Two Dates and a Dash in the Middle

Two dates and a dash in the middle equates to your day of birth, your life and your day of death. The middle component is symbolized by a dash (-). So what does that dash mean?  Well let’s be honest, it divides the dates on the gravestone and it is symbolic of your time alive.  I heard this as the opening of a church service recently and it hit me like a ton of bricks of just how this symbolizes our time in the fire service. It especially represents the portion you are serving as a fire officer.


As a fire officer I am going to challenge each individual who reads this article to live and work the fire service as if you only had one month to live.  Recently I was conversing with a good friend in the fire service, Deputy Chief Jeff Pindelski of Downers Grove, Illinois, and we both said it at the same time that it is obvious that firefighters and fire officers have lost the passion for the fire service.  This concerns me considerably as I have a good ways to go to retire and I am going to see the effects of what this loss will cause.  In the 16 Life Safety Initiatives, the first initiative states that we need to define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety, incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility. I believe that this loss of passion is the root of the problem.  Bottom line, if you don’t really give a flying flip, then there is no passion and no passion leads to lack of leadership, management, supervision and responsibility as an officer. As we see this, the way to make this change is that officers should live and perform each day passionately in an effort to change or make the fire service better.  So why does this not happen?  It is just too easy to sit back and ride the wave and keep the status quo.  Well those folks will never leave a thumbprint on the organization that way.

This lack of passion will not let you leave a positive mark on the fire service.  We see each year over 100 line of duty deaths.  We are presented the causes through, the Near Miss Reporting System and NIOSH reports.  My question is why do we keep doing the same things over and over expecting to get different results?  My answer is that firefighters and fire officers don’t have the passion to make change.  Let’s face it; they obviously don’t love the fire service.  I was sitting in a restaurant having lunch one day when an elderly couple comes in.  It is obvious that the gentleman was in much better physical condition and health than his wife.  But she was meticulously dressed and made up.  As she shuffled along slowly the gentleman stood by her side and helped her.  They finally made it to the counter, ordered their meal and he proceeded to help her to the table to sit down.  She shuffled along slowly.  This fine gentleman never got hurried or frustrated with her.  As she sat down in a booth he had to gently push her over as she was not able to scoot herself.  He went back to the counter got the food and brought it to the table.  He sat down fixed her food for her, took her hands and prayed.  After finishing the prayer the gentleman began to feed her.  This showed passion for his wife and was a true demonstration of the love he had for her.  OK my fellow officers; just how many of you have that passionate level of love for the fire service?  I would guess not many as I hear frequently “what can the department do for me?” and not “what I can do for the department?”

It is obvious that Ken Farmer in one of his Barnyard Management article series hit it on the head = we have got a lot of Kudzu.  For those of you not from the South, Kudzu is a climbing, woody vine that is capable of reaching up to 100 feet in trees but scrambles over almost any lower vegetation. It has large green leaves. The scientists say it will grow up to 60 feet in a season and as much as 30 stems from a single root. It was originally brought from Japan to the United States in 1876 to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition as a forage and ornamental plant. Somehow it escaped from a secure greenhouse in Philly and was spread throughout the South by several northern terrorists while on vacation in the South. (Well, if you believe that story…)

It was actually promoted by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service from 1935 to the 1950s to reduce soil erosion in the South. It worked to hold the soil in gullies and in areas where land was clear-cut. Farmers were even paid $8.00 an acre to grow it and more than 1.2 million acres were planted with funds from the government.

After it became difficult to clear and stop, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared it a weed in early 1953. To even further soil (or sully) its reputation, in 1998 it was declared by Congress as a Federal Noxious Weed. The good news is that no one in the South heard about that law being passed!

So, with such a rich history and so much a part of southern tradition and lore, why do we still make fun of kudzu?  Well, that is very easy to answer. Kudzu is a sneaky pest that will cover everything before you can turn around and stop it! On a farm it’s one of those things that happen before your eyes and you just don’t see it coming. It is almost impossible to kill. Scientists say it takes 20 years to kill it off! We would try almost anything from pesticides to trying to make the cows eat it (the cows graciously refused!) to burning it off. Of course, none of this was successful. So you always kept a sharp eye on it all the time and tried to cut it back every chance you got.

So do you have any kudzu vines in your department? You know the type I am speaking about. They sit over there in their station; office or maybe they work at another station or work site. You never think about them until you realize they have snuck over and covered everyone else with their negative thoughts and leaves. Then you have to get in there and hack away at the plant to try to stop its spread. The first thing you must do is get to the root, just like with kudzu. If you don’t take out the root, the pain — and the weed — will just start growing back the very next day.  Bottom line is we cannot let the poison in.  It will spread like Kudzu.

Because we live in a “Me” first world — “I want it and I want it now,” we as officers must make some BIG cultural changes.  We must be patient and loving like the gentleman was to his wife.  Showing passion about the people and the communities we serve.  We have to make that “dash” between the two numbers truly mean something and leave a positive thumb print on the fire service. Officers should perform each day passionately in an effort to change the fire service for the better.  Working tirelessly to make the fire service safer, firefighters better educated and our service delivery the best it can be since we have a monopoly on the business in our communities.  Bottom line, officers need to be just that, officers, not coat tail riders.

I want to leave you with a few final thoughts. Who or what are you working for?

  1. Other people’s approval?
  2. For more toys?
  3. For someone else?

Or are you working for the right reasons.  Hey folks, as firefighters and especially fire officers, you have only one option if you are going to do it with passion – LEAD BOLDLY FROM THE FRONT with the department’s mission and visions as your road map.  You have two dates and a dash in the middle, what are you going to do with the dash? What will folks say your dash means when you are gone?

Douglas Cline is Chief of the Training and Professional Development Division with Horry County Fire Rescue. He is the Executive Editor for The Fire Officer and Executive Director for the Command Institute in Washington D.C. A 36 year fire and emergency services veteran as well as a well-known international speaker, Cline is a highly published author of articles, blogs and textbooks for both fire and EMS. As a chief officer, Cline is a distinguished authority of officer development and has traveled internationally delivering distinguished programs on leadership and officer development. He also has a diverse line of training videos on leadership, rapid intervention team training, vehicle fires, hose line management, and emergency vehicle operations and fire ground safety and survival.

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