Monday, March 18, 2013

The Company Identity

Who is your company?

Simply reading this question for what it is, you might answer, “Engine <blank>”. Looking deeper into the question, you might find there is much more to who exactly your company is.

Your company is a collaboration of talents, personalities, values, strengths, and weaknesses. Your company is similar to your family. You give and take, work together, create lasting relationships, and together fix problems that you encounter. The old statement, “you are only as strong as your weakest link” is very accurate. As a company, it is your responsibility to pick up the weak member and provide assistance, whether it is educational or personal in nature, to ensure that your company continues to grow in proficiency.  Take a minute right now and think about the following questions:

What is your company good at?

What strengths does each member of the company bring to the team?

With the current mindsets of your company members taken into account, what career values does the company share?

Is your company continuing along a path of team building, skill proficiency, and excellence through efficiency?

What changes can the team make to improve the company?

One positive attitude in the company cannot create a good identity, just as one negative attitude cannot create a bad identity. It is the combination of all attitudes in the company that create the identity. Only you can control your personal identity and attitude. Are you contributing positively to the family?

Building pride.

Anyone can verbally state, “I have pride”. Those that have pride, show their pride in their quality of work, their level of knowledge, their application of training concepts, and their work output on the fire ground. Many times, in today’s fire service, pride is influenced by the company officer. If the company officer leads by example, typically the company members will follow based on the positive influence. Unfortunately, the company officer is not the fix all when it comes to pride. If you are still reading this article, you care about this job. 

Remember your first day on the job. Think back to your emotions, the details of the shift, the mistakes you made, and the love for the job that you felt. I bet you are smiling right now if you actually thought back to that day.

Why not feel that excitement everyday? Honestly, who else gets to come to work every shift, have the family atmosphere of the firehouse, help people daily, train on skills daily, and potentially save a person’s life? We have it made. Sure, there are negative aspects to the job, but not allowing the negatives to affect your identity, shows your pride. 

As a company, make decisions together. Not just the tough decisions like “what are we going to eat”, but the decisions of:

How are we going to run the line on a residence fire?
Who is responsible for what on the truck? (Seat assignments)
How should we set the truck up for maximum effectiveness?
What are we going to train on today?

These decisions create buy in and ownership.

Company assignment + Allowing companies to make their own decisions =

satisfied, ready, pride driven, motivated firefighters.

It is simple. Allow the guys to have buy in which creates a positive work environment. Companies will continue to build their level of proficiency, which creates goal driven individuals.

I have heard it all before. You know the “what a whacker” kind of statements that I too am guilty of saying. But, what importance does company merchandise have?

On my leather lid, I have a blue and white number “30” on the back two panels. While to some, that may seem kind of whacker-ish, to me, it means something. Our company colors are white and blue. Our trucks are white with blue lettering and striping and even the interior of our firehouse is white with blue. The simple “30” on my helmet is a symbol of my identity as a member of my company.

I encourage every company to show your pride and dedication by creating a patch or logo. I know of one local firehouse that has a patch for every one of their front line pieces. They are meaningful patches that describe the history of each company and the organization as a whole. The members of that department have a very high level of pride in each company within the organization.

An engine company patch

Creation of company specific merchandise is such a simple task that builds high morale, a level of pride, and ownership. If you are representing your company with a hat that reads “LAD 1 DER” on it, I guarantee that you will think twice before you act outside of your company’s expectations and standards. Take a minute and celebrate your assignment and career by creating identity merchandise. I promise you will see a difference in morale.

The quickest way to build a company identity of prideful ownership is to create a set of standards. The company must together set the bar high. Though it may seem a bit edgy, decide together that your company is going to be the best company in town, you are going to perform better than any other company, you are going to work with the most efficiency on scene and you are going to be the most skilled firefighters on the job. Continue to strive to meet that standard. In 6 months, take a minute to reflect and see how far the company has come. You will be pleasantly surprised.

Company nicknames, motto, and core values.

Company nicknames have a deep-rooted history within the fire service. They typically have a historical reference within them about the territory they serve. This type of company nickname shows ownership of the community that is served.  Ownership of the community by firefighters is quite important. It creates a personal drive that is unlike any other when the tones drop for an emergency in the community.

