The Warriors...By the Thousands: Management And Leadership

The Warriors...By the Thousands

Kyle Jameson at the fire station with his son. (Photos courtesy of the Jameson Family.)

There is no specific letter to Nozzlehead this month; instead, I am compiling several letters into a response in this month’s column. Several people have written in the past year asking about firefighting cancer: cancer presumption, prevention, firefighters fighting the battle, wearing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), washing your hoods and gear-all the cancer stuff.

This morning (May 5, 2016), a friend died from cancer. “Another” firefighter died from cancer ... what perfect yet horrible timing.

My editors are having a fit right now because I am supposed to address issues on a schedule. In other words, about 90 days out they know what issues I am going to write about, and they like it that way-it keeps things organized.

Stay Organized

It reminds me of when I was a young firefighter in the early ’70s and my Dad would join us at the table. Suddenly, the tones would go off and we would go running. He was not a firefighter (but always a huge supporter), and he would say, “Where are you going? You guys didn’t finish eating! What’s going on?” and then he would give an aggravated Archie Bunker-style wave ... with attitude.

Before my Dad could even process what was going on, we were out the door, putting on our black duck/canvas coats, fireball gloves, rubber pull-up boots (that we rarely pulled up), SCBAs in boxes (only when needed), with exhaust filling the firehouse. I always thought it was funny back then as my Dad was a very organized man. Things were always in order. Things were in control. Even as a man who was shot, a Purple Heart WW II United States Army sergeant who served on the battlefield, things had to always be in ORDER! But for whatever reason, he never grasped the suddenness of a fire call.

On StandBy

A fire call. It generally means someone is, or could be, in trouble and needs our help five minutes ago. We prepare. We train. We prepare and train again. And we continue to train and prepare awaiting the fire call.

We make sure we size up our communities, our first-due areas, our people, our equipment, and all of our stuff as we await the fire call.

As firefighters, our lives are on that constant standby.

The Call

It is safe and equally sad to say that there are none among us who don’t know a brother or sister firefighter/EMT or paramedic who is fighting or has fought cancer. Cancer is by far the #1 killer of active career and volunteer firefighters-bar none. Cancer also claims the lives of more retired firefighters above and beyond anything else.

As I am looking at age 61, it seems for a number of years I have subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) waited for that cancer call. It’s on my mind a bit. I’m not obsessed by it, but it’s out there. Many firefighters, some close friends, have answered that call; some have won and some have lost.

I was discussing cancer with some firefighters the other day and it’s odd that some firefighters who operated at the same runs, the same fires, don’t get sick. Some do. Who knows how this stuff works. Sometimes everyone gets hit; read about the New York Telephone company fire in 1975.

Understanding the Threat

It’s only in recent years that we are really starting to genuinely understand how nasty that stuff is and not accepting it as part of the job-at least in some places.

Someone sent me a video the other day of firefighters attacking a car fire, and the video has a company officer loudly yelling to a firefighter to get his mask on. It sounded like this:

Fire officer: Larry.

Fire officer: Larry!

Fire officer: Put your mask on!

Firefighter Larry: Aw, come on dude; stop.

Fire officer: Put your mask on!

Firefighter Larry: I’m not wearing it.

Fire officer: I’m not going to tell you again. Put your mask on! I’m not going to tell you again. Put your mask on!

Firefighter Larry put his mask on.

In some places, Firefighter Larry would be dealing with some serious issues after that fire. Maybe being yelled at? Maybe being written up? Maybe being suspended? In some places, Firefighter Larry wouldn’t think of operating without a mask. The discipline already exists. It’s in the culture. It’s the flavor of the fire department: a disciplined and well-led fire department that gets it, with a focus on the need to take risks-but not stupid ones.

A needed risk: Searching a dwelling because it’s on fire and people expect us to get them out.

An unneeded risk: Moe, Curly, or Larry operating without a mask at a car fire. A car fire that one of those California helicopters could easily handle. Poof. Now you see it, now you don’t. Pure magic.

Kind of like a good day. As a firefighter, you are having a really good day. Lots of runs. Good crew. Good training. Good meal. The next day is your kid’s ball game, a daughter’s wedding, all good stuff. And then suddenly you pee blood. And it happens again. And then the doctor tells you that you are unable to have a good day because of a diagnosis. An old friend, Brooklyn (NY) Fire Captain Angelo Puleo, told me they called it the big C. Cancer. And about your good day? Poof. Now you see it ... now you don’t.

