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Company Officer Leadership: Working Together as a Family

All my life, folks have told me that the fire service is like family. Boy, were those folks right! One big family!

You may have noticed that I left the word, "happy" out of that last sentence.

While we are happy a great deal of the time, we also have our moments, like any other family, where we seem to be at each other's throats. We've probably all heard the old axiom about the fire service: "When we're not fighting fires we're fighting each other."

While it's often true, we need to ask ourselves if it has to be that way. We seem to find a number of reasons to go after one another: union vs. volunteer, officers vs. field staff, A shift vs. B shift, old salts vs. young guns, engineers vs. truckees, EMTs vs. paramedics—the list can go on and on.

Like any other family, we have our quirks, much like that uncle that stays way too long after Thanksgiving dinner. Sibling rivalry, marriage disputes and other issues that affect almost everyone are also brought into the mix in the firehouse.

So what do we do? How do we build a team that works together as well in the firehouse as they do on the fireground?

First and foremost, we need look at our departments' make-up and financial situations and be honest about what we can expect to accomplish with the budgets we have. Let's all face the facts here; budget aren't going up any time soon unless you're one of very, very few lucky areas in our country that's leading the way in the economic recovery.

So back to looking at our own departments. My department covers almost 2,000 square miles with a combined force of paid and volunteer staff.

Divided into 14 fire districts with more than 30 fire stations and 200 pieces of apparatus spread out over a variety of topographical terrain—from flat grasslands to 10,000-foot mountain tops—it doesn't take long for any reasonable person to understand that the combination fire department model works best for us.

To cover that amount of space appropriately with paid staff alone on duty 24/7 would break the budget to be sure. And conversely, trying to provide an adequate level of service to the more than 77,000 residents throughout the county with an all-volunteer workforce is impractical, given that most folks these days work at least one job and have family obligations to tend to, and in our area, many must commute long distances to work.

Another area we can look at within our departments is the level of service we offer our communities. Hence the EMT vs. paramedic discussion. When I look at these things, I try to be reasonable and ask myself, "If it were a member of my family or close friend who needed our services, what level of service would I want them to receive?" The answer depends on what type of service they want or need.

The vast majority of other interdepartmental disputes we get into is generally stuff we just need to get over. Who really cares which shift is better, A or B, or if the new members have a better idea that the old salts for how to handle a situation, or whose job is tougher, the engineer or the truckee?

The bottom line is that, much like any family, we share a common bond and should be working toward a common goal. If we look at the disputes we have with each other reasonably, we can generally come to some type of agreement on what needs to be done or if it really was never worth fighting over to begin with.

So, how do we get to where we put the things that don't really matter behind us and work towards common solutions for those things that do? Well, if I look back over what I've written here, the common theme seems to be that we must look at things reasonably.

While we are truly a family, maybe we need to leave emotions out of our disputes and work together to serve our communities to the best of our abilities, using the resources on hand while working together grow and succeed.

Good luck, and "Uncle Charlie, put down that drumstick; it's time to go home!"

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