Pick a Door, Either Door

The “well-oiled” engine crew had a 1¾-inch attack hoseline in service in a minute or two and made short work of the raging car on fire. (Photo by author.)

Most firefighters understand and enjoy the “art” of forcible entry techniques to get through doors. Using a flathead ax to drive the adz of the halligan bar (“the irons”) into a door jamb is a feeling of raw power and total control over the situation. Perhaps it’s the use of a K-Tool or Rabbit Tool to gain rapid access to the “belly of the beast” to go to work quenching the flames. Getting the hazard zone opened up quickly and professionally is mission critical for operational effectiveness. The work of opening a door can be a major part of reaching our primary goal of saving lives and property. It adds to our pride and ownership of our work and accomplishments. There are several door entry training devices that are challenging. They are designed to help us focus on honing our forcible entry skills. Being good at forcible entry is a “must” for all departments that engage in interior structural fire attack and is needed operational capability.

Case Study

To illustrate the belief about firefighters and forcible entry, let me share a short case study. Recently, I watched a busy suburban engine company go in service at a working automobile fire. Heavy smoke and flames were issuing from the engine compartment of a compact, late-model car. The vehicle on fire was located just off an interstate highway, having exited onto the off ramp. I was fortunate to be riding with the chief of the department on this warm and sunny afternoon in the Midwest. “Car 1” arrived about 30 seconds ahead of the engine company, which made for a perfect fireground observation experience for me. The “well-oiled” engine crew had a 1¾-inch attack hoseline in service in a minute or two and made short work of the raging car on fire (just as I expected).

Once all the visible flames were doused, the company officer focused on opening the hood to overhaul the once-flaming engine compartment. With a hand gesture, the company officer had a firefighter scurrying back to the big red ride, returning with a friction rescue saw. Without engaging the hood release mechanism for the easy open, the saw fired up on the first pull and the charred hood didn’t stand a chance against the firefighter with the K-12 in hand. In just a few more seconds, the fire officer was directing the hoseline into the freshly melted engine compartment, ensuring the fire was completely out (that’s what I am talking about—operational excellence).

Was the rescue saw necessary to open the hood (just another door in a horizontal position)? Maybe not, but forcing entry was the fastest way into the work space, and it was a great opportunity at an incident where there was nothing to save (it was a total loss auto fire) for a younger member to use a low-frequency, high-risk evolution. Firefighters love to select a door and figure out a way to get on the other side, quickly and safely. The wrecking crew behavior is part of our DNA, after a few hundred years of experiences, over about 10 to 12 generations of door-busting flame extinguishers before us.

Time for Change

Now, let’s change the context of what is raging out of control behind the doors that we need to enter to resolve problems. There are so many situations that cause us to choose our path (doorway) during the span of a career. Frankly, it’s difficult to quantify the number and types of doors that are waiting to be entered by a firefighter or fire officer. Let’s start with the most difficult door of all to enter. This door is labeled “the disciplinary process” and comes with a red caution placard affixed on the center panel. No one wants to go over that threshold, regardless of being the alleged perpetrator of violating the rules, regulations, and policies or the member responsible for handling the task of implementing fair, honest, impartial, transparent, and effective discipline for all.

Remember, the best discipline is self-discipline. There are no exceptions to this rule. Read it and heed it throughout your fire rescue service tenure. Appropriate behavior is for all members, career and volunteer, and it applies both on and off duty. Everyone likes a member who is well behaved, so strive to be that person all the time. Picking the right people to join your organization is a great start toward a properly disciplined workforce. Don’t allow idiots, thugs, or military misfits to pin on your department’s badge. A famous lecturer points out that if you do hire or let the undesirables join, they will never disappoint. They will always be idiots, thugs, and military misfits—always.

Other doors can open to expose all types of administrative work such as new member recruitment and selection or budget and financial responsibility. Other doors can reveal training programs or policy development and implementation. There are doors that must be opened to ensure diversity and inclusion for all members. Yet another tough door for leaders to enter is one ensuring that harassment, discrimination, hazing, and workplace violence are not accepted, ever! Fire departments must have zero tolerance for these behaviors and stop them when and where they are found.

