Speaking out as a Warrior Poet. A voice of tradition, history and Brotherhood in the American Fire Service.

Welcome to Leatherhead 109

Here, the thoughts of a devoted leatherhead are put to page. What is a Leatherhead? Nothing more than one who is passionate about the tradition, history and heritage of the American Fire Service and who has a love for the job, completely uninhibited. This passion to the calling is symbolized by the American Leather fire helmet. The title "Fireman" is one that has slipped from the lexicon as this nation has embraced the right of everyone to do everything. Perhaps it is fitting then, that in a profession which demands so much physically, mentally and soulfully, the word finds its renewal by illuminating the difference between those who just do the job and those who have become the job. I am honored to have been included by my bretheren in the latter crowd. Dubbed affectionately, the "Warrior Poet", I author this blog as an attempt to put into words the everyday thoughts of such firemen.


Leadership: Catchin’ Speedy

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Leatherhead On the Move!

Ah, the "ubiquitous" cup o' Joe!

Hey Brothers. I wanted to let you know I’ve moved this blog from this host site, to my own, sponsored by Fire/EMSBlogs.com and I hope you’ll come along. Unfortunately, the new site doesn’t have a “subscribe” feature, but you can add it to your favorites and you can subscribe to the RSS feed at the bottom of the page. Copy and paste the link below and you should find it with ease; 


My reasons for doing this have been partly out of curiosity. I have enjoyed the beginning I’ve made here, but having been invited to speak out to a wider audience, I felt challenged and felt the need to step up to it.  So I’ve signed on with http://www.FireEMSBlogs.com and you’ll find me there among several fine blogs or you can follow me directly at my own page listed above.  The down side is that I’m far more comfortable with my little kitchen table here, ….I’ll probably drag it along with me.  After all, I’m a typical fireman, I don’t like change much..

But if you follow this blog, then you know and probably agree that the American Fire Service has many challenges ahead in all kinds of forms from new technology, threats we are only just now beginning to understand better, generational issues, issues with the economy and loss of jobs and benefits and not to mention the need to keep our focus as public servants in a world that views the word “servant” with distaste.  I’d like to think that if  I can shed light on the right path for even a handfull of solid Jakes, I’ve accomplished my task, but now I’ve been asked to talk to an even wider audience.  I don’t know where this will take me, but you all have convinced me that I have been able to speak your hearts, when words have escaped you.  I will keep doing so, as long as you are listening.

Ben Fleagle


Brotherhood, Where Art Thou..

Sno.7's L72 hanging with my father at a Woodinville event in 2006. Photo by author.

Well, Brother.  Glad you could join me for a cup. ..I know, it’s a little strong..the probie made it.  He’ll learn.

So I’ve been cogitatin’ on things for a few months now.  The summer came and went and if you remember, I was all fired up about not getting any good fishing in.  But little did I realize the summer had far more in store for me than fishing, recruit classes or a family vacation.  It was a crazy few months and now that all is behind me I look back at it and marvel about a few things.  I thought I might share them with you while we chew on the Joe the probie cooked up: 

Death is a constant.  It comes to us all eventually.  We who call firefighting our profession certainly have seen enough to know that there is little one can say when a life passes.  It happens.  Firefighters, among others, see it day in and day out, in varying stages, and after a time, we have seen death take all kinds of people.  Rich ones, poor ones, miserable ones, peaceful ones and seemingly very innocent ones.  Violent death and quiet death, unjust and deserved.  God the Father calls each one at the appointed hour.  Death is always among us. 

"Death is never far from the Brotherhood." The funeral for LODD FF Andy Mullen, AFD. October 2010. Photo by author.

Another constant, is Brotherhood.  Braithreachas.  Death and the Brotherhood are intertwined.  I understand this better now.  It isn’t that firefighters enjoy being in mourning, we do not thrive on the sight of caskets and purple bunting.  We do not live for the moment when the Wake begins and the cask is broken open to drink our cares away.  Rather, it’s the other way around.  We dread it.  But it is always among us, and we do not shy away.  Wisely or unwisely, many of us look it full in the face. 

My father passed away on a quiet summer evening of this year.  It wasn’t unexpected, and we had gathered around him to ease his going.  For my part, I didn’t want him to suffer and I urged him to let go.  We had enjoyed much and shared much together.  More than anything I wanted to know he was at peace.  When he was gone, I pressed ahead, reeling from the burdens on my heart, and tried to be the rock my family seemed to need.  In some ways, death was the easy part.  Knowing how to deal with others at his Memorial was harder.

And then the Brotherhood showed up.  I was beyond grateful and felt my father honored by their presence.  They are my friends, and a few of them had met my father.  They asked to wear Class A’s and my mother was pleased at this, I encouraged them to do so.  My father was not a fireman.  But he admired firemen. 

"The mark of a Puget Sound Leatherhead", the badge of Chad Berg at my father's funeral. Photo by author.

When they showed up at the church, they stood out.  I think eight or nine attended and I spent a little time clarifying for some of my father’s friends that, “No, my Dad wasn’t a fireman, these are my friends”.  The service passed, and the brethren joined the crowd at the reception and as my family and I buzzed about shaking hands and listening to those whose hearts had loved our Dad, I kept an eye out for my brothers in the uniform.   They were surrounded by the curious, those who weren’t sure why uniformed firemen had shown up for Dad’s funeral.  Someone naively asked me how so many firemen were able to afford to come down from Alaska to attend and when I explained that they were firemen from several different departments in the Puget Sound, the person looked dumbfounded. 

But then I realized, I didn’t really understand either.  I didn’t understand until I heard my good friend Berg say, “We’re here for Ben.  We didn’t want him to stand alone”..and that struck home.  Of all the gifts I have in this life, this one continues to floor me.  It humbles me.  Not so much because I don’t understand, but because to witness it, to be the subject of it, is to understand that it is beyond us, for we are mere men.  It is a blessing to be held up by brothers such as these. 

Another brother lost his wife and child in an accident some time back.  We responded to the scene.  We struggled to save his family, we sat with him while he wept, we watched over his family.   We still watch over him as he struggles through each day since.  Years later, he still needs the brotherhood.   Death is constant, and so are we.

A brother I shared the job with, his wife passed in her sleep, while she held one of her children.  Sound asleep, she slipped away to the Father.  He went off shift, went home, maybe he let out the dog.  Then slipping into the room, he looked at her and knew immediately she was gone.  So much ended for him there.  His marriage, the family as he knew it, his life as a fireman.   When it came time to take her away, he asked us to do it.  He didn’t want her to be touched by anyone else.  So the Chief, another brother and I placed her in the black bag and gently carried her away.  I have never felt so honored.  To hold my brother’s wife at that moment.  Firemen guarded her last moments with his family, watched over his family and cared for his family.

The same chief that helped carry his wife away, died from cancer only a short while later.  Over 100 firefighters marched for him at subzero temps.  His wife lives nearby the firehouse and we still go see her, she still comes to see us.  We are family.  His granddaughter still reaches out for hugs from old firemen.

While I was burying my father, other brothers showed up at my home and split my firewood.  They knew it was sometime before I would be able to get to it.  The children were sick, my wife was grieving without me there and unable to join me.  My wife is strong, but knowing they would come and care for my family in my absence meant so much to her. 

“Braithreachas Thar Gach Ni” Photo by author.

