Some people used to think the world was flat

CarolinaFireJournal - By Ron Cheves
By Ron Cheves
08/04/2013 -

Why is it that firefighters are the most difficult group to accept change? When the facts and scientific evidence can prove without much doubt a change is needed and in almost every case will work better than previous practices.


I have been fortunate in the past year or so to be invited as guest to the “Kill the Flashover” (KTF) training that has been running for a few years.( Whether you follow the process on the web page or first hand, the evidence is clear as a bell to most people. The mission is a simple one, to prevent flashover during interior attracts. Lowering the temperature in a matter of seconds can and does save the firefighter from the bad stuff and makes a safer environment.

In the past several years we all have been taught to ventilate and the first thing that may happen is to open all doors and windows to reduce the heat. That may not be the best tactic and in some cases only irritates the monster and he becomes too big to handle. This article is not intended to try to tell you how to train, and especially try to tell you what and how to follow the KTF tactics. Instead I would highly recommend you go to the website and see all the data that comes out of one of the training sessions and the man that runs the show, Chief Joe Starnes (ret.). He has a motto that says it best, “We Test, We Demonstrate, You Decide.”

I happened to be standing with a group of fire service leaders and instructors “Rock Stars” of the fire service, and the question was asked why it takes so long to effect a change in the fire service. Several people had thoughts as to why to include tradition, habit, hard heads, etc. Finally Chief Brunacini asked the question, “Do you remember that most people use to think the world was flat?” This pretty much stopped the conversation as to try to determine how to affect change in the fire service.

The point was clear to me, and we need not to believe everything we think. I will be the first person to tell anybody I don’t know it all, in fact, I don’t think I ever will know it all, and when we stop listening to others and what they have to say, even when they may be wrong, we start to destroy the dialogue that may get us to the end result.

I have the privilege of being able to travel across the country and visit many different fire departments from one coast to the other and one constant is the fact that there are a lot of good people doing a lot of good things, and we are all in this business to do the same job — to save lives and protect property. When some get off tract and try to go rogue we all suffer.

Another constant is there are way too many inflated egos and the need for control. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an aggressive firefighter, just do it with safety in mind first — but this is not only for the firefighters. There are too many board of directors that have the same Napoleon type attitude that continues to stifle or hold the department back from growing and changing to the department of today. This is not your father’s fire department and the sooner you get out of his shoes — that are too big for you — and get into your own, the sooner the department will grow and prosper. A department your community will be proud of.

Fire service leaders must expedite a change in the fire service that will otherwise take many years to do. The young and future fire chief’s get it, if you can’t or won’t make the changes they will. Just walk through your own fire house, look to see what everyone is doing. The young members are on the computers and the older members are on the couch. The young members do not only want to know how, they want to know why, and the leaders need to be able to give them an answer, other than “I said so,” or “that is the way we have always done it.” And again, this is not only the operations side of the business. The administrative side of the business (board of directors and commissioners) needs to be aware of the changes and know when to administer them. Keep your ego and the need for control at home where you affect fewer people and not your fire department or your community.

Another quote I have heard from Chief Shane Ray, South Carolina Fire Marshal is that “thinking firefighters do it different.” This also is simple but very true. When we all stop and think about something before doing it we normally do it differently, or better. In our business we do many things from habit because we train over with the same things, just be aware of any way that could be, or should be, done differently that may be safer and more effective, the way our fathers did it.

Most times when we travel to other departments for association meetings, chief’s meetings, conferences, or just to visit a department we are asked some of the same questions and everyone expects to hear the magic words or to be given the magic potion to be able to take to their members and make the change needed to have Utopia.

Like I stated earlier, I do not claim to know everything, but I am fairly certain there is no potion or magic that will fix everything in every department. I however still continue to look for the silver bullet, which is the one that will totally kill all attitudes and egos. I believe this one silver bullet would solve ALL the fire service issues that most of us face on a daily basis.

The first thing all members of the fire and EMS service must be acutely aware of is the fact that the service is changing whether we want it to or not. It would not be hard to open any trade publication or follow the websites and blogs to see the changes taking place. We are seeing more closings and downsizing than ever before. All of us have to do more with less of everything.

The fact is that more departments and groups are merging together to survive. If you are a fire based only operation and you are not thinking about expanding or merging into EMS and other special operations I would bet that your days are numbered.

Just recently one volunteer fire department in Wisconsin that has been serving the community for more than 100 years is going through a battle to stay open. It appears that the city council has voted to create a fire and EMS system that would be run by the city. Simply put, the mayor stated a case of public safety trumping tradition, and the issue came down to response times. But here again, the fire chief said it is about more than response times, it is about control.

I don’t know all there is to know about this case, but these are the headlines. I am in no way saying one way is the right way, but trying to make you aware of what is going on across the country. These discussions are being heard in the mayor’s office and in the commissioners meetings, sometimes with the fire chief and sometimes without. I can tell you first hand if you are the fire chief and you are hearing about merger and consolidation from the mayor or commissioners it is probably not going to go in your favor.

Fire service leaders must be proactive in their future. You should be having these conversations with the community leaders to make sure you are covering every issue before it is brought to you. You should be proactive in talking about budgets, response time, recruitment and retention, and any other issues that may affect your department and community. Find out what the expectations are before it is too late. You may be doing all you can do and the community is satisfied with your response levels and delivery of service methods.

Last word; be open minded and listen to people. Don’t believe everything you think. Remember Christopher Columbus — where would we be today if he listened to everyone.

Chief Ron J. Cheves (ret.) has 39 plus years as a volunteer in the fire and emergency services rising to the position of Fire Chief. He currently leads the Red Ribbon courses for the VCOS section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and in 2012 was appointed to NFPA 1720, the standard for Organization and Deployment by Volunteer Fire-EMS Dept. He is a columnist/lecturer for several fire service publications and participates in numerous conferences throughout the country. Cheves now serves his local community as the Safety Officer for the Robinson Volunteer Fire-Rescue Dept., a progressive Fire-Rescue provider for about 5,000 residents. He can be reached at 704-557-5781 or [email protected].
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