Pick your Door

Firefighters should always do the right thing, even when no one is watching. The door for all of us to enter is to behave as though our parents are looking over our shoulder. Do the right thing when no one is watching and you will do the right thing when someone is watching. However, most likely there will be someone, somewhere watching everything that we do and say. Without a doubt, we are in a business that is one of the most visible and scrutinized in all of government service. Always consider how your behavior and actions look to others. Wide smiles and “high fives” in the front yard at the location of a well-managed room-and-contents fire will not look good to the public or on the evening news. Always be aware that every customer has a cell phone with picture taking and video making capability, so behave.

Sometimes, picking the right door is difficult for the member opening the door. The right door will take more time, energy, and effort to go through to resolve problems. The right door usually comes with perceived professional and personal risk and likely will not be the most popular choice. However, if it’s the right door, take it and don’t look back. A quick practical example is when some fire officers fail to apply discipline when and where it is necessary. Perhaps it is a friend or coworker who has violated a departmental rule. Maybe the right door leads to unpopular budgetary controls to curb overtime or limit a needed purchase. The list of “right” door possibilities are wide and deep. The right door always takes courageous moral and ethical leadership. In a word, the right door leads to hard work that is necessary to improve the organization. Leadership is not for the lazy or the weak!

For the leaders who respond to and resolve violations of rules, regulations, and policies and ensure zero tolerance of the stupid stuff, the door gets a lot heavier and trickier to open. In fact, to add to the “door” confusion, a second door appears that looks very appealing. This door is labeled “easy.” When the leader goes down the wrong path, generally the issue becomes invisible and goes away in the short term. The problem is somehow made to disappear, as though it never occurred in the first place. The time investment to accept “easy” is negligible. This path is seemingly without stress or consequence on anyone’s part, or so the leader who chose it thought. The weak, timid souls who open this door will have regret at some point. The easy door is not the right door. When you least expect it, the easy way comes back to haunt you in embarrassing and debilitating ways you could not predict, but it eventually will come back.

Closing the Doors

Being the leader will sometimes be lonely. Being the leader will mean you sometimes upset others with your decisions. Being the leader will sometimes be stressful. Great leaders are always willing to do the work that is necessary to go through the right door. Taking the easy door only demonstrates weakness and reveals a poor boss no one will respect. Weak leaders are not doing their job. Weak leaders will lose followers and become ineffective.

Good leaders instinctively go through the right door. They know the associated organizational disharmony is worth their efforts and will soon be forgotten. The membership is watching and discussing every decision the officers make. If they constantly make the tough decisions correctly and constantly apply the rules to all members, the discord will be short lived. Failing to do the right thing at the right time will follow you throughout your career.

Be the courageous leader who is focused on the “fix,” making the department better. Know the right door. Know how to open and go through the right door. Choose the right door every time. Be a great fire rescue service leader!

By Dennis L. Rubin

Dennis L. Rubin

is the principal partner in the fire protection consulting firm D.L. Rubin & Associates. He has served more than 35 years in the fire and rescue service, where he served as a line firefighter, company officer, command officer, and chief. He is a field instructor with the University of Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute and an associate instructor with the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and Rio Salado Community College in Mesa, Arizona. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy (NFA) Executive Fire Officer Program and has been an adjunct faculty member of the NFA since 1983. He is also a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Executive Leadership Course in Homeland Security. Rubin is a certified emergency manager and a certified incident safety officer and has obtained the chief fire officer designation and chief medical officer designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence. He is the ad hoc chair for the Wingspread VI Conference. Rubin is the author of Rube’s Rules for Survival, Rube’s Rules for Leadership, and D.C. FIRE (Fire Engineering). He has an associate’s degree in fire science management and a bachelor’s degree in fire administration.