By Ray Gayk
Published Sunday, October 31, 2010
| From the November 2010 Issue of FireRescue
When I began my career in the fire service, retirement was the last thing on my mind. (I still have quite a few years left, but the thought of retirement bangs around in my head every now and then.) This year, several people will be retiring from our department, so I started thinking about each of their careers and what they’ve contributed. All of them have had an impact on our department in one way or another, but Captain Ray Willemse stands out for me because I’ve always admired him.
Since I’ve been with the Ontario (Calif.) Fire Department (OFD), Capt. Willemse has been a well-respected member of our department and an exceptional leader. He made sure we always knew what was expected of us on the job. Any chief officer would be happy to have Capt. Willemse on their team, and if they were smart, they’d encourage other members of their team to model his skills and character traits. He was always engaged in his job as a company officer; he took a leadership role in special projects; he constantly took the responsibility to train his crew; he mentored numerous personnel; he had a high level of integrity; and he stayed in good physical shape (just to name a few).
That said, Capt. Willemse wasn’t the type of company officer who received a tremendous amount of recognition, because he was so quiet about how he did his job.
Consistency Is Key
The one thing I admired most about Capt. Willemse was his ability to remain consistent in his duties as a company officer throughout his career. If I were to rank the most important character traits of a company officer, the ability to be consistent in our duties would be very close to the top; however, the very nature of our business opposes consistency. Look at our schedules, the type of work we do, our broken sleep patterns and stress levels; none of these things exemplifies a consistent pattern.
Obviously, consistency isn’t something we can apply to all parts of life. Aldous Huxley, author of “Brave New World,” once said, “Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead.” But there are times as company and chief officers that consistency is absolutely crucial. The ability to be consistent applies to numerous aspects of being a good fire officer, particularly training, problem solving and discipline.
Consistency in Training
When we apply a consistent pattern of training for ourselves and our crews, we always stay in the game. Capt. Willemse was affectionately known as “The Machine” because of his consistent will to train his crew. I know it’s difficult to shove yourself away from an intriguing episode of “The Jerry Springer Show,” but sometimes we need to learn more than what Mr. Springer has to offer.
We all need a plan to keep up with our “core critical tasks,” as risk-management expert Gordon Graham describes them. Core critical tasks are the things we need to be competent in to successfully accomplish our individual jobs. We all know our job descriptions, but we don’t always maintain the skill levels required to properly accomplish the tasks outlined in those descriptions.
The most basic fire service job description is “will respond to a multitude of emergencies and successfully mitigate the problem.” We can’t accomplish that goal without consistently training on our core critical tasks. Each rank has a set of core critical skills that are specific to that rank. For example, company officers should be very proficient at scene management, documentation and dealing with a wide variety of personnel issues. If you never develop these skills in training, the chances for improvement are slim.
Training shouldn’t be easy; it should be challenging and intense, just like the emergencies we’re expected to take care of. If your training doesn’t challenge you, the physical demands of the job will overwhelm you at some point.
Trust me, I’m not the picture of health right now, but I know the value of being in shape when you’re responding on a truck or engine company. The health of your body is paramount to a long career in the fire service. Working out, eating right and getting an annual physical make a big difference in how well we do our job and how well we’ll do in retirement. The ability to remain consistently healthy throughout your career pays huge dividends when you’re training and responding to calls; it can also determine how well retirement treats you.
Consistency in Problem Solving & Discipline
Consistency in problem solving is critical as a company officer. We must have consistent ways for getting at the root of any problem and develop a solution in a timely matter, be it fireground related or personnel related. (To read more about similar strategies for solving both fireground problems and personnel problems, check out “Keep It Simple: One system can help solve both fireground problems & personnel problems,” March issue, p. 65.)
Treating people consistently and fairly during a personnel problem is essential to a positive outcome. If we don’t follow the basic rule of being consistent and fair, we’ll have something in common with Rodney Dangerfield—no respect. And if you live in California, you may find yourself wrapped up in a lawsuit.
Many moons ago, I took a class on logic in college where I learned that consistency is the opposite of contradiction. Well respected people are generally concerned about not contradicting themselves and thus strive for consistency in their behavior. Capt. Willemse is an excellent example of someone who strives to avoid contradiction, and as a result, is a well respected member of the OFD.
One of the biggest complaints I hear regarding personnel problems, standard operating procedure compliance, training and how we treat people concerns the lack of consistency. As I mentioned earlier, complete consistency isn’t possible, but as fire officers, we must apply consistency to a few key areas when we can.
Capt. Willemse will be missed when he runs his last call and turns in his equipment this year, but he will leave behind something very powerful: his example of consistency and integrity, which many firefighters will hopefully remember, emulate and pass on.
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