Leadership

The 3-Point Firefighter

Pride can be one of the most infectious parts

By Jake Barnes

Recently, I wrote about “exampleship.”  Essentially, exampleship is all about being a positive example in the fire service regardless of rank. It also means learning from the negative exampleship that, unfortunately, is out there as well.

Now, I invite you to think back to that time after you entered the fire service when you had a few years on and you’d started to know what to expect.  That time when you started to have a few stories of your own to tell around the dinner table. When you started to feel the ebb and flow of the job and the department.  It’s great to know you have some experience under your belt and you might even have some knowledge to offer the new rookies, right?  It also can be a crossroads of sorts.

Usually, by the time you hit the 3 to 5-year mark, you’ve had many hours of training in a wide variety of specialties: Firefighting, EMS, Haz-Mat, Ropes, and more. It feels natural to want to enjoy the fruit of your endeavors and finally get to take a more casual approach to the job.  It may even feel as if you’ve finally earned a spot on the couch early in the morning or when you can selectively decide the day’s priorities based on what’s on television that day. You may even feel you have been on long enough to start second-guessing other firefighters work tactics and ethics.

But the job demands more.  This is the time when you get to decide the kind of firefighter you’re going to be.  This is where you get to choose whether you’re going to be one of those “sleep until hungry, eat until your tired” firefighters. The ones that say with great pride, “today, let’s start slow and taper off.”  OR if you’re going to buckle down, keep moving forward, and be the hungry and proud firefighter your department needs. Be a master at your craft.

Whether you’ve been doing it all along or you’ve slipped into the more casual approach to firefighting and want to get back in the thick of it, this is your opportunity to demonstrate exampleship.  And the way to get there, is to be a 3-point firefighter.  

Now, anyone who knows me, knows I am not making a sports metaphor. They would, however, be surprised I knew that three points is a sports metaphor. But I’m not talking about sports here.  I’m talking about the three points that make exampleship work.  I call it the “exampleship pyramid”. It makes positive exampleship easy to understand and implement.  In my experience, both on the job, as a leader, and from training others, if you take these three points and work on them every day that you’re fortunate to ride fire trucks, then you’ll become the best version of a firefighter you’re meant to be AND demonstrate positive exampleship at the same time.  What could be better?

So, what are the three parts of the pyramid of exampleship?

  • Physical Fitness
  • Training
  • Pride

Physical Fitness

There is nothing we do in the fire service that isn’t made better with good, consistent physical fitness. It’s the foundation of our entire career. We all know that a heart attack can be just one call away and cancer is there to get us if there is anything left. Why wouldn’t we want to lessen the effects of those “toxic twins” every chance we could?  Imagine this as the base of the exampleship pyramid.

You could argue that a firefighter’s work is more demanding than any professional athletes’ job. A professional athlete knows when and where they’re going to “go to work”, but we don’t get that opportunity. Imagine a linebacker sitting around the house all day and then at 2:00am he’s awakened by a loud alarm and he has 90 seconds to go outside and find someone to tackle.  It doesn’t happen.  And maybe I’m better at sports analogies than I thought.

We have no idea what minute of what day will tax our body and mind and push both to the limit. And it can happen more than once a day.  The best way to prepare our bodies and minds is to exercise regularly and try to make the workout mimic what we do on a fireground. When designing a fitness program for you or your company, think about what your body does during a fire. Your back and your shoulders have an SCBA on them for a large portion of the event. Your legs carry all that weight and your arms and shoulders take a beating during overhaul. So, try to make a workout that will hit these and other areas to help you endure the rigors of a structure fire. Whatever workout you come up with it should have the common thread of cardio woven throughout as well. Not only does a solid workout regime help your body, it helps your mind.

I understand that going from nothing to a daily workout regime can be intimidating. I suggest starting slow and adding on bits and pieces as you go. A simple 30 minute walk a day can easily progress into a run/walk program rather quickly.  Before you decide to use gym equipment, use body weight exercises to ease you into it. You would be amazed at the results you can see and feel with push-ups, lunges, and burpees.

Training

Training is the other part of the pyramid base.  The need for consistent, formal training is extremely important in our line of work, yet it’s easy to grumble about having to train.  We get comfortable in our jobs and we think we know what needs to be done.  But the world is constantly changing. While we’d like to think the fire service is ahead of the curve when it comes to building construction, modern furnishings and the subsequent fire dynamics, we’re not and never will be.  In light of this, the best we can do is to train and train hard to always be as ready as possible.  I was once told, if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. That mantra applies to all the points of the exampleship pyramid.

Training doesn’t always need to be formal. When I worked in Lexington, KY, a firefighter taught me one of the most important lessons that I still carry around to this day. He told me to give one hour a day to the fire department above and beyond what it asks; it deserves it. He went on to explain that every single day you have tasks and assignments. After it’s all said and done, find a place to sit and read your map book or go to the truck and take out a piece of equipment you aren’t solid on and train on it.  I believe this lesson so strongly, I teach it to all my new recruits, and anybody else that will listen!

Pride

Pride, that feeling of deep satisfaction which comes from being a part of the fire service (an achievement not everyone can manage), is the tip of the exampleship pyramid.  It’s one of the hardest concepts to measure but one of the easiest to see and feel.  It’s the “extra mile” everyone talks about.  It includes pride in your department, company, and most importantly yourself.  Without pride, positive exampleship wouldn’t even be possible.

Pride in the job can be one of the most infectious part of the pyramid. Where I currently work, there is a firefighter that takes great pride in his fire truck. More specifically, the hose load. He can make a supply line hose load look picture perfect. It’s like he took a knife and sliced right down the rear of the load. I remember having to the load hose back after pulling that magnificent load at a fire or during hose change. I would try my best to make the hose load look just as good as before. I was contaminated by his pride in the truck and it made me want to do as good if not better.

However, as we grow and settle into the fire service, it’s easy to start to take things for granted.  My current office is in a single company firehouse away from headquarters. I often walk across the bay to take care of business and I usually walk a fast pace to hurry to get it done.  When I do that, it’s easy to forget that I am in the coolest place on earth: a firehouse. Sometimes, I stop in the middle of the bay and look at the Quint and the gear hanging off it and feel a huge swell of pride. I can’t help but feel bad for those doctors, lawyers, and astronauts that didn’t have what it took to be a firefighter so they settled for other careers. Those wonderful moments seem to come more and more frequently and they always serve to remind me of the pride I have in my job. There is no better job than being a firefighter. I would bet my football bat on it.

Exampleship and becoming a 3-point firefighter is easier to achieve than you may think. First, try to remember why you looked for and took this job. I’m sure at least part of it was because you wanted to help people. Then ask yourself, “Am I the kind of firefighter that I want showing up to help my family?” After that, it’s time to get to work. I recommend a process that I learned from a solid Captain. He asks three hours of his crew: 1 hour of house and truck cleaning. Pride. One hour of exercising. Physical Fitness. And one hour of fire-related education. Training. Our job demands hard work and hard work is, well, hard. It takes a dedication and a passion for the craft, and a willingness to be an example for those following in our footsteps.  If that’s not for you, then you can always be an astronaut. We firefighters won’t think too poorly of you.

Jake Barnes is the battalion chief of training for the New Albany (IN) Fire Department. A 25-year veteran of the fire service, he began his career as a USAF firefighter and was a firefighter with the Lexington (KY) Fire Department. He has an associate degree in general studies and a bachelor’s degree in fire protection from Eastern Kentucky University.