After the funeral, I went with the some of those Puget Sound brothers to a BBQ by a quiet lake.  They were enjoying brotherhood, the summer, good beer and watching their children play.  They put out a chair, welcomed me among them and let me just sit there and lay my burdens down.  We sat and talked some.  It was peaceful.  I was among the brothers and sisters, and I felt their presence like a bandage on a painful wound.  The value of such things can’t be measured. 

An older, retired fireman, sits on a porch in Maine.  We’re talkin’ long-distance and I tell him how the brothers showed up to stand by me at my father’s funeral, wearing their best.  His voice chokes over the phone and quietly he says, “That gives me hope,… that these things will not pass away.  It’s good to know that there are still men like that!”

We few, you and me.  We are the brotherhood.  It is wherever we are, whether times are good,..or bad.  And it is a constant.   But for it to be so, we must continue to do the right things.  And only you brother and sister, can do that.  It begins with each and every one of you. 

Now, ..lets teach that probie a thing or two about makin’ a cup o’ Joe!

Remembering 9 / 11, Ten Years Later

I had intended to post my speech here today.  But the editing is all messed up and I don’t have time to fix it.  I will repost after I return home.  It has been an incredible honor to be asked to speak today.  Needless to say I am humbled and a little quiet today.  My friend Bruce, as I write this is attending a 9/11 ceremony among the same FDNY members and families that he was with ten years ago and occassionaly he sends me a text telling me his thoughts as he retraces his steps.  I am a witness to his memories.  Brothers and Sisters, we are the generation that must continue to remember this day, for as long as we live.  It changed everything.

I have to get my uniform on and prepare for the day, I leave you with the main point of the speech I will be giving:

On 9/11, we were witnesses to the greatest act of public service and self-sacrifice known to modern man.  They made a difference, although it was hard to believe at the time.  We know now, they saved thousands of people.  They gave hope and renewed
strength to the panic stricken people in those burning buildings and provided strength through encouragement and calm presence to keep going to safety.  They died trying to reach those who could not get out.


It was such a powerful thing to watch!  It took your breath away.  Time seemed to stand still.  We were AWESTRUCK!  It made you weak in the knees, it caused your heart to break like a shattered glass, it was glorious, it was horrifying, it was riveting, you could not take your eyes away even though it was so painful
to see it!  It was so unbelievable that modern men would willingly commit themselves to such a death for people they did not know.  They defined for us, the “Last Full Measure”, the “Ultimate Sacrifice”.
  They shattered the modern belief that laying your life down for another was an act from fiction novels.  For who among us did not admire their bravery, their quiet, simple courage and their dedication to the job,…. laid out before all the world to witness.  I have felt from the beginning that in their death they mocked the very evil and hate that had caused their sacrifice.  For though there is much about the American culture to despise, there is also much to admire.  And not least of which is that Ancient
Culture of Firemen that dwells amidst modern America, alive and well and which showed itself on September 11th.  And through
its pain and suffering, it caused an awakening among the rest of us across the nation.

It charged us, as witnesses to the act, to be better firemen, better public servants, better mentors, better
officers, better fathers and mothers, better husbands and wives, better citizens!  It inspired in us all the things that America used to believe about its firemen, its “Men of Iron”.  And we can do no less in this generation than
to carry on with this honorable privilege, this ACT of service.
We cannot let them down.  They died believing in what they were doing.  How ashamed I would be were I to not spend my LIFE, LIVING to the same ideals.  Remembering Nine Eleven, Remembering All Fallen Brothers, helps us to feel these things anew, remember our duty to serve and recommit ourselves to our oath, “NEVER FORGET”.

Swimming in the Current, Standing Like a Rock.

The following diatribe is written poorly at a late hour.  My sincere apologies.  But I would like to take the time to dedicate this declaration to the five highly dedicated firemen that have helped me this far acting out the foriegn roles of drill instructors.  They have followed my lead, endeavored to meet it and have succeeded.  Without them, the span of control would be way out o’whack!

Well, I can’t complain. When the moment comes, you swim with the current. I think Thomas Jefferson said that. I saw it on . Sno. 7’s mentoring page and I have to admit, although not a big “Tom Jeff” kinda guy, I do admire that particular sentiment. I like the second part best. “In matters of principle, stand like a rock.” I can dig that.

Morning Inspection and Drill, "Ears! OPEN! Eyeballs! CLICK!"

The Academy is in its third week and so far we have done exceedingly well. This academy is fast paced and those not prepared have difficulty staying in the current. We hit them hard the first day, flushed them out to stand the line like a herd of cattle. From that moment on the pressure has been on and they have more than risen to the occasion. I have to admit, my tenth class has grown on me a bit. They’re good young men. Not all in shape, not all even first string, but their desire to not only achieve, but also to understand and overcome the challenges before them has as a group surpassed many I have known in recent years.

In this class, we have one who survives a father who has fallen in the war, one has lost his father to illness, one who returns to the structure side of the house from wildland and is by far the old man of the class. One who is so young he can’t find whiskers for shaving, one who has been flying aircraft with his father since he was five and another who is taking his third basic course because having moved to Alaska, he feels he cannot afford to leave anything undone and why not start at the beginning and get it right, his career will be the better for it. Who can’t win with such fine young men? We have them from California, Oregon, Washington and our own L.A. (Lower Alaska). We even have a feller with a Southern drawl and he hails from North Carolina. We call him Elvis though.
But I digress. Things are going along well.

The senior officer must set the example, establish respect and authority, but have a realness and humanity. We are not soldiers, ..we are public servants.

My job as Drill Master has been rewarding. Marching is going well and discipline is excellent. Morale is high and visible demonstrations of team building within the individual squads are showing more and more every day.  Strangers have begun to bond.  In the third week, I now have to hunt for reasons to administer the beloved set of mountain climbers or push ups. Today a hook was left tines up, safety hazard, they all paid. Yesterday a squad leader was late, they paid.  But the point is, I have to hunt for infractions. Day one, infractions were so numerous we had done 90 push-ups by lunchtime. Now I’m hard pressed to get in twenty unless I’m dishonest about it. These guys are squared away.  But once again, the point is..why? What is it that makes them submit to this? I thought this was the generation that is wedded to Facebook and their I-phones. I haven’t heard a phone buzz or jingle since I outlawed them on day one. Only the program assistant’s phone interrupts everything as he takes yet another order for supplies on the Vent Prop.
So what is it that is working here? Could it be that I am such a phenomenal instructor? Am I so fearsome that they dare not defy me? Don’t bet on it. It’s just not that simple. It isn’t that we set the bar high, although that’s part of it. Could it be the opportunity to work in the frozen tundra streets of Alaska? I don’t thinks so.

Using even some of the youngest but most enthusiastic and hardest working firemen in our department gives the candidate someone they can relate to and ask questions of and expect some measure of empathy and camaraderie.

We are succeeding so well because of many things that are sewn together into the fabric of what we are doing. The department and the college are of one mind. I and my cadre represent the department. The program head represents the school. We are working to support each other. Clear expectations are laid out and each Candidate agrees to them or leaves at the beginning to go be a plumber.  A high bar has been set. Failure is a possible option, not everyone is cut out to be a firefighter. My cadre and I are committed. We speak with clear, loud and authoritative voices, Candidates are expected to move out with due urgency.  Rank is respected, but not worshipped.  Seniority is respected but not an entitlement to abuse, first names are not used.  We ourselves represent and display what we wish to see. Every day, for two weeks straight we have represented the structure of the engine company in the firehouse and operated in a similar fashion. Senior men are respected, work is delegated and channeled towards the particular strengths of each drill instructor. The candidates see this.

