Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Cause For Confusion

The more time I have on the job, the more I learn, and the more I experience, I can’t help but allow my mind to wander beyond the problems and difficulties most of us encounter to the bigger picture of their origin.   If knowledge is power, then knowing why something is happening is just as, if not more important than, knowing what is happening.  We frequently allow ourselves to become so smothered by the issue itself, we fail to identify our role in causing or contributing to it.  We also have a bad habit of allowing misconceptions and assumptions to prevent us from coming to rational resolutions for very simple problems. 

(Photo: Brass Tacks and Hard Facts)
As my years on the job add up, my desire to not only identify, but also solve many of our ongoing problems increases.  Talking to people from across the country, with various backgrounds, from different size departments has led me to know two things for certain; 1) We all experience similar problems in different ways and 2) We seem to be inept at solving these problems as they continue to plague us generation after generation.  These realizations have caused to not ask what is going on to why is it happening?  This approach has led me to the idea that perhaps many of the conflicts we face within the walls of our firehouses, and even during incidents to a degree, are based on our current mentality towards the fire service rather than an actual topic, opinion, or event.  What I mean is, could the way we react to our disputes be more about our psyche than the actual impact of what is causing our disputes to begin with?

I have a premise that our careers are divided into three very distinct, repetitive segments: 1) We blindly follow the information presented to us because we are na├»ve, ignorant, or content.  2) We challenge EVERYTHING we know, see, and learn because our experience and education causes conflict between theory and reality.  3) We make educated decisions on our beliefs and focus on not only perfecting them, but also sharing them with others in an effort to unify our members as well as establish standards that will result in increased skill, performance, and efficiency. 

At face value, your mind has likely classified these 3 distinct
(Photo: Behind the Badge OC)
segments into decades we are on the job, ranks or milestones, or some other similar measure of time, however I don’t think it is that simple.  For the most part we all assume that our careers occur on a linear path.  We start as a probie and learn the basics of the job.  From there we add a little time, experience, and maybe even some specialties to our resume as we take on a little responsibility, maybe even becoming a driver/operator or other special designation.  Finally, we graduate to becoming a senior man, company officer, or chief.  While this is undeniably the typical path of professional progression, the problem is that while the promotional ladder is straight, defined, and generally with very few deviations from what we know and expect, the thought process that defines our growth and maturation during these career benchmarks can be anything but.  Therefore, our strategic and tactical beliefs are not necessarily in line with our pay grade or position, but instead it is how our minds interchange between the three segments which makes subtle changes in our views throughout our careers, resulting in swaying  in our opinions or tactics quite regularly.

(Photo: Fire Engineering)
Our training and curriculum fail us by diminishing the importance of constant growth and neglecting the reality that each step in our career comes with a new set of “probationary” criterion associated with each position.  It also implants the assumption that our mental growth, skill level, and tactics are parallel to our position.  In other words, as we move up in rank or responsibility, our thoughts, opinions, and ideology will grow at the same rate causing us to believe that our knowledge base is not only as rigid as the rank structure, but that our thought processes are directly proportional to where we fall in that structure.  Learning to be a driver/operator, company officer, or Chief is really no different than learning to become a firefighter except the amount of time and effort we put into development and education at each step seems to decrease.  Therefore, much of our disappointment and conflict is caused by assumptions that lead us to believe that knowledge, information, and competence is equal to rank when in reality this is often very incorrect.

What if I proposed that our professional growth was actually an inverse relationship to our rank structure?  Considering we have new responsibilities at each step, it is fair to say the higher we go the more we need don’t know and need to learn.  What if I suggested that our thoughts and opinions resembled a serpentine more than a straight line?  If experience and knowledge allow us to analyze our approaches, obviously we will constantly refine and adjust our theories and tactics as our knowledge bank increases.  This results in learning new skills or trying new approaches causing us to jump back and forth between student and teacher, even though our position within the department generally is a one-way path.  What if were to surmise that our careers were in a constant state of movement from one segment to the next, but not following any particular method or specific order.  Would you agree that we can be sure of ourselves one minute, questioning everything we have ever known the next, and then eager to share our reaffirmed beliefs only to fall back to questioning everything immediately after?  What if I told you there is no guarantee that each person will experience the three segments I have discussed?  Some people never learn to think for themselves or find it necessary to ask why.  Some people never make it to teaching because they get stuck challenging things but never arrive at an answer.
New events and results can put us through a roller coaster of confidence and doubt as we continually seek to improve our understanding of the job and performance of the mission objectives.  Probation isn’t the only time we will blindly follow just as making officer isn’t the only time we are qualified to teach others.  If we really sit down and analyze how our theories and convictions change over the years based on practical knowledge, education, and experience rather than rank or position, we will find that we are constantly changing even if we pretend otherwise.