A company nickname it a firehouse kitchen

Other company nicknames are of an edgy nature that provide a blatant show of company pride. I personally like these types of nicknames. There is nothing wrong with thinking your company is the best around, so long as the team consistently strives to meet the statement given. Openly show identity. It is a part of our fire service history.

Creating a set of core values has a long history in the United States Military. The fire service being Para-military has long ago adopted this tradition and followed suit. The core values of your company make a statement on what the members of your company place as their values, morals, and what the company family places as priorities. A simple example of one company’s core values is “kindness, efficiency, accountability, and proficiency.” Many fire departments have a set of core values. While everyone in the organization goes by the fire department core values, many companies expand with their own set of core values. Company core values sets a standard for its members.

A company motto is a brief statement of intent. The company motto is another aspect of what your company makes decisions based on, how your actions represent the company, and the performance level you wish to obtain on scene and in training. “Always ready” and “Do the right thing” are two examples of positive company mottos.

After creating this foundation for your company, you can start the construction process of building a firehouse culture that always shows your company’s identity.

Company memorabilia.

The history of your company is very important. The history provides a road map of where the company has been and how it has traveled to the current time. Hang up photos of former company members, training sessions, fire calls, former trucks, and past community involvements. Take photos today to add to your cache of memorabilia. It is important for future members to know the pride in which those that have come before them have had in the company. The history shapes the future. Preserve company history and display it openly.
A crew photo from a training drill

A historic sign from the local community on display inside the firehouse

Firehouse or Fire Station?

A house is a home. A station is place that you are assigned to work. I personally do not like the term “Fire Station”. I don’t want to be involved with any company that is inside of a “Fire Station”. I want to be with a company that lives in a “Firehouse.” I want my company’s engine house to be my home away from home, especially since I spend so much time away from home on shift. As a company, hang pictures, display your history, paint the walls, and make it your home. This is one of the best ways to create the family like bond of your company. Create a home together. This is not just a career, but also a life style and culture. Do you want to spend 24 hours in a middle school with bare white block walls, or a house that has photos, decorations, and the warm feeling of home?

A company nickname displayed in the apparatus bay
A company logo mural painted in the living room of a firehouse

Company equipment set up.

If your company has a say so, there is likely a method to how your rig is set up. If there is no method to the madness, you might be a cookie cutter company that lacks thought. There is no way that one truck set up can succeed in every atmosphere and territory.

Succeed = operate with proficiency due to preplanning and forethought.
Get by = managing to get the job done by having to adapt and overcome daily.

I want to address the idea that “every truck should be set up the same.” I understand the methodology behind that idea, such as, any firefighter within the organization can be placed on any truck and know where the tools are located and how the lines are set up. I will even admit that I agreed with that stance at one point; however, I have changed my stance on this over the past few years. I think it is so important for the company to make these decisions. I mean, it IS these guys that are riding the truck and doing the job. Why not choose how they can accomplish their incident objectives best? But what about the guy that floats over from another company? He should be on the engine floor looking through the truck, asking questions, studying the layout, and preparing himself to work on the home company. Who knows, he might even learn something new to share back at his company.

A company nickname on the window of the truck

Think about the level of training the company will get by continuously trying new methods of setting up the truck. In order to set up your company for success, members will have to look at:

What tactical challenges are present in our community?
How can we store our equipment to increase efficiency?
What types of building construction are encountered in our community?

There are so many different methods of doing everything we do out there. All you have to do is look, listen, read, and learn. Who knows, you company might even invent a new method of completing a task that can help others. Share that knowledge and experiment. Do not settle for “the way we have always done that.” By thinking about alternative methods, you build your experience and expand your mind.

What kind of identity do you want to have? The choice is yours. 

Thank you to Captain Erick Mohn of Wake Forest Ladder Company 1, Lieutenant Charlie Laird of Durham Highway Engine Company 1, Engineer Will Patterson of RDU Airport Rescue Company 30, and Jeff Hannum of Tailboard Firefighting of NC for contributing to this article. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Driver responsibility. How seriously do you take it?