Drill Instructors, representing the department are integral to the Academy. They set the standard even more so than the senior officer. These are the ones we want them to emulate.

Mistakes made by the candidates are rapidly addressed and failure by the individual is dealt with quickly without humiliation. We have passed a small part of our authority onto the Guide and Squadleaders. They in turn are encouraged to set the bar high within their small company.  With no recourse to discipline or eject a non-performing member, leadership must be achieved through developing successful traits.  You either sink or swim. 

There is no abuse.  All actions are taken for the good of the Academy Company, the Squad and the individual.  We expect them to succeed and encourage them daily to do so.  If one of them should fail, it will not be because we didn’t provide them with every measure of help.  Even while issuing a fresh ration of mountain climbers or push ups “until I get tired” we are actually encouraging them to reach further to succeed.  We do not humiliate them or treat them like second-rate citizens.

And every day, we stop, I call “Tailboard” and all the structure disappears for a few minutes.  They gather around me, a guest instructor or the Chief and we take our rank off.  We discuss values and qualities that make us “firemen” versus just “firefighters” and why our profession is so different.  We talk about tradition, history and remembering fallen brothers.  And on the wall the Candidates themselves had been required to define Honor, Integrity, Duty, Judgement and Fortitude.  Some of these words they have never even heard in use before.

I don’t know.  Maybe it is all a waste of time as they nay-sayers insist.  Maybe so.  I really don’t know.  Its late, we’re going into action again in the morning with hose lays.  I can’t spend any more time writing.  Coffee will taste good in the a.m.  I’ll tell you this though, we are making waves and people are stopping to gawk.  The proof will be when they have blended into our departments and shown their metal and how they learned to love the job.

Para-military drill fosters the team work and coordination for greater and more important things. Ladders UP!

Anyone can teach you to pass the test and get a certification.  But it takes a far greater effort to create young firefighters with the hearts of firemen.  This generation has not known or understood the idea of suffering for the greater good of the common man.  Unless they have served our country, that is not what our society has taught them.  So it is up to us to do it.  They are willing to embrace the job, but you have to lead the way!

You know  the DC that helped me start this back in the day, you remember.. in my previous post, “Why Am I Here?”, he stopped by the other day to talk with a few of the candidates.  He heard me barking and a smile came to his face.  What memories.  He still believes we were on the right track back in that first class before the bomb dropped.  He stuck by his principles.  I have stuck to mine.  And here we are again, having stayed afloat in the current for a decade, given new life by a new chief and new program head, and twenty-two highly dedicated young men.  I think we are doing the right thing and as a Leatherhead, no less can be expected.  See you on the drill ground, Brothers.  I’ll have a fresh cup o’ joe ready for you…

Love what you do! The Senior Drill Master must be enthusiastic and create an environment for learning, but also for pursuing excellence. But most important, must demonstrate honor, integrity and fortitude himself, or no one will buy into it.

Why Am I Here? Someone Please Remind Me…

I am a machine…no really..  I tow the line, I represent the department and the service well.  I am the professional.  I keep going, even when they are stacking the cards against me.  At least that’s how I feel sometimes….I’d like to go fishing..But I am a devoted Leatherhead, which means that I will do what is right for the department, for the brotherhood.  I’m not alone in this.  There are many like me.

Fishing is good this time of year!

Its summer.  Summer in the Northland is a beautiful time of year.  Its short-lived and is gone before you know it.  The waters are clear, the sky mushrooms with huge clouds and the Midnight Sun is up forever.  The fish will take almost any fly on the river, life is good.  It’s also the only time we can efficiently train recruits…and again, so much for fishing.  What was that?…Oh, yes,…you spilled your coffee…excuse me..

I did say “Recruits”..yes the bane of my summer existence.  I used to fish, I used to go camping a lot, but for the past nine years, I train recruits.  How did this begin?  Can’t we just put a badge on them and train them on the side?  OJT?  Isn’t that how its done in most places?  Why do I give up my summer, year after year to these people?  What is wrong with me?  Why do I put myself though this?

"In the beginning", my first class of recruits. Photo by Author.

Many years ago, I was tasked with bumping up the level of training given to our recruit classes.   At the time, the deputy chief of the department felt that a little “military bearing” might add something to the quality and help to draw recruits in our direction.  We were doubling the staffing in the department and the deputy chief knew that meant we needed to change.  The DC and I had a talk.  I wanted to be the go to guy.  I thought I could make a difference.  The result was a very intense academy, the weeks sailed by as I threw myself into the effort.  I found that I had the knack.  I had never been a Drill Instructor in the Marines, I was just another Jarhead.  But I discovered a real monster hanging out within, just waiting to come out the first time I stepped in front of a line of recruits.  It was as if an abused child had arrived home to roost.  The first day, the look on the DC’s face was priceless, he looked like he was gonna have a coronary.  I asked him, “You want me to back off?”  He said, “No, I am out of my element, …but I have never seen so much accomplished in so short a time.  Keep it up, I’ll go protect your job!” 

He was good as his word and I kept at it and we had a great recruit class, remembered for the quality it produced.  Officers and firefighters alike agreed, these recruits are well-trained and dedicated.  I heard comments like “I wish I’d gone through an academy like that..” and similar sentiments.  We’d hit the mark.  Also during that academy a chief officer sat and watched with a frown on his face, I asked him what was wrong, he said, “I feel cheated!…I feel like I should have gotten to go through this kind of training.”  We had achieved our goal.  Now to seal it, make it the norm…

But times change, chiefs change, the budget changes, leadership changes.  Everyone liked the quality, but folks weren’t really excited about the tradition and military bearing stuff.  Before long, all that was pushed aside.  Then it would come back in a lesser form a year down the road.  The next year all but gone, then back again.  The lack of para-military efficiency makes it very hard to train 25 – 30 recruits without a lot of problems.  Trying to blend all those personalities into functional firefighters takes coordination.  All too frequently, administrators and chief officers make the mistake of thinking that Firefighter Certification training and recruit training is the same thing.  It’s not.  Introducing recruits to your department’s culture can be done gradually or all at once, but either way indoctrination is a critical part of bringing in new people  and my experience is that when adding large numbers of recruits the hodge podge “Howdy” style fails as wide of the target.  You are bringing in a large force for change, for the good of your organization, its important to control that force.  Without it, …  CHAOS.  These people will be a part of the fire service and your department for a long time, good or bad.  Why wouldn’t you want to get it right?

FDNY Funeral

This isn't the only place where tradition and service play a role. The two combined can help prevent loss of life as well. Photo borrowed from the web, with all due respect.

 Over the next several years, my fellow officers and I struggled through academy after academy, taught on shift, on weekends, disrupting our operational training and everything else.  Every year was different, trying to work out the bugs.  We could still pull off a pretty good academy, but the drain on the department was enormous and the results and quality a mixed bag.

By the time last year rolled around we were on our 9th version of recruit training since I started doing this.   The old DC has long since retired and the support for a highly efficient, para-military recruit training academy was an all but forgotten memory.  “Just get er done!” had become the mantra.   Plow through.  Check ’em off.  We train hard, push ’em hard, get it done…screw the military crap, just get it done.  As I stood in front of last year’s class I thought, “I don’t want to do this anymore..I don’t want to teach anymore” and I began to get very, very tired.  And I wasn’t alone.  For one reason or another, most of the guys assisting and instructing felt the same way.  “I’m done…”  I realized that my desire to keep the para-military standard was not in keeping with what the department wanted.  It was not important to anyone but me apparently, at least I was the only one fighting for it.  I had hoped for nine years that we could get back to really training firemen about the fire service, instead of certification.  But I was apparently missing the mark that had been set.  It’s not welcome here.  So I was finally ready to surrender to reality. 