(Firefighting In Canada)
There is no magical formula that equates a certain title or position to a specific level of competence just as there is no skill set or tactic that is saved exclusively for those of a certain rank.  As our roles change in our departments, so does our perspective.  It is that perspective combined with what we have gone through that forms our opinions.  Most of us come on the job with the assumption and expectation that those entrusted with leading and developing us will always have the answers and our best interests at hand.  Some of us experience this while others are paired with a senior man or officer who doesn’t deserve such a title.  This may cause one firefighter to quickly transition to questioning things while another goes on for many years before encountering that phase.  The number of runs we go on, their severity, our successes, and our failures all have bearing on how quickly or often we transition from following what we are told to challenging our former beliefs.  These challenges sometimes find us new answers we believe in and want to share, while other times they help us conclude the strategies we are currently using are accurate and worth continuing.

Just when we think we have arrived at our convictions and reached the point in our careers where it is time to share what we think is “the way”, we may be confronted with a run, transfer, or promotion that once again forces us to question our thought process.  This is the very reason those who know the job the best will tell you the day you stop learning is the day to hang it up.  However, what we have left out of the equation is the fact that our views and principles are constantly evolving and can result in some serious internal struggles and frustrations.

(Photo: Fire Engineering)
If we consider the three segments of our careers as following, questioning, and teaching and agree that we transition between the three based on our situations and perspectives, rather than our time or position, we can now see why we spend so much time arguing with each other over what but fail to consider why.  As we pool our ideas and concepts together, we are faced with people who are at different ends of the spectrum as well as experiencing different segments of their careers.  Maybe a 30-year Chief who is focused on teaching becomes frustrated with a 5-year man who is questioning rather than following.  He doesn’t account for the fact that what he is so sold on as the right way just caused that 5-year man to miss a victim or get burned on his last fire.  His experience tells him different, however maybe this Chief believes our paths are linear and disregards the feedback because he thinks knowledge is based only on position.  Perhaps that same 5-year man becomes frustrated because he is in a segment of his career where he feels that following those above him is the best course of action, yet he is getting conflicting advice from two company officers, one of which is in a questioning phase with a particular concept, while the other is in a teaching phase about same idea.  You can see from these two examples that our personal evolution as firefighters may be more cause for conflict than the actual ideas we are debating.

(Photo: FDTN)
The list of possible scenarios is infinite, but what remains constant is the fact that if we fail not only to ask, but also UNDERSTAND, why those we are debating with feel or support a certain way, then we will forever be griping with each other.  We must accept that our views and beliefs will constantly change and evolve throughout our careers, often at rates that are not in line with those who surround us.  Our conclusions are shaped by not only time, rank, and corresponding responsibilities, but also experience, education, analysis, practice, data, and the influences of others who are undergoing the same process.  We need to focus more on listening, conversing, and discussing issues rather than arguing or fighting about them.  There is no perfect set path or unbending rise in knowledge or stature.  The best at what we do reached that point because they understood and allowed themselves to grow with the job and realized that each step on that organizational ladder was not a guarantee of expertise, but rather a fresh opportunity to challenge and confirm our way of thinking from a fresh perspective or unique viewpoint.

Due to the diversity of departments, response areas, equipment, manpower, strategies, and tactics used in our profession, it is highly unlikely we will ever come to a concrete consensus that will work for every department.  The sooner we acknowledge this fact and replace the erroneous concept of linear development with one which accounts for the many twists and turns we encounter as we continually transform of our stance on how to best accomplish the mission, the sooner we can quit griping and start focusing on supporting each other rather than sabotaging each other.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Bullies or Babies: Who is to Blame?

I was recently contacted by a follower of the page who requested that I tackle bullying in an upcoming article.  He communicated he was having some difficulty as a member of a new department and was looking for a little motivation to stay focused.  While I am not sure my perspective on bullying or being a new member of a department for that matter will help make him feel better, I think this is a topic worthy of some serious discussion.

Photo: The Mother Company)
Pretty much everything I remember from my childhood is probably now classified as “bullying”.  When I was in school we didn’t have fancy terminology, ad campaigns, or websites to help us “cope” with being picked on; kids were just kids.  We teased each other, said and did mean things, formed clicks, got in fights, and made others feel bad about themselves often for no reason at all.  Our coping mechanism was ending up on the receiving end of such juvenile behavior.  That is where we learned how it felt to be the victim instead of the aggressor and consequently why we should be a little more tolerant of others.  Kids policed themselves back then.  You either learned to ignore the teasing or you stood up for yourself by giving it right back or having a little fist fight.  Enemies were made, friendships broken, tears shed, and every now and then a little blood was spilled but eventually we all got bored with such nonsense and found better ways to spend our time.  If all else failed the fear of being disciplined by our parents or teachers  (yes younger members, back when most of us “old guys” grew up we were scared of adults) for acting like savages rather than the well-mannered, productive members of society they were raising us to be.
Photo: The Mother Company)

According to stopbullying.org, the definition of bullying is, “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.”  The problem with “bullying” in the fire service is we are adults operating in a very serious profession where an actual imbalance of power based on rank, time, experience, and skill does in fact exist.  Nothing in that definition describes what I see going on with how people are treated in the fire service.  This is not grade school, everyone doesn’t have to like you, you are not entitled to be treated any sort of way, and in case they aren’t teaching it anymore; LIFE ISN’T FAIR!  With that being said, we are supposed to be one of the few professions left that still maintains a brotherhood among its members, so let’s lose these stupid labels and talk about why new members are treated the way they are and why it is very necessary in most cases.