The Fight

While I want to focus on one specific firefighter who is in his early 30s, he is representative of the thousands of firefighters in North America who are fighting cancer as I write and you read this. You’ll read he has a little kid, just like thousands of others. He has a spouse, the love of his life, just like thousands of others. He was fully determined to beat this thing, just like thousands of others. He never expected this diagnosis at such a young age, just like thousands of others.

This brother I am writing about has fought a truly heroic battle but succumbed to cancer-just like thousands of others. He is the father of a toddler, a little boy named Liam, and the husband of Christine. He is a pipe band member and a career firefighter-paramedic with Hampton (NH) Fire/Rescue.

As Hampton Fire/Rescue wrote: “It is with the most profound sadness that Hampton Fire/Rescue announces the passing of our own hero, Firefighter/Paramedic Kyle Jameson. Kyle waged an epic battle against insurmountable odds and did so with grace and class, as a true Warrior. We are deeply saddened by his loss, but we have been made infinitely better by having had the chance to know such a wonderful human being. His humor and his generosity of spirit will light our lives forever. We ask that his family, Christine, Liam, and all of #teamjameson, remain in your thoughts and prayers.” From Chief Jameson R. Ayotte, Hampton F/R.

A message that we have all read so many times before. Thousands of times.

All Hands on Deck

I had a chance to visit with Kyle just after he arrived in New York City, on the battleground known as Sloan Kettering, a “World Series/Super Bowl” location where those fighting cancer are given the best chances and they fight the absolute toughest battles. While he was there, people like Joe Downey and the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Special Operations Command firefighters looked after the family, starting with picking them up at the airport the day they arrived with about an hour’s notice. An hour’s notice for firefighters?

Piece of cake; that gives us 59 minutes and 59 seconds lead time.

Brooklyn Rescue 2 and Captain Liam Flaherty (for whom little Liam is named, not because Kyle knew him but because he inspired him way up in New Hampshire) were there, and the family spent time with them visiting as well. There were plans for Kyle to play with the FDNY Pipes and Drums ... but the best laid plans ....

FDNY’s Mike Dugan, New Hampshire Fools’ Andy “Sippy” Biron (and his young son, Joey), and I spent a few hours with Kyle, Christine, Liam, and Kyle’s mom back in February where there was nothing but hope and spirit to kick the enemy. And fight, kick, and battle he did. He did it at a place in New York City where, if there was a chance, it was there with them. Between the doctors, the nurses, the family, the friends, and Kyle’s spirit and attitude, there was a definite will; but in the end, there was not a way.

By the time you read this, they’ve had a funeral and memorial service for Kyle where laughter and tears consumed the family and friends. By the time you read this, with faith and love, Christine and Liam (supported by family, friends, and Hampton Fire/Rescue) are hopefully starting to see just a little light, always with the love and memories of Kyle shining down on them. Clearly it has been and will be their time to think and determine where they go, how they go, what they do, and to pray for the strength to do it.

Do Something

For us, we are lucky to still be here with some precious time to think and do something in Kyle’s memory. Out of respect to Christine and Liam? Out of respect and in the memory of someone you know? Think and do something:

  • About getting that physical now. Don’t waste time. It’s like a fire: The quicker it’s discovered, the quicker it can be attacked. If we ignore the fire, no good can come from it.
  • About educating your members on the insanely high levels of risks we have related to getting cancer and how they can minimize it.
  • About educating your elected officials on why presumption is so critical for our profession.
  • About refusing to accept BS on the fireground when it comes to breathing-full personal protective equipment, SCBA, and no exposed skin.
  • About supporting groups, such as the Firefighter Cancer Support Network and others, waging the battle against firefighter cancer.

There’s not much cynicism in this month’s column. Sorry to disappoint. While we try to address many serious issues, this is as serious as it gets, and there is little room for cynical humor. We are halfway into 2016, and 2017 will be here before we know it. Wake up, and do everything you can to minimize the cancer exposure.

Chiefs: Make it dead clear that unnecessary smoke exposure on the fireground is over.

  • Masks on with air.
  • No exposed skin.
  • Wipe the toxins off when done.
  • Zero tolerance with clear consequences from reprimand to cancer.

You know the drill.

Company officers, see above.

Firefighters, see above. Or better yet, just don’t force the bosses to do their jobs. Respect the brothers and sisters who have gone before you because of firefighting cancer. There is absolutely no better way to never forget than to minimize a repeated loss.

RIP Firefighter/Paramedic/Warrior Kyle Jameson. RIP.