Why is it important to teach our recruits in para-military fashion anyway?  I am often reminded that other firefighters do fine without it.  What’s the big deal?  Is it just another excuse for power abuse?  It can be.  But in absolute truth, I find that those who are abusive in a para-military system are usually not those who come from highly trained military experience.  It’s usually those who don’t know anything about authority and therefore they use it incorrectly.

"Taking Up the Roofer" a healthy confidence builder for the new recruit. Discipline makes for a safer drill ground. Photo by Author.

Have you ever spent time with Marines?  Let me tell you, they can be difficult.  I R 1.  But spend any time at all with them and you begin to notice something about them that sets them apart.  It’s not that they are better at soldiering, it’s not that they shoot better or are more hard-core.  It’s that they know who they are, where they are going and what they are to do, and they believe in themselves.  They believe they are America’s First to Fight.  So you better step aside..

How do you train a force of some 190,000 men and women to have that kind of attitude?  By instilling in them a sense of who they are, who went before them and forcing them to endure their training to the final goal.. , by letting them see you weed out the weak, and by letting them see you devote yourself to them.  And here’s a gem, ..the people we want, hard-working, driven, self-motivated, capable, mentally healthy people, thrive in such training!  They want us to challenge them!  They want to feel tested, they want to see the weak and unsuited drop by the side, they want to know they are among the finest, the bravest.

The goal of para-military recruit training is not, contrary to myth, designed to create automatons.  Its purpose is to instill discipline and teach untrained novices to function within a system.  Good instructors also instill independent action and thought once the basic rules and policies are well established, they also instill a sense of duty, pride, es spirit de corps, and the beginnings of an understanding of brotherhood.  And none of it ever needs to become harassing or bullying.  Well disciplined instructors do not need to resort to this.  The message and mission are just the opposite.  Create good building blocks through positive re-enforcement, rewarding action and initiative in the right direction, and fostering leadership and teamwork.  If this generation struggles with the ideals of the fire service, then a para-military academy environment is a perfect training ground to teach them what we believe in.

Mentoring is a part of recruit training. Bringing in experienced firefighters to encourage and motivate helps to cross over generational struggles. Photo by Author

But why is that so important to the fire service?  That should be self-evident.  Because, now more than ever, as generational differences and economic hardship are brought to bear, teaching new firefighters who they are, who went before them and how to endure can hold things together in the hardest of times.  We need to be lean and efficient.  You can’t be that way with undisciplined employees.  We need to quit losing our people in costly mistakes and you can’t do that without disciplined officers, you can’t have disciplined officers without training them to be disciplined in the first place, self-motivated, knowledge seeking, goal setting firemen first.  You can’t lead people effectively unless you establish a strong, well-built foundation.  Yes, you can have a fine work force without all that, but that is what it is.  A work force.  And in good times, with lots of $$ and good contracts everyone is happy.  But that is not long-lasting.  People are fickle.  And morale goes in the tank as soon as the good times go away.  The fire service mission isn’t based on whether or not the times are good.  Its based on service in the difficult times.

The Venerable Bunker Drill. Photo by Author

We don’t need the highest paid firefighters (we need firemen paid enough to take care of their families so they can focus on their job), we don’t need the most tricked out engines (although its nice), we don’t need the pimped out fire station (we need to take excellent care of what we are given by the public so we can justify the need for better).  We need good recruits to help us through the tough times.  We need people who will think on their own, abiding by the procedures and policies provided, that will seek to minimize public loss without needlessly costing us lives or equipment.  We need firemen that are worthy of the title.  We need people who will devote themselves to the public good.  That’s what the para-military training style CAN do, if done right and re-enforced on the line. ……. Did you catch that last part?  IF RE-ENFORCED ON THE LINE.  It is all for naught if you don’t walk your own talk.

Enter the new fire chief.  You know that guy, I’ve written about him before.  He’s a Leatherhead, a fireman’s fireman and he wants the job done right.  So we’re trying a different model.  The college will take over the academy, freeing us up to function, we can take the burden off the department, it won’t drain our training budget and our manpower, we just need someone to provide that military polish……

My fishing pole is on the workbench in my garage.  Maybe on weekends.  Recruit school starts in a few weeks.  We’ll hit’em hard the first day out, old school uniforms, growling and marching and “yes sir, no sir!”  The beat of the heel on pavement.  “To slow, …get back!!!”  Respect to the flag, respect to the chief.  They’ll mold or they’ll be gone.  And I am right where I need to be.   Just right now, I’m dreading it.  I’m a creature of the shift life.  I don’t want to get up at the crack of dawn for all those weeks.  I don’t want to give up my company, or to be honest, miss out on any good calls.  But I know when I step in front of the line of recruits that first day, that ole monster will come back and I ‘ll resemble something out of their nightmares and it will all be an act designed to help them come to grips with the life we lead, the sacrifices we make and the duty we embrace for the best job on earth!

"Long days of training" Photo by Author, Prop built by H. McConnell.

Is it the best way to do it?  I don’t know.  I don’t have that answer.  But I believe in it.  I believe that if done right and with good leadership when they move to the line, it makes a high-quality fireman and public servant, and forgive me for asking, ….but isn’t that what we are all about?  Isn’t that what we are paid to be?

Back in that first academy, I borrowed a phrase from an unknown author and I have taught it to every recruit I have had anything to do with ever since.  I teach it to them, then I have them repeat it back, over and over, until it is etched into them.  I want it to stick.  I want it to be burned into them so that when they are faced with hardship, or lack of courage to face down the many issues and challenges we are up against in this modern age, they will not falter, but will remember.

“I am not here for me, I am here for we, and we….are here for them!”

The drill ground awaits.  Fishing will have to wait.  There is work to be done within the brotherhood.  You will know where to find me and you will know whom I have trained.  It will show.

When One of Us Falls Down

Did you know who the procession was for last Friday?  Did you hear the drums beat, the pipes calling, take note or shroud your badge?  No?  Not the usual coverage, I agree.  A slightly more subdued affair.  Still I would have liked to have known.

This past Friday, the New York Fire Department members gathered to lay to rest one of their own. Lt. John A. Garcia, 51 years old. He was retired now, since 2009, a 23 year veteran. Lt. Garcia was yet another victim of the September 11th Attack. As many of you reading this may know, he wasnt’ killed in the attack on the Trade Center Towers, he is a victim of the aftermath. It could be argued that he was a casualty of the Deutsche Bank Fire in August of 2007. After all, the Deutsche Bank Fire was a direct result of 9/11. The 41 story building had to be torn down due to structural damage in the 2001 attack. The fire in 2007 however, had more to do with contractor issues than with the 9/11 attack. Two firefighters died as a result and John Garcia was their leader. He lived through the fire at the Deutsche Bank, but fell by his own hand, a week ago this Friday. Guilt, they say. Pain. 

A rare moment in the camera as a secondary collapse begins to take the life of Engine 3's John C. Hough while he is working to free another brother. Gray Bldg. Fire, L. A. 1939 - Photographer unknown. Used with permission, LAFire.com

It’s important that we pay attention and pay tribute to Lt. Garcia’s passing. Every time a brother goes down we should take note. I try to anyway. It takes courage to do what we do. It takes valor, fortitude, self-sacrifice, character. Even in the back country byways and small towns across our nation, it takes these traits to do what we have pledged ourselves to.  I write about these things because I believe in their value and I believe in our value to society.