If you regularly follow The Fire Inside and its writings you know that I am not shy about pointing the finger at those with time on the job as the cause of many issues plaguing our profession.  This is not because I am some entitled, whiny kid who thinks the fire service misunderstands younger members but rather because I think with experience comes responsibility, specifically a responsibility to maintain and enforce the standards that make our profession great and to change things when performance or circumstances fall below these standards.  In the case of “bullying”, or as it will be referred to from here on out, initiation, the younger members need to understand that initiating new members properly is one of those responsibilities.

(Photo: Firefighter Nation)
Younger members, I understand your upbringing and the way you were prepared to enter the workforce is VERY different than how most of us were brought up.  I understand that you were told you matter, everyone will respect your opinions, and you are special.  I even understand that my generation is very much to blame for that because we allowed things to get to this point.  Now, I need you to understand that you have entered the fire service and when we go to work the things we see and do DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOU!  That’s right, you didn’t choose a career in a college classroom, mommy and daddy’s home business, a safe space, or office cubicle.  You chose to become part of the greatest fraternity on earth that will give you some of the most rewarding, fulfilling, and memorable experiences anyone can dream of by putting you in the middle of the WORST this world has to offer.  Maybe you were told about the benefits, the pay, the cool shirts, or the image that came with this job and while that looks great on a billboard or recruitment video, it is time you understand and accept what you have really gotten into.

(Photo: YouTube/ David Rogers)
While those of us on the job like to joke and kid around most of the time, that is simply our defense mechanisms trying to compensate for the very serious nature of what we do and the toll it takes on us.  This job requires special people of a specific mindset who have very thick skin.  This craft is honed and earned through demanding work,  deep dedication, sweat equity, following orders, and constant repetition.  When done right, it is very different from anything most people have ever experienced before.  This also means that the way we induct people into our craft is also very different and at times confused with harassment rather than preparation.  Our methods may seem peculiar, our attitudes brash, and the way we treat you will be less than enjoyable at times but I promise you there is a method to the madness.  There will certainly be times where you feel we are trying to intimidate you, things required of you are less than glamorous, and days you appear to be singled out and tormented.  Sometimes there will be truth those observations, but what is asked of you is almost always a calculated strategy aimed at your growth as a firefighter.

(Photo: Penn State News)
Just like the military, we don’t invite kids (yes at 18-25 years old you are still a kid regardless of what the government tells you) through our doors and let them figure it out at their own pace or comfort level.  Although there is a bunch of bullshit propaganda out there to suggest otherwise, THIS JOB IS STILL ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS WAYS YOU COULD POSSIBLY SPEND YOUR TIME and we (those entrusted with your development) are here to make sure we teach you how not to die!  Make no mistake about it, what we do is combat just of a different nature.  Your job as a junior member is to shut your mouth, open your eyes, and use your ears to LEARN how to be a part of your department and this profession.  I know this seems to be contrary to everything your education and upbringing has taught you until this point in your life but stay with me, it will make sense soon.

(Photo: Washington Times)
Many of you will show up at your firehouses only to find that you are expected to do basically EVERYTHING while most of the other guys get to do as they please.  Sure, on the surface this probably seems unfair, but remember earlier in this blog I told you life isn’t fair.  The other members will probably find fault with what you do (even if it is done right), they will pick on you, tease you, yell, scream, cuss, and all sorts of other things aimed at getting under your skin.  This is a process that is used to see how you react to stress because what we do almost ALWAYS involves stress.  It is also a rite of passage.  They want to see what you are made of, how far they can push you, how you react when you are uncomfortable, if you can follow orders, if you are going to break down when it gets hard, and if you will ask questions when you don’t know what to do.  They want to learn your strengths and your weaknesses to form the most efficient developmental plan for you.  Everyone else in that firehouse should have endured something similar and realized the importance it had on their career.  They are paying it forward by taking their experience, polishing it just a bit, and giving it back to you so that one day you can do the same.

