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by Tim Klett, Lieutenant –– FDNY
Webster’s Dictionary defines trust as: A deep belief or confidence in the honesty, integrity, reliability and justice, etc. in another person or thing. Within this definition there are words like confidence, integrity and reliability which echo the true traditions and values that have been ingrained in the fire service since the first fire brigades of early America.
We must always remember that, in the end, trust is the fuel that runs the engine we passionately call the American Fire Service. Without it, we are simply a ship without a rudder. A ship drifting aimlessly without any clear direction or sense of self. Imagine the confusion, indecision and, most of all, hesitation that would exist on the fireground without trust. It’s important to realize the disastrous effect that any lack of trust would have on our fireground tactics—and ultimately the people we are sworn to protect.
When talking about trust it’s important to identify that there are many different types of trust found within our fire service life.
There is trust in your equipment. This type of trust includes knowing that your local municipality/department has equipped you with the latest and best equipment possible. Knowing, and trusting, in the integrity of your personal protective equipment—and the fact that it will do its job when it matters most—allows us to go places, and do things, that were previously thought impossible. Trust that the nozzle, saw and tools used everyday will perform as advertised—under the most adverse conditions possible—is essential. Understanding that daily maintenance and upkeep of the tools and equipment allows them to continue to operate as intended is vital to developing and maintaining this trust. We must be completely confident in the reliability of our tools—trusting that they are ready to perform at a moments notice, under any circumstance.
Another type of trust is the trust in your training. A famous FDNY Fire Chief once said “Let no mans ghost ever say that his training let him down.” These words could not be any more profound. Take a second and read them again—this statement defines trust to its fullest. Every firefighter has to have confidence knowing that the best tool he brings to the fireground is the one on his shoulders. Having trust in your training doesn’t necessarily translate into experience but it does allow you to apply each experience to better understand your training. This in-turn helps strengthen your trust in what you have learned and increases your ability to apply it. Training is never ending and will be a part of your entire journey through the fire service.
The firefighter you will end up trusting the most will be the one who shows as much enthusiasm towards training as he does towards actually fighting fires. This is the firefighter who will be the most reliable and ultimately the one emulated by the younger members.
When I was first promoted I had the honor of working with a firefighter who had spent 38 years in the same company, “the Senior Man.” This individual’s knowledge, training and experience translated into TRUST, whether in the firehouse or on the fire-floor. This TRUST was obvious. As a new company officer, seeing this mans confidence in his training was unavoidable. Every firefighter should strive to achieve that level of trust in their own training, so it is unmistakable and noticed by every member around them. Trust and confidence are contagious so remember that the more you train the more you will trust your own ability and the ability of those around you.
Another type of trust is the trust in your bosses (the Officers). When talking about officers I’m not referring to chiefs. There has to be a certain level of trust in the chief officers but it’s ultimately the implicit trust in company officers that has the greatest impact.
Company officers are the people we conduct our day-to-day business with, the ones who make the primary tactical decisions on the fireground that could ultimately make-or-break the outcome of the fire—and our individual safety. We have to trust that the company officer has the integrity to have our back during any aspect of our daily routine. The honesty to tell-it-like-it-is, remember truth is a powerful thing, whether it creates the ultimate high or deepest low. In the end there should be no confusion or transparency as to where you stand in the eyes of the boss.
As a firefighter I had the privilege to work side-by-side with a legendary captain in the FDNY. This man would always lead by example and would never ask you to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself. His passion, experience, and knowledge for the job made him one of the most respected officers in the FDNY.
Whenever we talk about trust, respect is a word that is repeated again and again. It is nearly impossible to have one without the other. Remember, trust will lead to respect and respect will eventually lead to the kind of trust we need in our company officers. Ultimately, my trust for this man was unmistakable, unmatched and unbreakable. This trust led to a company, and personal, belief that there was nothing we couldn’t do and that no situation was too serious to handle.
Another type of trust, and actually the most important type, is the trust you have in the people around you. This trust has a far-reaching effect on fireground operations. The U.S. Marine commanders say they are willing to risk 100 soldiers to save even one of their own. They are legendary because of the trust they have in the other marines around them, the trust that they would be willing to risk everything for a brother marine. The trust in knowing that a brother marine comes first—and will never be left behind. We in the fire service believe that we can, and do, fight just like marines—as long as there is that unwavering trust in each firefighter.
We as firefighters, just like the marines, need to know that we come first and will never be left behind. This is why risk is another word that is inevitably tied to trust on the fireground. What would any of us be willing to risk if there was no trust in the firefighters we were operating with? Imagine being asked to search the second floor of a heavily involved private house wondering if anyone was willing to risk it all to get you if you became trapped.
We all realize how time is everything on the fireground and that conditions can change in a matter of seconds. Any lack of trust would eventually lead to indecision and hesitation—which could ultimately lead to operational delays. This unparalleled trust ultimately manifests itself into the reason we go the places we go in a fire building. The mere fact that we, as firefighters, come first is the reason that we rescue and remove as many civilians as we do. Trust is what drives us to push on, it is the adrenaline that powers us to continue even when conditions dictate otherwise.
A chief once told me that great rescues are never made alone or by any one individual. Great rescues are made because no matter whether the firefighter is searching alone or with a team the firefighter never feels alone. Even when the walls feel like they are caving in you will always gain comfort by knowing that there are 20 other firefighters ready to risk it all for you. This comfort allows us to concentrate on the task at hand—an aggressive primary search for trapped occupants. It’s the aggressive search that ultimately leads to some of the fire service’s greatest rescues—and it’s all based on TRUST.
There is one word that is directly tied to trust—and we must acknowledge and accept that it exists. It is a word that most firefighters don’t like to hear or even discuss, the word is FEAR.
Fear can present itself in many ways…fear of failure, fear of not fitting in, and the worst kind of all—fear of the job itself. It is this fear that can have a paralyzing effect on fireground activities. Remember that any fear of the job will have a domino effect that may lead to failure.
In the fire service, we must realize that fear exists in all of us. It is how we deal with our fear that allows us to continue to do the things we do and go the places we go. If we look at fear like an illness or disease then trust would be the antidote. Trust is and will always be the equalizer of fear. Trust against fear is the same as water on fire—with enough of it there is no fire too big. Trust acts the same against fear, with our unwavering and unparalleled trust in each other all of our fears can be overcome. Remember, trust on the fireground can have as much impact on the outcome as water!
In the end, firefighters are just ordinary people placed in extraordinary situations. What makes us different is our trust in our tools, training, bosses, and the absolute trust in our fellow firefighters!