There are people in the fire service who are a little different. They seem to constantly go to outside training and conferences and are often found in the fire station workout room. To some folks, they seem “ate up” or need to find a hobby. The truth is they believe at their core that each day is an opportunity to better themselves. If you are one of those people, you may constantly find yourself on the outside and wish the crew would be the same as you. The following steps may help you in that pursuit. If you are not one of those people, then read on, as it may give you a better understanding of why that one firefighter is always pushing the knowledge limits.
Step 1: Evaluate why you are the way you are
The fire service is a broad mixture of different backgrounds, cultures, and upbringings. But, in the dead of night on someone’s worst day, we are all the same. We are all they have. The public does not pick what shift is working today. They do not know if that’s the best crew in the city or the vacation station. All they know is that when they call 911, they need the best we have. You need to do some self-reflection. When was the last time you put on your personal protective equipment? What was the last firefighting related item you learned? Most importantly, other than time on the job, what has changed in your abilities since last year? If you cannot remember, then you have fallen into the trap. You have settled into your bubble. It is okay; most of us have at some point. Your bubble is that comfort level where you can handle the majority of problems automatically. When you run into an instance you cannot immediately handle and have problems, it was because it was dark, raining, or some other excuse. The fire service responds to everything, and the world is constantly evolving. If you are not, then are you really prepared? Do you have the same cell phone from 10 years ago or the same television? These things have evolved, and we have bought the upgraded version. Have you done that with your training? You need to get outside of your bubble, your comfort zone, to improve and grow. Get outside your bubble!
Step 2: Acceptance
At some point in our career, we feel like we have a good handle on things. Rookies and other folks look to us for answers. Some of us even promoted. Now, because we are the ones folks look to, we have to have all the answers. People will readily admit that they do not know everything. How could you? But, when was the last time you, the one everyone looks to, uttered the words, “I don’t know”?For reference, it’s okay to say that. Once you admit that out loud, you can begin to find answers. If you don’t and guess the answer, what are you really doing? Faking it? Is that how we get better for the public? Be honest with yourself. Accept that you can get better.
Step 3: Planning
What do you want to improve exactly? This can be as simple as mask-up times to improving fireground performance. Look at your resume and yourself in the mirror. Determine what it is you want to improve exactly. This may also mean your crew, their abilities, and your relationship with them. Write down your goals. Don’t get buried in the weeds and write an extensive plan. A loose, easily adjusted guide will be much easier to stick to. I cannot count how many plans I made that were ruined because of the weather. If you spend too much time writing the plan, you become married to it, and this will quickly end in an inability to follow it anyway. The goal is most important. Write yourself a loose plan that is easy to manage and not restricting.
Step 4: Have the talk
One of the best things you can do with your goal is to share it. Telling your crew that you would like to speed up your donning time or sharpen your apparatus skills allows them to help. There may be someone with the same goal. Every member of the fire service can teach you something.This is also a good time to discover what other talents the crew has. There are many in our profession who have highly effective blue-collar skills. Plumbing, construction, and mechanical knowledge are great things to pass on. This conversation will become very beneficial throughout the process.
Step 5: Small bites
As you lay out your plan, remember, you cannot fix the world overnight. Lay it out and place benchmarks to meet. Anything worth accomplishing will take work, hard work. Improving yourself and your company is no small task. Take the entire evolution you want to improve and break it into small bites. Look at the fireground and see how many tiny items have to be done correctly for the machine to work. Don your gear. Get to the rig quickly. Go to the correct location. Mark on scene with a size-up. Stretch the correct line to the correct location. The list goes on. Do not bite off more than you can chew at once.
Step 6: Evaluation
Often, when we do a major change, the results are unseen. These things take time to develop. If you are working on fireground evolutions, time them. That is a simple objective metric that is easy to see improvement. Take pictures and record it. Evaluating your plan from time to time as it progresses will allow you to improve it. Put it on the board at the station. Make it fun. “Engine 35D can mask up in 15 seconds.” Talk to your crew and tell them the benchmarks. A constant open line of communication with them allows for a detached view. When we are goal-oriented, we are easily susceptible to missing the forest through the trees. Adapt your plan. This will require even more internal insight as well. You need to be honest with yourself. Is the plan working or are you working the plan? Are you getting results or just doing stuff? At the end of every training evolution, have a conversation and ask the following questions: What did you think? How can we improve this evolution? Does it contribute to our overall goal? I have spent a significant amount of time planning an evolution only to decide afterward to never do that one again. Be honest.