(Photo: Fire Engineering)
Even for those of you who aren’t kids and have decided to start with a new department, this still applies to you.  Every department has SOMETHING about its policies, procedures, geography, response area, equipment, or apparatus that is different from your Firefighter I class or previous department.  Having been through this already, you should know that if you do what is asked of you, your time to contribute will surely come.  Quite frankly if you are starting over at a new department and any of what I am saying is a new revelation for you than you really need to pay attention because you missed basically the entire essence of your probationary period wherever the hell you came from!

(Photo: WHNT)
Now for the senior men and company officers, you aren’t getting off that easy.  I am on your side with this issue.  I think that these kids need some thicker skin.  I think the politicians, counselors, and human rights activists need to step aside and let us do our thing (within reason) on this front.  Being initiated into a fire department is certainly not for everyone and is impossible to understand for someone has never gone through it.  Nevertheless, we must be mindful of HOW we initiate our new members and our PLAN for how it will take place.  We can’t push brotherhood and then have our go to tactic for welcoming new members involve ignoring, shitting on, and demeaning them.  They aren’t the only ones who get one chance at a first impression, you are held to that standard as well.  We were all new once even though many of us seem to conveniently forget this fact when we are finally the ones receiving the new member.  They are scared, excited, eager, and GREEN.  They don’t know what they don’t know yet.  They are usually fearless, fast paced, and dying to prove their worth.  Even the ones who don’t seem motivated are just waiting for an officer to figure out what buttons to push that will make them go.  Simply raining on their parade to project your might is a foolish and gutless tactic. 

If you actually earned the rank and/or position that placed the development of a new member at your fingertips I shouldn’t be telling you anything new.  I know many of us went through some less than pleasurable experiences coming on the job, but that doesn’t mean we should necessarily subject our new members to all of them.  Focus on the things you feel had the biggest impact on you.  Incorporate the methods that you feel shaped you the most.  Find a style that still allows them to prove themselves, but not at the cost of their self-worth.  Remember, the goal of initiation is to verify skills, set standards and expectations, build self-confidence, gauge and establish appropriate stress reactions, and to build comradery.  That doesn’t mean you can’t yell, tease, have fun, or be passionate, it simply means the goal is to educate not humiliate.  While you are not there to be their friend, you cannot be their leader if they don’t respect you and that has to be earned.

(Photo: photoblog.statesman.com)
Also remember that there needs to be a time period where the initiation is considered over.  Many departments are stagnant these days with few promotions or hires (new members).  You can’t expect someone to be the “new guy” for the indefinite future because no one is coming on behind them.  There should be a very defined gauge of when and what decides if they have proven themselves worthy of being considered a normal member of the crew.  Maybe it is when their probation is over, maybe it is when they obtain a certain certification, or maybe it is a predetermined number of months from when they came on.  Regardless of the benchmark, we must identify a set of circumstances that determines whether or not they meet standards and the path that accompanies each outcome. 

Now, it should be noted there are people out there who are just jerks.  Again, as I have already stated life is not fair.  However, there is a big difference between being initiated and being hazed.  There is an extreme disparity between breaking someone down to show superiority and breaking someone down so you can build them back up.  Every department has assholes who’s only skill is treating new guys like complete shit.  Senior men and company officers need to police these clowns and ensure they NEVER become someone’s impression of our departments.  Junior members you will figure out who these people are soon enough.  The best way to stop them is to avoid giving them the reaction they desire.  When they stop getting a rise out of you, eventually they will move on to someone who is actually scared of their childish crap.  Remember, you should always respect the rank but that does not guarantee you will respect the person.  Know your role, be respectful, and refer conduct that borders on harassment up the chain of command.  Do what is asked of you and stand up for yourself when needed.  Being respectful doesn’t mean getting run over.  Anyone who tells you contrary is one of the afore mentioned assholes.

Oddly enough, initiation has surely changed over the years.  I hear about people being upset because they were yelled at, teased, made fun of, called a bad name, pulled aside and corrected, or disliked how their company officer taught something.  Hey, at least they are talking to you!  When I came on the older crowd just looked at me and sized me up.  It was MONTHS of coming around, doing what was asked of me, and coming back before someone actually “talked” to me.  Conversation, chores, and extra duties were a sign that you were being accepted, not harassed.  So toughen up a little bit boys and girls.  Before you go crying about how you are being treated, be happy you were even afforded the privilege to be on the department in the first place.  Give it a little time.  Yes, there are bad people and bad situations out there but you need more than 2 weeks in the department to figure that out.  Give people a chance to show you their reasoning.  Give their methods time to come full circle.  Most importantly, give them time to build you back up.  If you still feel you are being mistreated than you have inadvertently found the most noble calling in our profession, the chance to make it better for the next guy…  Act accordingly!   

