While teaching the latest batch of probationary firefighters during a relay pumping scenario, I started to use the terms "noise" and "loud" to help them differentiate between normal operations and a potential problem. In my example, I used the illustration of loud to describe the normal occurrences on our firegrounds, i.e. a diesel engine at high RPM, ladders slapping the side of a building, command talking on the radio, and teams encouraging and communicating purpose to each other. I explained that in my mind, loud things aren't something to get excited about as they are fairly predictable occurrences.
In contrast, I used the word noisy to describe potentially troublesome events, such as air locking or caveating the pump, the increasing RPMs in response to a decreased residual pressure on the supply side indicating potential water supply issues. I challenged them to learn what the sounds of the engine and gauges on the fire truck could tell them about what was happening and how we could quickly go about fixing it. To borrow from someone else's thoughts, I want these kids to learn to be engineers of the apparatus capable of fixing problems, not just a driver who got us from point a to point b.
I believe this same concept applies to leaders and teams in today's fire service. As I've written before, leadership is hard. I'm becoming increasingly aware of stories wherein the leader is disconnected from their team, resulting in a fractured performance. Leadership is a position full of loud, yet predictable events. Leaders shouldn't be thrown off or surprised by team members occasionally challenging, venting, or testing boundaries from time to time--that's all part of normal behavior in organizational culture and teams. As mission creep sets in and more and more activities start to fall under the purview of the fire department, leaders can expect for things to only get louder as more and more initiatives will compete for our attention and time.
In contrast, I offer that noise is anything out of the ordinary that should immediately perk our ears and receive our attention. Hearing a team member say, "My wife and I had a really bad fight last night...I'm having a hard time with finances right now....I think I'm drinking too much" are all audible warnings of an imminent problem. Just like pumping our fire trucks, we need to have a gauge of our people that can help tell the rest of the story of what's going on in their personal lives. When a team member has nothing residual left to give it's obvious, just like on the gauge on your pump panel. So what happens if we continue to demand the same from them without attempting to help troubleshoot the cause?
We must train our leaders to recognize the gauges of their people. The fire service has a long and storied history, but it is only just now entering its infancy in addressing the topics of substance abuse, peer support, suicide, PTSD, and many more topics that are very much hurting the members of our teams. Leaders truly must seek to develop a steward mindset, where our people are the greatest resource entrusted to us always deserving of our attention and care--not just when we feel like it or when it's convenient for us.
The fire service needs leaders who see their people and listen to their concerns. Brotherhood serves as the block foundation of the fire service community, yet we have too often neglected its mortar over the years, and while I won't go as far as to say it's dead, I will go on record as saying it's crumbling in certain areas. But we can fix this by taking our oath seriously and focusing on what unites us, instead of what divides us. We can courageously show love to each other, instead of letting our bravados run amuck and tearing down others in an attempt to build ourselves up. We can choose to shine the light of truth into the shadows of rumor and gossip in our organizations reducing the effectiveness of pointed character assassination.
Leaders are needed that care enough to troubleshoot what's going on in the lives of our teammates, sometimes even intrusively if the matter is serious enough. This may even require great social risk to ourselves, but our mission was built on the very concept of sacrifice in service to others. It's time for the fire service to return to its roots by embracing the heart of a servant, humbling ourselves to our purpose, and loving each other--not just the lauded accolades of what we do. Today, and every day forth, our actions must seek to reclaim our mission and our brotherhood from the grasp of those who only see the opportunity of celebrity, instead of service. I encourage you to share this message and become an ambassador of the brotherhood.
Author Bio: Benjamin Martin has over sixteen years in public safety and currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He is an international speaker on Leadership, including his entertaining and unique takes on emotional intelligence and organizational culture. His leadership articles have appeared in publications including Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He is the founder of EmbraceTheResistance.com which features leadership training for existing and aspiring leaders. You can email him at BMartin@EmbraceTheResistance.com.