So when one of us falls down, for any reason, we should take note. These traits are the finest that men can put forth. These traits are the mark of men and women in our profession. Because of this, Lt. Garcia’s burden is one we should all be willing to bear, though doubtless, he probably would not have shifted the burden to our shoulders willingly. His loss, illustrates for us, the price we pay for our service.  At any moment in your tour, in spite of every precaution, the very worst can happen.  And it can happen to any one of us.  It may take the man next to you, and leave you unscathed.  When I think about the burden Lt. Garcia felt, I think how incredibly heavy the 9/11 burden must have felt to all who were there that day.  The loss of your brothers is bad enough, but the loss of those you lead into battle leaves you looking at your soul..and wondering why you lived when they didn’t, why you couldn’t save them, and why you have a right to live.

Marking Lt. Garcia’s death isn’t necessarily going to save anyone.  EGH is a great attitude and endeavor, and I am on board with it, but I don’t believe it is possible to prevent every death.  Yes, we can try to reduce the death toll, and I actively do.  Every day I’m on duty and frequently on my own time, I am working in that direction for my own crew, my own department, my own town.  But I don’t believe we will always win.  There are too many hazards, to many possibilities and too many factors working against us.  We keep the shield up in hopes that we will deflect the fatal blow, but there are moments when the Eternal Father allows the spear to penetrate, for His own divine purposes.  And that is what we must remember.  Even when we fall down, all things are under His control. 

Still, I do not take these things with a fatalistic attitude.  I grasp at every second in split-second moments in front of the dark door, thinking through every decision based on the safety of my company and whether the risk is worth the endeavor.  Just like every officer must do.  I do not want to lose someone who has been entrusted to me, someone that I have to lead into the fight.   Let it not be through a lack of training, skill or understanding.   Especially when no one’s life is left to be saved other than our own.  We must continue to learn from our fallen brothers, even when it happens at home, alone.  Strive to teach the young ones so that they will understand that we are not supermen, but flesh and blood, and bone and sinew.  And imperfect.  We make mistakes, so let us work towards perfection so that we can do our part, and then let the Father do His.  And then perhaps you and I will be ready for what confronts us.

I have nothing but heartfelt sorrow for Lt. Garcia.  Some burdens will crush you.  I am thankful to the Heavenly Father  for every shift that ends with every life accounted for.  Some things are not within our control and never will be.  So I will remember Lt. John Garcia for twenty-three years of service.  RFB.

“Oh beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly, Sing the dead march as you carry me along”                                                              – Streets of Laredo, Marty Robbins

Our Ambition: Exposed in the Light of Integrity

Well, fill the cup….its been a while. I’ve been on a leave of absence, learning more about life. Its that time for me I think. I’ve been all grown up for a bit now, but still feel young at heart and life has its way of dragging you into reality.

I returned to duty just in time. We’ve been hoppin’. Between mutual aid and fires of our own, there hasn’t been a week in the past month that we haven’t been fightin’ fire somewhere and I gotta say, it does much good for morale, in spite of the effect it has on the fire prevention stats. Good firemen like to be firemen and they like doing what they do. Not much different from being in the Corps, I’d say. We were always dressed up lookin’ for a fight, because that’s what we were taught to do. Hmmmm, ..there’s a theme for another article there somewhere….another time.

It isn't often that the general public can clearly understand the work that we do on their behalf. It is up to us to show them. Photo by S. Bender.

My good brother, Rob, asked me what I would write about next and I have struggled to find time since my return home to put pen to paper. But I finally stumbled upon it yesterday. Sit and poor yourself a strong cup, I’ll allow I’ve been wanderin’ here and there but I’m fixin’ to get serious.  Now bear with me, brother.   I got somethin’ to say, but it’ll take a minute to get around the tailboard and start a lead out.  First we need to get a little situational awareness.  Like the old fireman always says, “Before you lay line, make sure you know where you want to put it down…”

Since the assault on public employees began in Wisconsin this year, it has become obvious to many that a scapegoat has been chosen for our nations economic woes. If you’re a union brother, I’m sure you’ve heard from various publications and union reps that we are under attack for our pensions and the call is out to fight back. The General President used the term “Insidious Legislation” to describe how the right-wing of our government has begun a war of annihilation on the IAFF and other unions and the left-wing has just stood aside or even jumped in to get their own licks in. It would appear that we, the public servant and our terrifyingly evil pensions are at fault for the economic crisis and we need to bend over the wagon wheel for our whipping. It is being put in warfare terms to get our attention and I believe, rightly so. Most of us have traded high wages for a stable income and retirement, just like teachers, police and the other members of society’s apparatus. Apparently, those who like to work in the private sector and amass large fortunes, need more meat to grind and we are it. There are some very well paid firemen.  But not that many.  I am ready and willing to fight, not because they want to take from me, but because they are taking from my wife and children. Like all the union brothers, my heart is enraged at this attack on what even now is barely enough to keep us solvent in our old age, ..should we make it that far. We are all aware of the other insidious killer, lurking at every corner in our profession, cancer and stress.  Yeah, they don’t want to pay for that either.  So wear your mask, …anyway, I”m getting off point..

There is more to this than just how evil politicians are.  There are, as always, two sides to every story.   I’ve been a fireman for twenty years. I came on the job in the Spring of 91. I wasn’t full-time, but paid per call, so I was not union. Later, as a full-time federal firefighter, I chose not to be union. Experiences with UAW in my youth really made my stomach crawl. I did not define “Brotherhood” the way they did. I didn’t become a union member until this last year, when the rest of my brothers and I finally joined the IAFF. And I have to say, its been a much better experience than I expected, and my hat is off to the Local officers that assisted us with that change. The IAFF has shown itself to be a reputable organization in our territory.  But I also believe that there is a need for a self-assessment here.  Labor has a bad reputation for good reason, it has often gotten greedy and way out of line.  I do not believe that the IAFF is that way as a rule, but you can’t always pick your family members.  We need to defeat Labor’s greedy rap.  A little integrity is warranted here. Before the battle, let us examine ourselves and as humble and loyal public servants, let us search for any faults and expose them to the light, so that the public can see that we truly are servants, deserving our coveted pensions. I’m talking about having integrity in our profession. As a Leatherhead, this is something I can speak loudly about and with authority, for as the president of a local chapter of the Society of Leatherheads, it is my duty to speak out about such things among my membership and the Brotherhood.

"In the moment of truth, do not be found wanting" My good brothers in Snohomish Co. keep at perfection on a daily basis. Photo by author.

Are we a justifiable target for this attack? Why attack the public servant? What is the gain? Who is driving this? Well, you know as well as I do there are plenty of angry blogs and news articles and special interest editorials out there to fill us in on the details. Maybe there isn’t a good reason for it.  But as a fireman, a brother, as a sister, union or non-union, what have you done lately to prevent such attacks? By and large, most firefighters are good stewards of the public trust, but there is a contingent of those who don’t have a clue and we need to own them as our own, because it is up to us be good stewards of life in the public house.  The lazy and careless need to be reined in, the youthful ignorance curbed and corrected.  The greedy exposed for what they are.  Whether union or not, we are all representatives of our chosen profession and for some, our passion.   We need to own up to our faults where we find them and show our younger members, and some times our older ones, what it means to truly be men and women of integrity.  I am constantly learning from my Chief.  He constantly sets the example.  Can that be said of you?  He is no longer part of labor, he is management, but he is our biggest fan and knows that it is all tied together, management, labor, performance and service.  It has to be protected.  People like us fall down when our integrity is neglected.