(Photo: New Britain City Journal)
Fire departments bring people together from many walks of life who normally wouldn’t have crossed paths.  They come from different backgrounds, ethnic groups, and regions of the country.  They have different morals, ethics, values, ideas, personalities, needs, strengths, and weaknesses.  Inevitably these differences will bring personality conflicts with them.  Sometimes people just can’t get along.  Sometimes people just plain don’t like each other.  Don’t confuse such incompatibilities with “bullying”, “hazing”, “intimidation”, or “harassment”.  It is perfectly normal for people to not get along.  The difference for the fire service needs to be a mutual respect for the mission and for the brotherhood which must bond us when times get rough.  However, this is not an open invitation to whine and cry every time someone tells you something you don’t want to hear, shuns you, or doesn’t like you.  We are adults who are brave enough to enter some pretty untenable environments yet we are running to taddle-tail on the “mean” guy who cussed at us or told us we suck.  Come on guys and gals, let’s grow up a little and act like adults!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Climate Change

(Photo: Zimmerman Media LLC)
I have never understood why we develop requirements which are sold as “industry standards”, yet we choose to lead, run, and plan our departments based on often outdated traditions and customs which are quite commonly direct contradictions of such “standards”.  The fact that the fire service as a whole is governed by a set of “recommendations” which are KNOWN to be unachievable and impractical for many fire departments across the country should be the first sign that we are promoting ideology rather than reality.  Instead of working on realistic plans and options for meeting these standards, we defensively spout off sayings and half-truths about how our way is better, the curriculum doesn’t work for a department like ours, the people who made them don’t know how things really are, or we must teach it to satisfy some type of funding or legal “requirement” even though we have no intention of applying said knowledge.  We teach and educate one way, then penalize our people for performing, citing, and using this information in the street.  Telling recruits to learn things one way for the test but they will learn the “real” way when they go to their company is baffling to say the least.  We are so afraid of change that we literally waste months of both instructor and student time and create habits that will now need to be overcome by teaching things we KNOW will not be done the way we have taught them!  This disconnect is the very foundation of the constant quarrels and disputes which divide our departments and eat up valuable time in our day. 

(Photo: Nationalmemo.com)
Leadership is certainly a topic which this phenomenon has a firm grasp on.  There is no shortage of advice out there regarding change, leadership, and their opposition.  Most is filled with fancy catch phrases, acronyms, strategies, goals, and wisdoms that are designed to motivate the reader or student but tend to have little actual follow through in the real world.  Most departments require classes and certifications which specifically address these topics as preparatory steps to becoming an officer.  While such advice is generally well intentioned and educational, the fact of the matter is much of it is a theory rather than a reality.  This idealistic approach to leading and running a fire department forms quite the conundrum for the average firefighter who is trying to improve their department from the ground up as the strategies they were taught for leading and affecting change frequently come up short.  I believe it is this flaw in officer development that leads many to the darkness of failure, exhaustion, fear, and depression which generally accompany the slap in the face of being let down by your training.

I try to keep up with these strategies which come to us in many forms these days including formal education, in-service training, conferences, trade magazines, books, and social media.  I do this because as much as I have been taught about leadership in my life, I am still searching for the answer of how to make the way it “should be” and reality the same thing.  The goal of my crusade is not to necessarily form a brand, but rather form strategies that can be used realistically in your firehouse rather than idealistically on a test or essay.  Unfortunately, as leadership has become a higher priority topic, the space has become overcrowded with those who are just regurgitating information they came across in the various outlets and trying to brand it as their own.  Although many of the existing strategies are sound and practical, their implementation remains troublesome because they do not account for the favorites, buddies, and exceptions which infest the status quo that “leadership” has become.  I attribute this specific lack of accountability to be the main reason firefighters become discouraged and eventually abandon their department, or the fire service altogether! 

(Photo: Low Country Firefighter Support Team)
I get so upset when I read articles by very influential people in the fire service that suggest giving up on a person or department is a “selfish” action.  Jumping ship at the first sign of difficulty and continuously banging your head against the wall to the point you have become lost are vastly different situations.  Even though we are in an occupation that is centered around solving problems at all costs and never quitting, I think it is inappropriate to make people believe that treating the internal politics of a fire department and the emergencies we mitigate as one in the same.  We are lying when we pretend there never comes a time to throw in the towel.  Whether you are dealing with other employees, a particular station, or the department as a whole there is a tipping point that occurs when you have exhausted all of your options, strategies, and tactics to change, compromise, or rectify something that you do not agree with.  This tipping point is the difference between your ability to cope and being in a situation which is not conducive to a positive outcome.  For some people, this limit comes early on and for some it can take years, even decades to show its ugly face.  Many never even experience such conditions and enjoy long, wonderful careers in the same station or department.   Regardless of if or when it happens, identifying you have hit the point of no return is crucial to maintaining your productiveness, passion, and mental health!

