ConnectWait… Are We the Problem?

Wait… Are We the Problem?

By: Jeremy Sanders

I often wonder why the fire service isn’t better off than it is, and as any good firefighter does, I begin to formulate plans that will fix all of these problems. Get two or more firefighters involved in the problem-solving process for even better results. This proven technique has stood the test of time in quickly pinpointing those who are to blame. However, if you find yourself in one of those honest moments of reflection, you might discover some things that make the wheels fall off of all those theories. You might realize that you are the problem. 

Wait, am I the problem?

I’m sure I don’t just speak for myself when I say I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of the Gen Xers being “the old people”; that can’t be right. 

I recently had one of those honest moments of reflection, which brought to light a very frustrating and disappointing thought. Could we (the senior members of the fire service) be holding the fire service back, the same people that should be guiding it to better times? Are we now the ones who are anchoring us to an outdated and antiquated past, resulting in systemic stagnation? In other words, is it me and those of my generation who are the problem instead of working to make the fire service better through constant learning and growth? The more I thought about that opening statement, the more I realized that this is the disappointing truth.

What caused me to start unpacking all of this was a personal situation in my department. Our training division recently put everyone through a RIT program in three stages. As is the custom in every firehouse across America, stories started to circulate through the shifts of how some crews performed during these evolutions. I will preface this by saying that most of the time, I try my best to avoid the whole rumor mill scene, but it doesn’t escape me that there are lessons we can learn from some of those less-than-stellar crews in these situations. 

One story stood out to me, but not in a good way. The crew involved in the evolution has a good mix of experience, with a couple of veterans who had around 20 years on, one member who had around 10 years on, and a couple of newer firefighters with less than five years on. What disappointed me so much about their “alleged” performance is that it was a textbook version of how my rookie class was taught to search; the problem is that it was over 20 years ago and ridiculously ineffective. All I could think of was that we were so much better than that. More importantly, why was this acceptable?

That’s when I realized that we are the problem. Not just “we” as firefighters in general but, more specifically, the senior men and women of the fire service. Notable veterans are doing great things for the fire service, but many more are coasting through that career stage, leaving nothing but a legacy of training scars and bad habits. The individuals I am discussing have spent years and even decades resting on skills, tools, and techniques learned early in their careers and are now so ineffective by today’s standards that it’s almost laughable. The phrase “If you aren’t growing, you’re dying.” truly defines the situation I am referring to. 

Before I go any further, I will admit that I have been that firefighter (for many years). I had no interest in training beyond what was required of me by the department, and I’m sure that there were times that I responded to anything new with a turned-up nose and a bad attitude. This was all I knew because it was all I was shown until I was blessed to spend time with solid firefighters and great people. So, I understand how easy it is to become that way and how difficult it is to break away from it.

As I thought through this issue, a clear cause and effect began taking shape. My 20-year career has occurred over a very drastic transition in leadership & followership styles. When I came on, there were lots of the old guards around preaching, “Shut up and do what you’re told,” “This is just how we do it,” and “You’re paid from the neck down.”

These might have been unwritten rules in those days, but there was no confusion about how things ran. This was the “my way or the highway” era, and you were best not questioning it. The senior members in our firehouses were a part of either the Silent Generation or the Baby Boomers and were well accustomed to just doing what they were told, and all seemed to be right with the world; they never went to a fire that didn’t go out so obviously they were doing something right. However, this mentality only set the fire service up for failure. Generations of firefighters are doing what they were told without any explanation of why, and this has created a knowledge gap that we are now struggling to close back up.

The effects of decades of doing what we were told without question had surfaced, and we were unhappy about it. There was no depth to our knowledge. We may be able to get the job done and show you how we do it, but if asked why it’s done that way or why we aren’t doing it like this, we don’t have answers. 

The disdain was widespread. It’s like being given an empty bucket when you’re new. Your senior members are responsible for helping you to fill that bucket up, which, in a way, they did. Over time, though, that bucket started to age and rust. Eventually, that rust ate through in some areas, and the water began to leak out; the problem was that we were only taught to keep this bucket with us to hold the water because that’s what has always been done. No one talked to us about new ways of holding the water, ways to reinforce the bucket as it aged, or that we could keep our bucket topped off by seeking out other ways to fill it up. So, as the rust worsened and the holes widened, the water vanished over time. New firefighters come with their shiny new buckets and youthful excitement to fill them to the top. Sadly, all we have left in our buckets to give them is some old, dirty water that’s not useful for anything. This is the gap, and no matter how much we want to rest the blame on the shoulders of those who taught us, we have had every opportunity to break out of that cycle and do it differently.

Without hesitation, I have learned more about firefighting in the past three years than in my previous 17. I attribute that to the fact that I’ve been blessed enough to have some amazing people placed in my life. These people showed me that there is so much that I must learn. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know, how much more there was to leadership, and how I was wasting so many opportunities to help others. That journey required me to completely tear down everything I ever thought I knew and start over. It became clear that I had to relearn everything if I wanted anything to change. This requires humility (and lots of it). I had to be humble enough to admit that many other people know a lot more than I do and that I need to learn as much as I can from them.

The journey to relearn everything has been quite a test for me in many ways. It’s not easy for someone who is supposed to be the crew’s formal leader not only to admit to not knowing enough but to step into the hands-on environment and let everyone see how bad your skills are lacking. I have realized along the way that there is a vast difference between learning to absorb information and learning with the intention of having to teach it to others. That realization was a wake-up call for me; just being present for training was no longer acceptable.

So, there it is, the moment it all comes full circle. No matter how I was trained or treated as a younger firefighter, it is and will always be my responsibility to constantly pursue my personal growth and pass on as much of it as possible. The fire service needs us, “Senior Men & Women,” to step up and become the leaders we should be to those below us. Stop standing in the background, growing roots in the recliners, and trying to tear down the firefighters who care enough to work hard.

So, here’s your call to action; this applies to everyone, specifically those who have served for 20+ years. It’s time to do better; we owe it to ourselves and each firefighter who comes after us. We must adopt a growth mindset and be willing to challenge everything we think we know. Be open-minded enough to learn new things. Be creative enough to blend some of the old and the new. Be humble enough to admit that you have a lot to learn. Be courageous enough to fail because excellence will never be achieved by those who allow the fear of failure to keep them from trying; excellence is reserved for those who accept the inevitability of failure while having the wisdom to grow through it.

Contests & Promotions

devil dog promotions
West Broad Contest
Burn Box promotion/contest
Fire Science Nutrition Contest/Promotion