the fire service at all. It was written by the now retired Captain of a guided missile destroyer in the United States Navy. His name is Captain D. Michael Abrashoff and his (first) book is titled, It's Your Ship; Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.  On it's initial shine the title might seem pretty conceited. But what Captain Abrashoff was able to do while in command of his ship was nothing short of amazing. The Navy ranks it's ships in each operational fleet (Atlantic and Pacific) and then throughout the entire Navy. These rankings are based off of performance drills, evaluations etc. When Captain Abrashoff took over the U.S.S. Benfold she was just about dead last in the entire Navy. When he left for a different command a mere two years later Benfold was first. The book is a great read for nothing else than just the story, but it also gives some great leadership advice. The funny thing is that this advice isn't earth-shattering or previously undiscovered. It is simple, to the point and highly effective. One of the best, and a personal favorite, is this gem, "I began with the idea that there is always a better way to do things, and that, contrary to tradition, the crew's insights might be more profound than even the captain's." Imagine that. The management asking the workers what works and what doesn't instead of implementing changes that they think should work. Huh. 

I don't need to be a Chief, or Captain or Lieutenant. I want to be, it's true. But as long as I'm a lowly blueshirt and can draw upon my education and my experience to influence others and my department I can be happy. I truly believe my department could be The Best Damn Department In The Fire Service, and so could yours. Sometimes we just need to convince our "leaders" of that. Sometimes, they just have to take a step back and realize maybe they don't have all the answers and that us peeons might just have some worthwhile input. We need some leaders with the courage and personal intestinal fortitude to realize they may not have all the answers or experience and to reach out to the lower ranks. Then, after receiving that input,  to stand up and actually believe that the advice is sound and institute those ideas that work. 

Oh well. Maybe when I'm chief, eh? Now getjerbutts off 'da tailboard and go do somethin'. Like train.



  • Rick Decorie says:

    Good editorial. I have the audiobook from Capt. Abrashoff. I've listened to to it twice already. He really hits the nail on the head. Good luck with the promotion. Stay safe.

  • Lt. Lemon says:

    Great post, well said. I've been working on a similar topic recently and you hit the nail on the head. Education is important, I've recently written about that, but experience is always the most important quality to consider when promoting. Not just how much, but how the candidate reacted during those (hopefully) years of experience. I can't understand how the "white helmets" expect firefighters to follow an officer who just completed their probationary period. Maybe you can tell me when you're chief! Stay safe!
    -Lt. Lemon

  • Chris Harvey says:

    It's Your Ship is a book that the entire Fire Service should read

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