Culture is defined as "the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group."  In other words, the traditions and events that shaped your station or department into what it is today are its culture.  We are constantly bombarded with the fact that the “culture” of our fire department affects the way we do things.  We are being led to believe that the solution to every flaw, failure, and defeat lies in changing this culture.  Well I am here to tell you, trying to sell cultural change as an individual or extremely limited minority is not an easy path.  Even the strongest, most motivated individuals will find themselves questioning their abilities when they fire the first shot in a cultural war that the majority does not want, whether it is needed or not.  There is a huge difference between the rank and file collectively taking on an oppressive administration and an individual taking on the culture of the entire department.  In some cases, the culture may not even the problem, but rather that culture is not right for a particular person!  Right, wrong, or indifferent the REALITY is you probably will not succeed, and if you do it will be at such a high cost to your personal reputation and passion that it probably won’t be worth it in the end anyways.  I understand that is not what you have been taught or led to believe, but it is the truth.

However, there is another option for those who are faced with situations where cultural change seems to be nothing short of impossible and that is a climate change.  I am not talking about the climate change being hammered on by politicians and scientists, but rather seeking a departmental climate that is more in line with your values, desires, and principles.  Climate is defined as "the prevailing attitudes, standards, or environmental conditions of a group, period, or place.  Firefighting is no different than weather in that certain parts of the country have different fire service climates.  Fire departments are similar but different in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Deep South, Midwest, and West partially because their of their cultures, but mainly because their landscapes, resources, threats, and attitudes are different.  There are even different climates within the same regions.  You may find departments in the same state or even stations in a larger department that have different climates!  Not every place drinks the same Kool Aid, ignores standards and requirements, or tries to beat to their own drum.  Contrary to what you are led to believe, there may be a better fit for you somewhere else.  There isn't necessarily anything wrong with you if you don't fit in with your current assignment or department, you may just need to find somewhere that is more in tune with your specific beliefs, aptitudes and passions!

(Photo: themighty.com)
Being a member of a fire department, volunteer or career, is the same as any other relationship or investment in life.  You were attracted to or viewed it as something that would produce a positive return in your life and got involved with it.  However just like people, houses, vehicles, or finances, life changes and the conditions of those changes are not always conducive to maintaining the initial plan.  Whether we outgrow something, our values or interests change, the original choice no longer makes us happy, or we are simply interested in exploring other options, we must constantly analyze the pros and cons of maintaining or deviating from our current situation.  Sometimes we must have faith in the value of our long-term investments,  sometimes we need to change the terms stipulations of them, sometimes it is our personal expectations which need adjustment, and under the most drastic of circumstances we may be forced to withdrawal what we can, cut our losses, and commit ourselves to a new venture. 

I am by no means advocating that anyone who is unhappy with their current station, department, or the fire service in general should immediately resort to finding a new place to call home but rather challenging the idea that removing yourself from a situation that you view as hopeless after endless attempts to remedy it is somehow selfish or cowardly.  There are far too many brothers and sisters pouring their passion into stations and departments who are getting ZERO return on their investment and end up so beat down and defeated they simply quit without actually resigning.  Sadly, they turn into the placeholders they have resented their whole career because they are simply out of fight as they try to wait things out until retirement.  Rather than sacrifice their passion and drive, why not simply try to find a new home that can nurture and restore it?

(Photo: Newswire)
Sometimes we all need a new beginning  whether it be a transfer, new assignment, different department, or a completely new career.  Even though such changes will all come with a risk, we must consider any option that protects our sanity.  Simply hanging around because we are too scared or proud to find something that is better for us hurts our department more than helps it!  You are NEVER too invested in something to back out.  Certain places and situations are good fit for some and not for others.  Just because most thrive in a particular setting does not mean everyone will.  If a single situation was right for everyone, there wouldn’t be options in life.  Make sure you are choosing the option that best fits you as your value to the agency is lost when you are operating based on fear, resentment, and anger.  There is something to be learned from every situation, good or bad.  While a different climate may not end up being a good fit either, entering a point of no return offers such a low probability of transformation it is more than worth the risk.  Your aim should always be to improve yourself, your crew, and your department, but if all else fails and you are unable to find peace in your current environment there is no shame in seeking a better climate for you!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mental Exhaustion

(Photo: FireChief.com)
Exhaustion is defined as “a state of extreme physical or mental fatigue” and “the action or state of using something up or being used up completely.”  While many perceive exhaustion as negative, there are many cases in our profession where being exhausted is directly tied to the effort, accomplishments, and situations you experienced during a tour.  There is something to be said for how you feel after putting in a good day’s work, regardless of how taxing it was on you.  However, that is a far cry from the ugly side of exhaustion which passionate individuals seem to be prone too, especially on a cumulative basis.  Mental exhaustion is the silent killer of passion and drive.  When we become so overwhelmed and frustrated that our minds drain us of our energy, we are victims of this often ignored, non-macho Achilles heel of the fire service. 