Ask yourself a question or two. Are you visibly tending to the image you present to the public? In what ways do you show John Q. that you are money well spent.  Now I love ya, brother.  I really do, but does that sticker on your window really reflect the sentiment we’re trying to achieve here?  “I fight what you fear!”  Really?  I live in the rugged northland, there are plenty of hard core residents here that could give a damn.  Such things only piss them off.  Many view fire departments as an expense the government foists upon them and which they would be better off without.  Fear?  Don’t be pathetic, they don’t fear fire, if they did they’d support us more and make a big deal about us. You wonder why you can get the mil rate raised?  Have you controlled your drivers on the road?  Do they drive the apparatus like demons, pushing the public out of the way?  And, your young bucks, do they  waltz around the fireground acting like kings of the hill? God’s gift to our community?  Our actions speak volumes.

How about that other sticker, you know, the one that loudly illustrates your department or IAFF affiliation, does it actually say  “I have a bad ass truck and drive like this is my fire engine!”.  Think about it.  Do you really drive your POV like you’re representing the rest of the Brotherhood?  I hope you do, your days of freedom are over when  you take this job, you represent all of us.

Settle down, now.. I”m not trying to get you mad or assault your sense of pride, but these are some small examples of ways in which we erode our credibility as public servants.  When someone is afraid, when fear affects their choices, they seek shelter, they close a gate, lock the door.  If society is afraid of crime, it calls the guard dog, our faithful friends in the patrol car.  When they fear fire, they call us and this they do in the heat of the moment, but collectively as a society, would prefer not to have to rely on us. 

Chief Edward Croker. Photo borrowed from the text of FE Firefighter Handbook. Used without permission.

But as Chief Croker reminded the officials of New York City a hundred years ago:

We strive to preserve from destruction the wealth of the world, which is the product of the industry of men, necessary for the comfort of both the rich and the poor. We are the defenders from fire of the art which has beautified the world, the product of the genius of men and the means of the refinement of mankind.”

Unfortunately for society, they have not found an escape from this need to have us nearby.  But fact or not, this does not keep them from looking for ways to remove the burden, or at least lessen it.  These famous words of Chief Croker’s were spoken in defense of the fire service.   He was standing up to defend his profession and justify its expense. 

Our “ambition” should be to live out the chief’s words in reality, even a hundred years later.  The public needs to see this, needs to believe in this too, so that we can have their support.  It doesn’t matter how strong the labor movement is, and maybe it thought itself strong enough to rest on its laurels, if we don’t conduct ourselves as professional men and women of integrity, we sacrifice our best friends in this fight.  The firehouse neighbors.  It is they who will defend us, they who see us each day, they who bring their children to us to believe in someone safe and good, it is they who will cast votes to defend us, or neglect us.  What are you doing in the streets of your servanthood?  Offending or serving?

Please, don’t get me wrong here, I’m not accusing, but asking all of us to examine ourselves and to put things in order.  I’m not announcing another list of 15 career saving behaviors to keep the public happy!  I’m asking you to take a second glance. You cannot win an ethical fight when you are stained.  And we are naturally stained as all men are, so we must strive to minimize, don’t leave low hanging fruit for the assailants to pick and display to the public.  What is it that the public sees?  A bunch of overpaid adrenaline junkies?  A red medic car load of jaded paragods?  When the public meets you, are you working or are you in your shorts and badass firefighter shirt, eating protein drinks and checkin in on Facebook or E*trade?  Is the firehouse looking its best?  Does it reflect your attitude?

"Old 16, first out in the Big House" Photo by author.

 What is the public seeing?  Sometimes they aren’t even aware they are seeing it until it is time to tally the accounts.  Are you whinning about cleaning the rig or do you clean it as a demonstration of your stewardship?  Even an old piece can be a display of good stewardship through hard service.  Guard your honor in this and teach your brothers and sisters to display their servanthood proudly.  Our intent should be to fill the storeroom with good marks that outweigh whatever may be found deficient.  This means that when the owner comes home, the servant is not found wanting.  We are the servants.  The nice folks or the whacko at the door to the fire house are the owners, treat him or her with respect due, whether you feel it or not.  You may have justifiably cynical thoughts about the average member of the public, we all do from time to time, but a servant doesn’t show his feelings to the master of the house.  He keeps his opinions to himself and serves the one who pays him unless asked to give his opinion.  You may point out that the concept of public servant is outdated, and I will counter to you then that if it is no longer relevant, than neither are we.  We can be done away with.  We need to re-educate the public, through performance and self-discipline how valuable public service is.  And we cannot ever forget that if we take too much from the public, they will resent us, it is the natural order of things.

"No hot Joe and hotcakes this morning!" Photo by D. Waisenan

A few years back, I could have punched this guy.  He stood outside his favorite pancake joint on a -40 Sunday morning, wishing for his usual plate of jacks and coffee.  They weren’t going to be forthcoming, the place was just four walls and a lot of soot.  He was pissed.  “No joe?  No cakes?  Why do we even pay for you people!”  My company was in that place, having been up all night fighting the fire.  We had been given the joyful task of crawling through debris and knee deep water to find the incoming utility water shut off.  It was -40, the guys are frozen, questionable live loads overhead, trying to get this water shut off to keep the church next door from flooding and this guy is giving us grief over his lost pancakes.  He didn’t know that we hadn’t been called until twenty minutes after the fire was discovered over the grease pit kitchen, he didn’t know how our companies had risked themselves to save the neighborhood iconic greasy spoon.  He didn’t stop to think how many of us could have been killed trying to save his precious pancakes.  All he had for us that cold morning was venom.  I wanted to punch that guy.  I wanted to call him every name in the book and tear him apart.  My boys were freezing out there, without sleep all night, now struggling to save this guy’s own church from flooding and he’s pissin’ on us.  My battalion saw it coming, and sent me back into the wrecked building.  He quietly walked the man back to the church parking lot and did his best to represent us without letting his own anger show.  Both the boss and I are church going men too.  I really respected his self-control on behalf of the department that morning.

Integrity means that the public servant withholds his anger and hatred and withholds his right to sling back.  Ed Croker did us an eternal favor by displaying a calm, professional demeanor and thinking through what he had to say to place his profession in the best light possible and we must do the same, every day.  The public often mis-reads our intentions and when we aren’t paying attention, we often send the wrong message.  Situational awareness lacking.  You have to tend to this job, treat it with respect.  Wear your uniform like the servant you are and treat your equipment and houses with care, for they belong to the owner, …not you.  And when we have been frivolous and irreverent in the good times, we will pay for it in the hard times.  Build public respect through humble, dedicated service.  Treat every member of the public like your boss and then, when you stand before them on election day you may have earned their respect and favor. After all, you are a servant.  Don’t like that?  Well, …I hear they’s plenty jobs on Wall Street where a lack of service is always welcome.

The Finer Things; Leading the Next Generation

The brothers are in the kitchen, we finished up early today and they’re putting together the company meal. I’ve mentioned before how these moments in the firehouse are among my favorites. We really are a family in so many ways and preparing and eating a company meal is always a welcome time in the tour.

Taco night at 2's

Taco night at 2's.