If you are improving, you will likely encounter some negative personalities. There are a lot of them in the fire service. I have encountered many, and you will, too. They are usually found the farthest away from work and some even do more work to get out of work! They may talk trash, but that usually means they wish they could accomplish what you are. A frontal assault with them rarely works. Maybe you need to find out why they are here. In the end, no one was forced to become a firefighter, no national firefighter draft. Rather than getting in a heated argument, remember, the goal is the most important. Smile, nod, and get back in the work. Sometimes, your answer to their ridicule can be as simple as saying, “I want to improve.”In the end, you still have to work with these folks.
Step 7: Chew again
As you move through your plan, there may be a time when you become discouraged. That is okay. I have found the best thing to do is to keep going. The ease it takes to quit is not worth the pain in the long run. You spent a lot of time figuring out this goal. Find your why, your reason for that goal. Use that reason to allow yourself to keep pushing. Great change cannot be completed quickly. Keep taking those bites to your goal.
Step 8: Bigger bites
The good news is you may reach a time when you get a rhythm going. This may be a good time to take bigger strides. If improving your mask-up time was the goal, then add to it. Add more items. Mask up on the move. Have your crew watch you as you practice. Now do it in the dark. Do not get cocky and start believing this is easy. If this was easy, you may need a better goal. There is no limit to the level you can improve.
Step 9: The first follower
If you have communicated your goal to the crew and especially if it includes them, you may encounter a follower–someone who wants a similar goal or is in the same situation as you. This is great. If you have someone asking questions or watching closely as you progress, ask if they want to join in. If you are far into your program and they are just starting, scale it to their level.It has to be fun. It must be enjoyable. If it is neither, they will likely not do it again. No matter who that first follower is, remember to be patient and accepting.
Step 10: Build a team
Congratulations on your first follower. That first follower is the first member of your team. This is the time to work on turning the negatives into positives. Remember those negative people? You have to find what interests them, what their experience is. Whatever that may be, use it as a starting point. Put your listening skills in operation. You are trying to create allies, not enemies.Have an honest conversation about what you are trying to do and how they can help. Ask them to watch you mask up and see if they have an insight as to how you can get better. This may be extremely difficult for you. But remember, your goal is not for you. It is for the house on fire with the mother screaming her kids are inside. A team will help you achieve your goals.Firefighting is a team sport after all.
Step 11: Those days
At some point during this process, you will hit a speed bump. There will be that day when you do not want to do anything. On that day, you will find anything to convince yourself to not train.This can be the weather, your crew, or my favorite–the weekend. Over time, I have stockpiled conversations, videos, and even thoughts that help me press forward. Remember why you started this process in the first place. You do not have to crush it every day, but a little bit can add up to a lot.
Step 12: Always forward, always moving
Once the goal is met, congratulations, now on to the next one. You have built up momentum so there is no reason to stop now. Talk to your crew and use their insight as to what the next mountain to climb will be. It is harder to start than to continue. As you continue to train and do the hard work, it will become easier every day. It becomes a culture, a part of who you are.Make a new goal and keep pushing forward. You want to be better. One of the greatest things you can do is help someone else. Seek out that hard charger at the other station, other shift.Become a mentor. Your career will never outlast your reputation. We all will be remembered for something. What do you want that to be? When the bell goes off and you are all they have coming, don’t you want to be the best you can possibly be?
BIO:Devin Craig is a 22-year veteran of the fire service and a captain with Montgomery County ESD2/Montgomery Fire Department and the co-owner of Train or Die Fire Service Training. He has multiple certifications through the Texas Commission of Fire Protection and an associate degree from Columbia Southern University. He is also a Georgia Smoke Diver.