There are certain issues, events, and situations we face that have
(Photo: EastPDXNews)
no solution, otherwise we wouldn’t be experiencing them in the first place.
  Even worse, there frequently is a viable “solution”, yet for often trivial reasons it does not seem to work for us or our agencies.  It is these times where we simply need to vent our feelings and frustrations, as bottling them up magnifies the issues and takes its toll on us.  However, that venting process can be much easier said than done. 

Normally I pride myself in presenting a solution for every problem I write about or discuss; this will not be one of those ventures.  This commentary is going to be more personal than general as writing seems to be how I ventilate the infernos which rage in my mind.  I try to avoid such undertakings because they make me feel weak and selfish.  I would much rather talk about “we” or “them” any day of the week.  And while I focus on talking about “we” more than “me”, this is going to be one of those rare times where the writing focuses on me in attempt to free you from the demons which haunt and attack your passion. 

You could definitely say I have things pretty good in life.  I am
(Photo: Fire Engineering)
certainly rich in many ways including family, friends, career, and possessions.
  I have people that care for me, a job I am infatuated with, and much more than I need or deserve.  I even seem to have a little bit of a voice these days thanks to my social media endeavors.  However, like many “successful” people, I am tormented by my desire to keep pushing the envelope, chasing perfection I know I will never achieve.  Even though I am extremely appreciative for what I have been given and accomplished, I often find myself wondering who I am, what I am doing, and if my passion for the fire service is really worth it.  I struggle to maintain an identity as my theories and beliefs are attacked on a daily basis.  I also wonder how much longer my mind can shoulder the burden of the plentiful opposition which seeks to destroy me.  In an occupation that has identified the stresses induced by what we see and do on calls, we certainly continue to ignore the unnecessary stress we put on each other!

While I agree that we should always be thankful for the things we have, especially when we have it better than most, I do not believe that is an excuse to accept less than you are capable of or stop trying to improve.  Some may call that greed, I however call it motivation.  I specifically apply this concept to the fire service as our quests to acquire and achieve more are frequently shot down with justifications that involve comparisons to what other departments do or do not have.  I refuse to buy into this line of thinking as we are responsible to our citizens, our families, and our brothers at all costs.  That means we should always strive to give the best possible service which is completely unrelated to whether or not we have it better than most.  Such ideology threatens the very core of our craft which is the ability to protect life and property.  However, with the ever-growing pool of lazy, content, complacent, and mediocre bodies confined to the walls of our firehouses, too many have forgotten that we are tasked with serving the public, not ourselves! 

(Photo: FireChief.com)
My main flaw, and that of most passionate people for that matter, is I lack the ability to give in to things I disagree with, ESPECIALLY when it comes to our craft.  I am not talking about being stuck in my ways, unwilling to compromise, or unable to adapt.  I am talking about being dismissed, ignored, and flat out put down for pushing things that I KNOW are right.  I don’t know they are right because I came up with them, rather I know they are right because they are the consensus of the instructors, leaders, peers, and departments I admire, follow, and interact with.  However, when you are trying to affect change on people or in organizations which don’t see any shortfalls or deficiencies because they are content, you will often find out what being an “army of one” is all about!  The more you push, the harder they will push back.  The more you are attacked, the more emotion you tie to your fight.  Before you know it, you are backed into a dark corner of your mind where you feel trapped and helpless.  You are unable to shake the feelings of failure, inferiority, and disappointment.  The fallout of such interactions is stress, doubt, tension, disgust, hatred, confusion, hesitation, and exhaustion which invade everything you do creating a quick sand effect which will rapidly sink your efforts.      

(Photo: Shuttershock)
Although we can sit here and pretend and discuss that importance of pressing on, we regularly experience “bumps” in the road, which would be better described as glaciers or mountains in most cases.  These unwelcome formations make you feel like they are easy to chip away at while doing so will get you nowhere, further draining you of your drive and resolve.  We will push, push, and push some more until one day we wake up and for the moment we are DEFEATED!  We can lose sleep, become restless, stop eating, avoid others, or even have trouble focusing on things.  I have noticed that I begin to feel worn out all the time.  Even after a slow tour or a couple days off my body just doesn’t want to go.  Exercise, interaction, chores, projects, or any other diversion seem to compound the issue.  I find myself sitting around staring, spacing out, and watching the world pass by.  It is hard to get motivated at work, let alone accomplish anything that resembles passion or progress.  Sure, there are little bursts of hope mixed in, but they are short lived to say the least.  These are what I attribute to the downfalls of not being able to shut your mind off to reboot! 

I strive to keep my page, my writing, and my opinions realistic.  That means I aim to talk about what is real, rather than what is idealistic.  There are just far too many people and places pushing out a rhetoric that is not achievable or possible for the environments most of us work in.  Some might argue the same about The Fire Inside, yet I think I do a pretty good job of keeping things down to earth.  I am very open and honest about the fact that much of what I discuss is not possible at every department, or my own for that matter.  However, the values and strategies I talk about are most certainly realistic if people would get away from putting themselves before the organization.  In an era of dumbed down, over-simplified garbage I like to think that even if you cannot enact the types of things I discuss, you are at least able to work them into your strategic plans should you be given the opportunity to be put into a position that you can make change from!    