This is where the ribbing and joking goes on, and the tall tales. As the old man, my job most of the time is to keep drinking coffee and comment on their culinary skills from time to time in such a way as to raise into question the quality of their upbringing. “Who taught you to cut onions?” or “Hey, wha’ the…I like my noodles digestible.,…”

“That does it, ….Does your mother know you do that?!”

This is my proper place at meal time. They expect it and in the twisted world in which we live, its appropriate. One of the latest cut ups is getting the new guy to put cinnamon in the coffee, telling him “Oh, yeah, Cap loves a dose of that in his coffee!”. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.   I rant, …probie flees the beanery.  ..And so it goes on as it was for me and I hope, will be for them in later years.

I love these guys.  As the years go by, you watch them mature and grow into solid men and you hope, ..you hope that you have given them what they need to do well.  But how are you to know?  What is the yardstick we are to use?  Has our training been effective?  Has our leadership been effective?

Of course there is always the feedback you get from their next duty station, next captain or chief.  But more than that your imprint can be seen even before they have left your sphere of influence if you are willing to allow them room to grow and solidify their understanding of what you have taught them.  In my experience, company and battalion level leadership styles boil down to two distinct methods (not to include complete dysfunction where the line between leader and follower is constantly blurred).

1.  Do what your told to do, (sometimes in SOP’s, sometimes regardless of SOP’s)….cause I’m wearin’ the brass.

2.  Do what you know needs to be done, based on the principles the organization has defined for you.

We all know or should know that the first method results in a myriad of organizational difficulties.  Perhaps even based on sound principles, the organization is either gripped tightly by those in command and stifling independent action, or it is characterized by a distinct lack of leadership at the top, leaving its line officers no other way to keep themselves from trouble than to narrow mindedly function by the book (or traditional and historical organization norms).  If its source is at the chief level, it will root itself deeply in the company officer level and then you will play the devil getting it worked out of the future officers as well. 

The second method, based on solid guidelines and trust can foster excellent opportunities for young officers and rising line officers to develop their decision-making skills and build self-confidence.  But to go this route, you really must be willing to accept their mistakes as your own because they will tip over the tea kettle.  I have seen it many times over, just when you think they’ve got a handle on things and the reins can let go, disaster hits and you can just hear the micro-managers shouting “See, ….I told you!”  But here you establish mercy and grace, and that is the difference between the two.  Mistakes happen.  I have not gotten through twenty years on the job without having caused a ruckus or two.  Many, many instances of grace and pardon have come my way and yes, a lot of crow too.  The humility serves to temper you, the grace gives you a chance to try again.

Now I’ve been at this a while.  I have confidence in the people I lead. 

Teach them the "Why's" as well as the "Do it this way" part.

I know my department hires quality people and my fellow officers and I work hard to develop them into good, solid jakes.  They don’t all work out, and they shouldn’t all work out.  The “Job” is not for everyone, and not everyone belongs in the job,  in spite of what they might think of themselves and what HR says about everyone being special.  But our organization excels at finding some of the best young men and women I’ve ever met.  And in order to let them become the firefighters and leaders they want to be and that we need them to become, there has to be an environment conducive to surviving your mistakes long enough to make improvements on them.

Imagine an organizational method that prepares you to take the place of those who lead you, gives you time to develop into a competent professional, then gives you room to progress, guidelines and consistent mentoring to help you find your way…I know, ..pipe dream..But is it?  If we can avoid some common pitfalls, we can improve our efforts and make the most of the time we have with these people.

"Invest yourself in them."

One of the things that has caused immense damage in both the fire service and other long-standing organizations has been the all too frequent promotion of those who seemed to excel at the intermediate level into the advanced level without having gained any experience in the middle.  You often see this in small departments vollie and paid, simply because there is no one else to promote or no one else responded to the call.  I’ve also seen it in larger organizations where the failure to provide a development path for officers causes the management to seek to promote those who excel in the promotional testing process.  But that is no guarantee any degree of understanding leadership.  Even those who seem born with the gift of leadership need to be trained to use it in the right ways.  In such circumstances, someone who is really good as a firefighter or medic can end up being in charge of the whole training program without ever having fought much fire or treated any truly critical patients.  Some are pushed to the front seat against their will or sometimes happy to be there but without a clue as to what lies ahead or the responsibility that has been placed upon them.  This is not the way to let loose the reins. 

In other organizations, any mistake or deviation is met with ridicule or punishment.   The only development that occurs in one of these places is the school of misguided management.  In some orgs, mistakes may not happen often, but neither will anything spectacular.  If you work hard enough, you can successfully crush almost anyone’s enthusiasm for the job.  Note:  Sarcasm intended here.   Failure to properly develop members of the organization leads to endless command and control issues at the house and on the incident scene.  For some, it results in career long habits that can cost lives.

Create moments for them to lead and practice making critical decisions.

And lest anyone forget, this new generation Y is altogether different from the Boomers and the Xers as we so frequently hear.  I have had several frustrated senior men and officers ask me what to do about this gap in focus and purpose that seems to be such a problem among the new generation.   I don’t mean to belittle the problem.  It is a real factor in our fire departments today.   But I believe that good leadership, mentoring and applicable traditions can have a significant impact and go a long ways with these young folks.  They aren’t so different.  They do seem to feel they are entitled, they do tend to seem a little arrogant, and they don’t inherently embrace all things American and traditionally and historically Firemanish.  But they really respond well to involved dynamic, confident, savvy leadership that is patient and willing to explain the “Why we do this” part.  If you like to lead from your desk or by watching episodes of “Rescue Me”, well..yeah, you’ll find them doing  what they know best;  games, social media and the venerable “FB”.  Getting chapped at these guys because they don’t appreciate the paint job on the piece isn’t their fault if you didn’t find a way to communicate its value to them.  If you don’t get involved with them, engage them, ask questions and show them why “Doing Whatever” doesn’t fly in our world, you’ll be left behind by them.   You’ll find them creating their own standard.  Create buy in by learning about them and what they believe, then show them how to fold those things into the fire service culture.  We are, or should be, seeking a blend of the old and the new. 

Particularly with this new generation, its not just skills, its taking time to give them good reasons for what you teach them.

Many of these pitfalls plague us.  It’s up to us, the officers in the mix, to find ways around organizational error and stagnation and create a culture of development.  You want this new breed to succeed.  They will represent us in the future.  There is no sense in cherishing the past traditions and history if you don’t intend to see it through and pass it on.  So next time you’re on a routine job, let one of your own take the lead, give them a lot of rope, demonstrate confidence in their ability, but position yourself in such a way as to suggest support and coverage, not back seat driving.  Create for them a chance to excel, and a place to make big and little mistakes where the damage can be mitigated and lessons learned can be improved upon.  Yes, you put yourself on the line a bit.  But they’re your people, …..you trained them.  Or at least you should have.  For that reason alone, you should care about their performance in their next assignment.  Its your reputation too.

At their next assignment or department, will your department’s reputation be known for creating steadfast micro-managers or for making future leaders?  Where are you in developing the next generation?  Time will tell.

Colonels’ On Point

Pull up the chair, I’ll shimmy over a bit. Java is hot and strong, perfect for this kinda conversational topic.   Bear with me, I’ve been trying to find ways to talk about leadership the get to the core of the issue.  So this is round about, but we’ve got time…plus, I need to do honor to a resting warrior. 