Driver operator responsibility has been hit on and hit on again. It is pounded into every driver’s head since day one of driver school. Shortly before the New Year I encountered a situation that changed my opinion of this topic for good. Never before have I taken the responsibility of the driver operator so serious.

The truck that I was assigned to drive, a 2009 Pierce, had suffered a hose bed cover failure, which left the cover torn and unable to be repaired. The entire hose bed was exposed. I had some concerns about the situation, some of which I had voiced to officers. I had continued to operate the truck without the hose bed cover, because well… what is the worst that could happen?

It was early in the afternoon on a sunny weekend. My company was called to an unknown outside fire with other units from the town. I was traveling at a moderate rate of speed down a four-lane road. I had just encountered a red light, which I had stopped at before proceeding through the intersection. At the base of a long hill was a bump in the road and a short bridge that crossed a wetland. I was traveling at about 50 mph when I hit the bump. That is when it must have occurred.

The bump caused the front of the 5” supply hose to lift up and the wind was able to get under the hose folds enough to cause the hose to slide. I subsequently lost all 1000’ of my hose. The worst part of the situation was I didn’t have a clue.

We continued down the road responding to the incident with no idea that we had lost the hose.

I check my mirrors periodically and scan from left to right, near and far. I never saw the hose come off.  While enroute to the call the communications center transmitted over our channel that they were receiving calls stating a fire truck had lost a “piece” of hose. On the second report of lost hose transmitted, they stated it was along the stretch of road we had just traveled. I knew it was ours.

We were canceled off the run and found a safe place to park the truck. My firefighter jumped off to see the damage and returned with an awkward smile on his face. I shouted “what?” He quietly stated, it is gone. I replied “what do you mean it’s gone” in a panicked tone. He replied quietly, “it is all gone, all 1000’.” A sick feeling hit me almost instantly. That 3-mile drive back to where we had lost our hose was the longest drive of my career. I couldn’t help but think about if I had damaged someone’s vehicle, hurt someone, or worse, killed someone. I wanted to vomit.

We returned to find that all the hose was laid out along the roadway and citizens were dragging it to the sidewalk. By the grace of God, it had not damaged another vehicle or killed another driver.

What would have been the repercussions if I had caused damage or killed someone?
I would have been responsible, as would our fire department. As the driver, I was responsible for ensuring the safe operation of the truck. I was driving the truck in emergency mode with an unsecured load. I would have been legally and civilly responsible for anything that could have occurred. I could have had to live with hurting or killing someone. Thank goodness that did not occur on this day.

This situation brings to light, how seriously are we taking driver responsibility? Are we allowing people that are under qualified take on this high stress, high responsibility job? Are we responding as fire service leadership to the safety concerns that are voiced?

As a reminder, the driver is responsible for:

Ensuring the truck is ready for response.
Getting the truck to the call safely.
Knowing how to pump the truck (not just a lever puller).
Protecting the crew from traffic.
Operating the truck’s scene lighting.
Knowing where all the tools are located and how to operate those tools.
Returning from the call safely.

How deep does the driver’s responsibility run? Take time to review your job if you drive and think about your actions and the manner in which you are currently doing business. How seriously are you and your organization taking driver responsibility and apparatus safety?

My situation could have happened at any time with the state in which the truck was. Everyone can offer opinions of why it occurred. The bottom line is that it happened and as the driver, it would have been Justin Graney that would sit in the hot seat legally, and Justin Graney that would have had to try to sleep at night if I had hurt someone.

The job of a driver operator holds the highest level of responsibility in the fire service. If you make a mistake, you can seriously injure or kill another person, including your brothers/sisters. Take your job seriously and give 100% to each day on the truck. Have the courage to speak up to your leadership if you feel there anything unsafe occurring. There is not any room for errors in the driver’s job. You need to be on your game.

Fire service leadership must take safety concerns seriously and take rapid steps to rectify the situation before a dangerous situation can occur. In addition, take steps within the organization to require driver operator recurrent training and testing. In our business, we cannot allow complacency or “rusty” skills to be in the forefront. It is your job as the organizational heads to do everything possible to ensure a safe, results based, education rounded fire department.

Stay safe out there.