A friend of mine who is a chief for a small volunteer department (about 20 members) called me the other day and asked when I would be back in his area? He wanted to have lunch and for me to meet a few people. We planned lunch for today. I called Don while I was about a half hour out to let him know I was on schedule and to get a little back ground on who I was meeting.
He told me that we were having a home cooked meal at the station and that he had a young member that he felt would benefit from meeting me. Translation – he had a wild horse and was hoping I could help him tame him. Don is one of the few out there that considers my challenges with being politically correct as an asset.
Lunch was simple and GREAT – Cowboy chili and baked potatoes with all the fix’ens. The table talk was pretty typical of a fire station. How many runs have you had this year? Any “good” burners? How’s your budget look for next year? Then there was Matt. Matt loved to talk. There wasn’t a subject that he didn’t have an opinion on, and he was sure to tell you why it was the right one. Matt has nearly all of the state certifications, and grand aspirations.
Matt was friendly, and not really annoying as one might expect. He was pretty knowledgeable, and it was clear that he had read many a book and/or trade journal. During a rare moment that Matt was inhaling and therefore could not talk, I took the opportunity to ask him some basic tactical questions like, how would he choose between a 1-3/4in and a 2-1/2in line, how much water can each line flow, how would he man them for a defensive attack and what are the best techniques for advancing them for an offensive attack. Oh, of course I asked about flashover, backdraft, and reading smoke. Let’s just say that Dave Dodson would be proud of this young man. He answered all of the questions with enthusiasm, in text book fashion, and without hesitation.
Then came the series of money questions. Matt, how many years have you been in the fire service? Answer: 4, 6 if you count my cadet time, and of course I hung out here with my dad when I was a kid. Okay, good, how many working fires did your department respond to last year? Answer: 7 Good, how many of those did you make? Answer: 5 GREAT, and how many of those fires did you actually flow water to extinguish them? Answer: 3 Final question. How many of the five working fires that you responded to were you on the attack line? A short pause with silence ensued, then the answer 0.
Matt then looked at me and said “I get the feeling you knew the answer to the final question before you asked.” My response, yes, I had an idea the number would be low, in part because I was familiar with the department, but more so in how he had answered my previous questions – very text book in nature. Matt and I spent the next 30 minutes in the kitchen doing the dishes and we had a very nice discussion. I explained to Matt that it was great that he was getting all of these certifications and had such great goals. I added that I sincerely appreciated his commitment to the fire service and to being a professional.
But I also shared that the fire service is a marathon and not a sprint. No matter how much you think you know there is always more to learn. And no matter how many training burns you have been to, they just aren’t like the real thing. Matt asked me how he could get more respect, he felt some of the other members did not recognize his accomplishments. My response to Matt was that he should take some time and enjoy the opportunity to be a firefighter. I explained that all of those certifications are nothing by themselves, anyone off the street can take those classes – that doesn’t make them a firefighter. To be a firefighter you need to have a balance between book smarts and practical experience and as painful as it may be, that only comes with time.
I explained to Matt that being a firefighter is a great experience and he should take his time and enjoy each stage of it. To slow down, and not to look at everything as a box on a list to be checked of. Build some relationships, have some laughs, and create some memories. I told Matt, it is okay, even encouraged to walk, don’t run. Your career will come to end soon enough.