Respect Comes with Time

Dear Nozzlehead: I know you’re a busy man, but I was hoping you could take a minute or two so I can pick your brain. I’m a volunteer firefighter on a small department out West. We see about 500 calls per year and, with luck, maybe 15 fires. My current rank is engineer, although lately I’ve been riding in the officer’s seat.

As you know, volunteer departments don’t always get the staffing they need. At our department, we run a little short on officers during the day, but our standard operating procedures (SOPs) state that we’re allowed to roll out the door with a crew of three. With at least two engineers and a firefighter in back, the second engineer takes the role of acting officer. We can also go to a mutual-aid run with two engineers and two firefighters on the engine.

Here’s my problem: I’m only 22. I started when I was 17 and love the fire department. I’ve studied everything and read everything I can. I’ve learned a lot in that time and am always looking to learn more.

When I do take crews on mutual aid, it’s hard to get respect from members of other departments, especially since we’re one of the only volunteer departments in the area. Although I know it will take time to earn their respect, it’s hard when the guy running the crew is 22.

Additionally, while I try to stay progressive and informed on the latest in firefighting, older officers don’t think they need to change with the times. I’m trying to learn from their mistakes and my experiences, but at 22, I haven’t seen much.

I was wondering if you knew of any tactics and strategy classes or a first-in officer’s class that might help me—something I might be able to bring back to my department to help change some of the dinosaurs’ minds. I just want to be the best leader possible for my guys to keep them, and myself, as safe as possible.

—Cautious in Colorado

Dear Cautious,
Thanks for understanding just HOW BUSY I actually am. It’s nice to see that some of you out there understand. Being Nozzlehead is NOT easy. There’s a lot of pressure associated with this role and its various responsibilities, and the phone calls and e-mails never stop!

A few weeks ago, President Obama called me about the whole “dog for his daughters” issue. Like I have time for THAT! He has, of course, contacted me for other issues recently, but he didn’t always listen, so I grew a bit weary. For example, I warned him that Chief Justice Roberts could get nervous when he did the swearing in. So I told the Future Pres, “Make sure Robbie uses a teleprompter and rehearses.” And did the now-President listen to me? Noooooooo. And then there was the whole “Nozzlehead, what do you think about Tom Daschle?” discussion. Again, all I can do is offer advice.

So anyway, after not listening to me about those issues, he calls me about the dog issue. Great. But when the Commander-in-Chief calls, you must take his call. I’ve learned my lesson on that one. You should have been here the day “W” called. I recognized his number but let it go to voicemail. He wanted to get my opinion on appointing the commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association to head FEMA. Bad decision to skip the call. So look, if you see 202/456-1414 on your caller ID, take the call!

So the long wait is over: We worked it out, and the Obama family finally has a pet. The “first dog” is a 6-month-old Portuguese water dog named Bo. He wanted to get the kids another kind of dog at Pelosi’s insistence, but look, as I told him, with relations being what they are with Portugal, and my intense insistence that WATER is always required on the fireground, he agreed to go with the water dog—a perfect dog for the First Family and another serious issue solved.

So thanks, my friend from Colorado, for understanding how busy I am. Now, about your issue. Being a young firefighter in this business is not easy. In so many cases, young firefighters like you go OUT OF YOUR WAY to study and learn as much as you can, and then some “Chester” comes along and says some well-thought-out comment, such as “I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever know.” Great. What a boost in confidence. So you know what? Take that “boost” and use it to further energize your studies.

But on the other hand, no matter how much training you attend and schooling you receive, you can only get so much EXPERIENCE when you’re 22. Of course, if you’re in a busy fire department, you get more, but you’re still 22. Some of your fire-related life experiences haven’t happened yet. Regardless, you still have to ride the front seat and make decisions.

Staffing isn’t a volunteer issue exclusively; there are plenty of career fire departments that have horrendous staffing issues. And with budgets these days, it’s (sadly) getting much worse. As far as your staffing, the most important thing I can tell you is this: Once you size up the fire problem, match the staffing you have to your abilities to solve the problem. For example, if you have a 25-firefighter house fire but you only have five firefighters on scene, you must determine what you can do BEST in order to have the most impact with the five firefighters. 

Many departments arrive at a scene and try to use a few firefighters to handle a fire that requires many more. This is one way we can get in deep trouble. And while not related to your specific letter, the issue of “what is sent” on that first alarm is key. Your supervisors must dispatch enough help on the first alarm, so you and your crew have a fighting chance. But no matter what they do, when YOU arrive at the fire, YOU must size it up (360 walkaround!) and then decide where you and your crew can make the greatest impact—until the arrival of more help. And what you decide may NOT always be to go inside. It depends on conditions and resources. Remember, the best and most effective tactic to save lives on the fireground is most often putting water on the fire. How you get water on the fire is determined in your size-up.

As for the respect issue, time is your best ally. On the first few runs, others will “size you up” and, based on how your crew operates, you’ll hopefully impress them. After a few more runs of good performance, the respect issue will take care of itself. Just keep training and operate smartly, within their command structure, and you’ll be fine. You will go from being “that SOB” to “that pretty good SOB” in short time!

Also, you should contact your state or local area fire academy. Find out what classes are coming up, and start with a good Fire Officer I class. Once you get done with that, keep climbing the ladder. There are also some other great opportunities at the National Fire Academy, for first-level “brand new” company officers, and that’d be you! Furthermore, the online opportunities these days are phenomenal. Check out fire service Web sites such as and, and LEARN from the articles and case studies.

Want to study tactics? Go to And how about some online training DIRECT from the National Fire Academy? Simply go to

There is so much you can learn right in front of your computer. Please also consider attending fire service training events (with numerous opportunities in one location) at conferences. Do some digging and find out what conferences are planned in your state or region. There are so many opportunities for you to learn—with or without the support of your senior officers. If you have the will, there are plenty of ways.

Now, back to fielding endless phone calls and e-mails. Nozzlehead’s work is never done.

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