Learning an Unintended Lesson From FDNY

As many of you know, recently I was teaching a truck company operations course for Task Force 1 in Gulfport, Mississippi.  Prior to making chief, I spent the vast majority of my career on the truck, so I know a little bit about the subject matter.  When this opportunity came up, Ron Richards (the founder and President of Task Force 1, Inc.) had me team teaching with Sean O'Brien, a FDNY truckie who has an excellent grasp of the techniques utilized.  He's a great guy who happens to share a love for a Cafe Americano before teaching.

I have studied and used many of the techniques used by the FDNY over the years, but honestly, since 1990 I have been focused more on the strategy and the tactical level of truck company use rather than on the task level issues.  I found that working with Sean was really refreshing; he was a teacher before becoming a firefighter, he is enthusiastic and passionate about his craft, and the guys loved having him teach, because it was apparent that he knew the job.  But the thing he really showed me was that even though I have been doing the job myself for years, there were still little nuances about certain things that I could learn, or had forgotten over time.

Something that sounds as insignificant as hand placement on a halligan tool can make the difference between a quick door force or a prolonged event. As bad as this sounds, since I don't have to force doors for a living like Sean does, sometimes I have found that the attention to detail lapses over the years.  The difference is that by placing ego aside and accepting that I need to practice myself, I can become a better leader.

So while Sean was teaching about how truckies do the job in the FDNY, I was actually learning a different lesson by watching him teach and reflecting on my own knowledge and where I am in my career. For one, the FDNY is an amazing place, but perhaps not for the reasons you might readily think.  I can appreciate that they fight a lot of fires, but I also think that when you have a concentration of staffing and other resources like they have, it translates into a "different world" when it comes to the way "everyone else" has to do the job.  But just having more than 11,000 firefighters distributed over 198 engines, 143 trucks, 7 squads and 5 rescues means that there is a lot of opportunity for experimentation and innovation.  If someone finds a technique that "works", and they have the chance to share it, that is a technique that can be easily checked and verified to see if is a reliable solution or not.

When I spoke a few days ago about the application of scientific knowledge versus anecdotal knowledge, I do continue to understand that when someone tells you a bit of information and you see that information translated into on-scene action, it seems as if that validates the knowledge.  That observation is very powerful in that context.  But like something we in our own organization were dealing with the other day, experimentation in absence of control does not provide a real story.  Our perception of how something works is very influential on how we do things and we tend to resist information that betrays those observations.  I would guess that even when someone in the FDNY who has the credibility to make change suggests change, there is still a certain amount of resistance.

We have to always view any change with a certain amount of skepticism.  That must be healthy and open-minded skepticism though, not resistance for the sake of resisting change.  We must be skeptical because proving something works compared to just being told something works and believing it is not conducive to meaningful change.  When you understand the nuts and bolts of why things are changing, and you see all the associated factors in play and understand cause and effect, you better appreciate how it folds into your way of doing things.  We shouldn't change things "just because".  We should strive to improve.

I can lecture to you all day long about enlightened leadership, but until you practice it in certain cases and see for yourself how it works, it may just seem like New Age bullshit to you.  As I have said before, I don't lead the way I do because I like the warm and fuzzy parts of it.  I do it because it works and conversely, I also understand the reasons why other leadership styles do not.  Of course, like anything else, it is all contextual, but like any tool, there are times when you take it out and use it and there are times when it needs to stay in the tool box.  I don't plan on practicing my largely participative management style in a fast moving emergency any more than I think my command style needs to come out to get ideas on specifications for a new apparatus.  But taking the same tool out of the box over and over again with no consideration for the application is just stupid, and unfortunately, there are people who govern like that.

Growth comes from exposition to new experiences, or in some cases, being re-exposed to old experiences.  If you want to be a better leader, and really, a better person, put ego aside and learn.  Realize that even if the knowledge is coming from someplace that you understand already to be stuff you know, chances are you may see things in a different light and be able to improve.  Don't close your mind to opportunities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *