Monday, June 18, 2012

Pass Road

Most all of us enter into our career in the fire service blind with ideology; thinking that we can master the learning curve and become difference makers, we seek to augment growth, foster development, and provide support to our brothers and sisters.

The Cat 5 sweeping through Grandpa's firehouse, 1976. 
It's a family after all, right?

Our fire ignited, we set about changing the world in our own way, one fire service knot, one hose evolution, one burpee, or one emergency medical call at a time. For a while, we are buoyed almost exclusively by the novelty of the new path, and the pride of displaying the badge of a time-honored profession.

Needing more, we pack our bags and strike out on our own to see for our selves that the world - widely rumored to be flat -  is round and does not drop off at the corners of our respective jurisdictions. We journey through Non Plus Ultra to Ad Adventurum. Live the adventure; whatever will be, will be. We discover the world to be a big, beautiful, humbling, mind-expanding place. Our fire grows so large that it creates its own wind, we feel ourselves to be a force of nature.
Our flame will never be snuffed because the commitment never ends.
We seek to expand our circle of knowledge, attempting to bring back what we learn on the path to the entire organization - our world - in a single person human wave assault. We sponsor training, and try our hand at policy reform as we take on the every perceived illness that afflicts the organization. We want to fix it all, and we want to fix it now.

Storm warnings are issued as we travel between firehouses. 

Look out for these guys.

Our wind speeds exceed that of a Category 5 hurricane, the fire grows unchecked. We are not-so-subtly reminded that firefighters don't make policy, chiefs do.

Whatever bro, that's cool...

And it's on to the next skirmish. In our wake plumes of smoke issue forth from bridges ablaze from the energy of hubris and ego.

Driven by naive, youthful exuberance, and an indomitable spirit, heads down, we push on. Time passes and we recognize that there are a disproportionately high number of hurdles and roadblocks that we must negotiate in order to move forward. 

At first blush it appears simply to be the inherent friction in the system that slows innovation and stunts growth. As time goes on, we reach a dark and foul-tasting epiphany. The organization does not value innovation, and it does not want forward momentum. Worse yet, we discover that as much as we love the organization, our love is unrequited. There are few things harder to deal with than having a passion for something that burns inside you like a bonfire and not being able to express it.
Photo by Colin Carter

We far too often encounter a resistance to change or proposed growth combined with hostility which act as major distractions to the intended mission of the fire service. The mission is to serve the needs - and protect the safety - of the community. An on-going preoccupation with what cannot be done rather than what can be done renders a degree of dysfunction to operations and negatively impacts team building. Wind speeds slow and our fire is relegated to an angry smolder. It becomes personal.
There are few things harder to deal with than having a passion for something that burns inside you like a bonfire and not being able to express it.
It may take a few years for us to recognize that the political topography of municipalities and in turn, individual fire departments, often make it virtually impossible to actualize many of our objectives. A blend of parochialism and the cumbersome inbred bureaucracy that litters landscape of city government makes the situation untenable for some. Daily distractions become the norm. Friction within the organization can steal passion; it can take away love for the game, and it can break our spirit.

If we let it, the fire will go out and we grow cold and bitter inside. We struggle with the universal conundrum, do we lead, do we follow, or do we simply get out of the way? 

Some of us retreat into shells and shrink our sphere of influence - self, crew, station - in an attempt at self-preservation. Some give up entirely. Still others wage a misunderstood war - redefining insanity by continually launching headlong into a cement wall - in a vain effort to resuscitate a moribund fight. 

We try to bring others on board in the struggle, all the while the friction of the establishment has us in its undertow. What we desire most of all to preserve our way of hard work and dedication to the craft.

Our career can stall into a period marked by a lack of progress and little or no advancement because it is easier to roll over on our back and expose our belly in an act of total submission. 

But that's not who we are. Quit is not in our vocabulary, fight and adaptation are. History shows us that wars are won by those who are students of battle stories and learn from the past. Full frontal assaults are suicidal. There is a better way. It might take much longer, but it will be less costly in terms of broken spirits and career casualties.

The road is more circuitous than we'd like, but we cannot forsake tomorrow's battles for a lack of  immediate and overwhelming victory today. 

We search for the path though or around the detritus. We experience fleeting triumphs as we work against brazen lies in pursuit of the way. We will not allow what we cannot control interfere with what we can accomplish. 
We must augment people's dreams, not disparage them.
Those who don't lose their way are able to cup the ember in their hands and carry what remains of the fire and lay in wait until the time is right to move. They move through anger to acceptance and when it is safe to do so, they open their hands and issue the ember a breath of air. The flame of passion flickers back to life. 

In the shadows of the bare flame that fights off the gloom we see the others. All of us know that it is far better to be a light than to curse the darkness.

We assemble our team of fire service seekers and start spot fires, one knot, one training evolution, one small change at a time. We continually ignite these small fires and slowly we outflank the fortifications defilade before us. We take the fight from the open fields where we are easy targets to the streets and engage in a house to house, street to street fight aimed at cultural renaissance.

We take the fight underground. 

We call it positive subversion. We will not allow personal limits to be placed on us. We create our own beginning, middle, and ending. We search for the pass road through the mountains that loom before us. 

Eventually we find our way.

If we work at it as leaders, we can actually eliminate the conditions that make leadership necessary. Like a coach or a teacher who bridges the learning gap between themselves and their pupil until it disappears, we try to bring equality to our crew, station, and battalion, thus enabling greater relationships to blossom. 

If you lead your people properly there doesn't necessarily need to be an end-game in sight. They don't have to know where exactly they're going so long as they believe in the concept, plan, or vision. If we're doing it right, we allow our people to find their way and through shared ideology and innovation we all move forward together.

How do we foster our people and promote positive change?
  • Solicit input from the crew.
  • Under promise and over deliver.
  • Take accountability for your shortfalls and pass credit for success to your people.
  • Be disciplined in your approach to the craft. Your people want structure - they want to know what to expect.
  • Don't keep knowledge to yourself, share what you learn.
  • Be a positive role model and encourage others who share a passion for the craft to become mentors too.
  • Communicate your passion, have fun, and show humility.

We can no more explain our passion to a person who has never experienced it than we can explain light to the blind. Passion is energy, it is palpable. We must never lose it.

A large part of what it means to lead is having the courage to disobey; not in a sophomorish revolt against the establishment simply for the sake of conflict, but because we feel that there is a better way to be found through independent thought, communication, innovation, and teamwork.

The passage is narrow and its walls are sheer. The road is strewn with the burned-out, still smoking hulks of what were the dreams and aspirations of those who preceded us. Real leadership is bringing those disenfranchised individuals back into the fold, helping them reclaim their dreams from those who took them away.

We must augment people's dreams, not disparage them. Too often the opposite happens. Courage and character are developed by celebrating initiative and independence. Our time in service and in this world are limited, we cannot afford live our lives in a rigid adherence to dogma, living exclusively by someone else's rules. Our flame will never be snuffed because the commitment never ends. 

Sometimes you have to wage the war of positive change on a small scale; one person, one drill, one company at a time. It requires perseverance - total buy-in - and long term commitment. Stay in the fight, it's a war of attrition, not a shock and awe campaign.


  1. Justin J BohlmannJune 24, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    Mark this post was perfect for my morning shift read after coming back from vacation. Keep 'em coming, Good Work!

  2. Just re-read this after sending it out to my fellow rookies. Excellent article.