You know, a feller I knew back in the day just passed away. Truly a “Marine of Marines”, I really liked and respected him. Everyone did. Even the slackasses respected him. I don’t know if my memory is correct, but it seems to me he was what we called a “Mustang” in the Corps.  A “Mustang” is usually a warrant officer or lower ranking officer that has come up through the ranks.  That means they started out as Privates, they know how to work for a living.  Usually older than the other officers in that rank, a mustang is often marked with experience and has a toughness about them that reminds you of the stories we were told in boot camp about famous Marines of old.   If I’m remembering right, the Colonel was just a young pup when he went into the Corps as an 0311 (Marine Rifleman). Of course, he was sent to Vietnam and did his time there and I’m sure it shaped his character. He was one of a few senior Marines that really shaped and molded me. Another was one of the Staff Sgt’s over me, but that’s a story for another time.  People think you are the way you are because you went to Marine Boot Camp. That’s true in a way, the part of me that is psychoctic…

Just like in the fire service, the academy or boot camp serves to shape you into a “moldable” or teachable, functioning member. Its not the end of the line though. And this is where we often fail in our efforts to train up the next generation. Failure on the line itself. You receive the new product from the factory, the new recruit, the boot. He or she is ready and willing, motivated, primed and set. “Locked and Cocked” we used to say. But then they reach the fleet or in fire service lingo, the line. Things happen like, “Oh, I see you’re assinged to ‘that house’ or ‘those’ guys or ‘that shift’, you know…you feel sorry for them. You can’t say things like, “Well, I was hoping you’d work out to be a good Jake, but at that house you’ll only be trained to sit on your ass!”  Well that’s where old dogs like the Colonel come in. 

The Skyhawk's heyday was in Vietnam where its specialty was close air support, something the Marines excel at. Picture borrowed off the web for a good cause.

The Colonel (or Major when I knew him) was one of our finest pilots.  We flew the dilapidated and venerable old Corps favorite, the A-4M Skyhawk.  Lovingly known as the “Hot Rod”, its glory days were long gone when I met the Colonel.  He was a Master Aviator of the Old Corps.   No perambulator, the Skyhawk was flown old style, cable and hydraulic assist, no wires.  Its sounded like a dragon and could turn on a dime, but took a quality pilot to stay alive in it.  The Skyhawk and the Colonel held our respect, always.  The Colonel was there through my entire enlistment and had it not been for him, I might not have made it the entire way through.  He saved my keester when it was due a good thrashin’ and made it clear that had I not been involved in the shenanigans that had occurred, he would have finally bagged some slackasses that he had been plottin’ on for some time, “but no, you had to get mixed up in it, and now I have to save your neck and let EVERYONE GO!”  (I’ll tell that story another time).

The Colonel’s name was Charles Dockery.  I had no idea what his first name was when I served under him, but his radio call sign was “Buzzard” and mind you, he looked the part.  He had that wrinkled up face look that some jarheads get, with the lower jaw that resembles a bulldog and makes you flinch when he got to close.  He was the kind of Marine you think of when you hear the name “Leatherneck”.  One glance at you and you figured rounds were comin’ down range in your general direction.  

Here’s what I’m aimin’ at.  The Colonel was always there, standing on point.  Always.  At the time I knew him, he was the maintenance officer and held the rank of Major.  The Squadron leader could be drunk and laid out, the XO could be lost over the Pacific, but the Maintenance Officer had to be there, had to be ridin’ herd on us maintenance crews.  We had to have 22 aircraft maintained and ready to fly around the clock.  Our birds flew all the time.  Maintenance crews were exhausted on a frequent basis and it wasn’t like there was anyone to take over.   We flew night and day and the pilots broke those birds, night and day so we fixed them night and day.  Needless to say, morale and enthusiasm often waned. 

A-4 Skyhawk Maintenance Crews on Wake Island during the Cold War. Photo by author.

The Squadron was like most of its kind back then.  The Marine Corps was struggling to recover from Vietnam.  Most of the pilots were young and freshly made.  Most of the old NCO’s were Vietnam vets.  They were all great guys.  Many, not all, but just enough were tired and worn out.  Leadership had lost its glamour for many of these men and so had the Corps.   They were fillin’ time.  We have these same guys in the fire service.  Just collecting their due.  You didn’t ask too much of them.  Young men like myself easily grew discouraged with such conditions.  Not having the experience in life to understand, it often seemed that everything the Corps had taught us about integrity, honor and fortitude was a lie.  Shadows of a former self.

I think its like that in a lot of firehouses.   The new recruit shows up, things are not as glamorous as expected and firemen are not as noble as many are led to believe.  What the academy teaches is critical.  It’s an ideal, something we are aiming at as a collective group.  The good instructor knows this, but it is not easy to motivate recruits by saying things like, “You will probably spend most of your time putting band-aids on people who make whining a modern art.” We teach to the standard, even though we know it isn’t always that way on the line.   We’re trying to push it there by investing ourselves in the new generation.  I understand those tired old sergeants and old firemen a lot better now and can even emphathise with them, but I refuse to excuse the attitude.  Not when lives are at stake.

The Colonel was the type of Marine that understood that.  He was devoted to his job, knew his job, loved his job and expected at the very least, that we too would know our jobs and perform with equal effort.  Lives were at risk every time a plane took off and if we didn’t do a quality job, pilots would die.  He kept us at our mark. 

Colonel Dockery, United States Marine Corps, Ret.

Colonel Dockery, "Buzzard". A Marine's Marine.

When the Colonel passed away, I began to reflect on these things, and I asked myself how he did this.  He wasn’t the kind of bully to go around nit pickin’ all our faults.  In fact, we rarely heard much at all out of him.  But he himself was always squared away.  He held himself with a bearing that did credit to all officers of the Marine Corps and he was very thorough at what he did.  I never heard him bad mouth the Corps or grumble about life in the service and when he handed us our asses in a sling, he did it in a way that made us grateful for the chewing, knowing we would just be glad to have a pulse afterward.

There was almost an attitude about him that said, “I can’t control everything, but, By God, I can control this flight line and it is going to be the best flight line in the Corps!”  Just stand by if you didn’t agree with him on that.  He took pride in what we were, in spite of short comings.  He believed in our ability to get impossible things done, in spite of our lack of manpower, outdated equipment and parts.  He displayed integrity and honor; he fought for us, even when we didn’t deserve it.  I was just grateful then, now I wonder what it cost him to do that.

The Colonel didn’t seem to care what other officers thought about him or about what he did.  He had integrity and fortitude unlike the common man.  What mattered was the mission and therefore the Corps.  What mattered was us, because we were the mission.  Skyhawks didn’t fly if we didn’t fix’em.  Simple as that.  He drove us hard, but treated us like his very own.  He was the whom we wanted to gain respect from.  The Colonel could keep us accountable, because he was accountable to the standard himself, first.

What kind of leader are you?

Do you lead with integrity?  Do you lead with honor?  Do you lead from the front?  Are you the core, the center of your firehouse?  Do you come to the job everyday with at least your basics covered, in spite of what might ail your soul?  The younger generation hears what is said in the academy, in the textbooks, the mantra we preach.   Do you take responsibility for that in your own career?  When you are retired and gone, will they sit around the firehouse and tell fond stories about the day you helped them understand what this job is really all about?  Will they remember that you taught them how to hold fast, to aim for the mission regardless of what other people thought or said.  Will they remember that you put the mission first, therefore, their welfare was of the utmost importance to you.  Do you hold yourself accountable first, so that you can turn to your people and expect the best they have to give?

Good cup o’ Joe…Sempfer Fi, Colonel.  Guard the streets well, I know you will.  I will always remember your impact upon me.