(Photo: About Firefighter Jobs)
You will meet lots of people who say I am negative.  There may be some truth to that, however I believe if your people are being perceived as negative, perhaps you should consider whether or not you are providing them with an environment to be positive about.  Most in the fire service don’t need shiny new rigs, the latest and greatest gadgets, or a wall full of citations to feel good about what they do.  What they need, and WANT, is supportive leadership that is open and accountable across the board.  Most of us just have a desire to feel like we matter, just a little bit, in this calling that is far bigger than any one of us individually.  We want to be needed, appreciated, and listened to now and then.  The fire service does a wonderful job of painting a fictional world of fire service leadership where there are the coveted “open door policies”, pots full of change which “boil from the bottom”, and “servant leaders” who put their crews first, yet where exactly is all this happening on a larger scale?!  I know they are out there but I think for the most part people feel good about repeating these strategies rather than implementing them!  Call me negative, but I interact with quite a few people on a daily basis that are asking the same question, so if you ask me that makes such ideas more fantasy than reality.  I read, hear, and see the complete OPPOSITE of such fantasies playing out across the country every day.  For everyone department that actually tries to apply these leadership approaches, there are 100 more who are demanding compliance through fear and intimidation!  So, if you don’t want our opinions or trust us enough to identify what we need to accomplish the mission, stop requiring us to take classes which teach us that our input is wanted and needed by those above us!  So much of what I perceive to be the problems of the fire service right now are teaching one thing and then expecting another, or worse something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!  The issue here is not with the troops, it is with those who are setting or conveying unrealistic expectations as a poor control mechanism to lead by confusion, humiliation, and shaming.

I receive a ton of feedback on the page which is positive in a
(Photo: Pintrest)
negative way… by that I mean most people love the page because it speaks to them about the same struggles I see and deal with in their own department.
  They talk about how I must be reading their mind, bugging their firehouse, or spying on their department because what I speak about is so accurate.  The page has become of refuge of sorts for people who are just pounding their heads against the wall day after day yet have so much passion and vigor for doing right by their brothers and communities that they will not quit!  I get everything from offers to write articles for the page, memes, quotes, articles from other places on similar topics, requests for help to start their own ventures, thanks, and everything in between.  I try to honor every single one of them in any way I can because I know the personal price of choosing the life of passion for our craft.  I know the mental breakdown people will impose on you when you challenge their tranquil garden of mediocrity.  I all too well know the emotions, stresses, anxieties, and doubts associated with being the only voice in the room who calls out the bullshit.  I KNOW!  And for that reason, I will do ANYTHING I can to help vent your roof so you don’t have to live with the conditions I do all too often.

This blog is not a call for help by any means.  While I am sure you could read this and assume I have some serious screws loose (which isn’t necessarily out of the question), I know where I stand.  I have zero doubts about my values and ideas for the fire service but more so in my abilities to convey them in a way which makes them part of my reality.  Perhaps I am depressed, need to see a shrink, or simply need a change of scenery.  Perhaps I am just like everyone else only they are unwilling, or unable, to let it out like I am.  If there is one thing I have learned thus far in my venture to cultivate passion, it is that seeds of passion are everywhere.  However, just like growing a crop, some soils are conducive to production, some will need some fertilizer and care, and others are just barren and will not support growth no matter how many seeds you try to plant. 

Regardless of your situation, FIND A WAY TO EMPTY YOUR BOX!!!
(Photo: UPI.com)
  Write, talk, find a hobby, start a project, get a part time job, or even in the most drastic of situations seek a new place to spread your gifts.  The goal of this blog was to let each and every one of you who follow The Fire Inside know that I write, share, and interact with you as a means to help you (and myself) vent.  If you are like me, there will come a time when those around you will get sick of your frustrations, complaints, and opinions.  It isn’t personal they just don’t care to go as far down the road of passion as you.  Unfortunately, this is often where many friendships and alliances are broken, as well as how many of us end up being labeled as whiners and assholes.  Believe me, there is some serious comfort and refuge in the ears and minds of strangers.

I know it is hard.  I know it sucks.  I know it takes a toll on even the strongest people to get beat down by adversity on daily basis and still have the drive to get up and try again.  I wrote this blog about me to prove YOU ARE NOT ALONE!  While many of you are like me and know that even if 100 people tell you it is going to be okay you will probably still feel down about things, at least take some minor sliver of peace in knowing that all the great ones who have been successful at shaping our craft were there more than you know.  While that certainly won’t take away the mental exhaustion, it may very well be that small scrap of motivation the prevents you from throwing in the towel!