The elderly man is chatting me up as we’re rolling him to the ambulance. If I said his frailty did not remind me of dad in his last days I’d be lying, and there’s no reason for that. We’re rolling him on the stretcher to the ambulance and he’s just being him. Not that I know him well, having just met him in his living room on a backboard a minute ago. The EMTs needed a lift assist and so the pager went off and the first three of us who arrived at the big garage with the big red trucks went to go help. I sat in the back, because I’m new. A probationary volunteer firefighter.
Chatting about the house, and the yard, and the trees we’re walking under which he planted so many years ago, the elderly man couldn’t be more dear, or more sheepish about causing the big red truck and ambulance to arrive. He was no doubt a little scared and a little embarrassed about all the commotion, but he did manage a smile as we gently slid him into the ambulance and wished him well. I hope he has many more … so many more … good days ahead.
Of course, I’ve known and been around firefighters for decades. You can’t be a manager of a real city and not come to be awed and inspired by firefighters. Running towards danger, to help someone they don’t know. Expensive as sin, and worth every penny. When somebody is having a bad day or maybe their worst day ever, firefighters show up and wrestle all the bad into submission. Whatever bad that might be, at any hour of the day or night, in any weather. My inside joke was I used to tell every department they were my favorite. Police, Public Works, Parks, Planning, Purchasing … I’d chat them all up and tell them how important they were.
But my inside joke was no joke with firefighters. Chief Frese, Chief Washburn, Chief Dempsey and Chief Gutierrez; they were all fantastic, and the men and women they led even more so. They’d let me tag along every now and then, but I could never really be one of them, because they were paid, professional firefighters. I was a paid, professional city manager, and couldn’t begin to pretend I knew how to do what they knew how to do.
The consequences for pretending I know how to do something I don’t know how to do would be even worse now, so there’s none of that. What there is rapt attention to every small detail of everything that happens, because I’m going to have to do it right in some dire situation. Early on as CAO, I figured out people watched what I did or didn’t do, say or didn’t say, smiled or didn’t smile and took my measure. As imperfect as I am, I was fine with that, and went about being somewhere between fearless and foolish. Authenticity is rare, but appreciated. In my new role as probie, I have new appreciation for the power of positive, authentic leadership -- like Chief Radewan.
There’s a thousand things / tools / procedures I’m not competent at yet, but I can be competent at showing up, shutting up and doing what I’m told. So, that’s my plan. I can’t go into a burning building until sometime this fall, after I complete entry level firefighter class. But I can go to every weekly training session, study YouTube videos endlessly and try to make it to every call to pitch in where I can. The essence of it is volunteer firefighters make the difference in the majority of communities in America. I couldn’t hear my community’s concerns about recruiting new firefighters, and not step up.
The essence of it is all of us, someday, need help. All of us are going to be -- some literally, some figuratively -- the dear elderly man on the stretcher, chatting about life to ease the vulnerability of needing help, or the fear of what may happen at the other end of the ride.
We’re all on the ride together, so let's be kind and help where we can..