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February 2, 2004
Fire service: Learn from Groundhog Day
By Chief Ronald Richards

It's February 2..... It's the day that see if Phil the Groundhog will see his shadow. Tradition says if the groundhog sees his shadow,  then there will be six more weeks of winter.

In the US, the “official” groundhog is kept in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Every February 2, amid a highly publicized celebration early in the morning, “Punxsutawney Phil” as the groundhog is called, is pulled from his den by his keepers, who are dressed in tuxedos. Phil then whispers his weather prediction into the ear of his keeper, who then announces it to the anxiously awaiting crowd.  If he doesn't see his shadow, he remains outside and starts his year, because he knows that spring has arrived early.  Phil's keepers secretly decide upon the "forecast" in advance of the groundhog's arousal. 

Groundhog Day: The Movie
 
Back in 1993 Bill Murray starred in a movie called Groundhog Day. Murray played Phil Connors, an arrogant, self-centered weatherman for a Pittsburgh television station who is sent to Punxsutawney, Pa. to cover the annual Groundhog Day festival. His mission was supposed to be only one day but a freak winter storm forced him to staying Punxsutawney overnight. 

The weatherman wakes up the next morning to find out that it is Groundhog Day all over again. The irony is that he is the only one who remembers that Groundhog Day has already happened. Each time he goes to sleep he awakens to find that it is February 2 all over again.

 

The allegory is that Phil's repetition of Groundhog Day is like the daily grind that most of us experience: the same old job with the same people in the same situations with little variation. Finally, it is  through Connor's improvement of himself and concern for other people that he finds the solution to his unenviable situation.

Our Groundhog Day

Many of you visit Withthecommand.com several times a day. Let's be honest. You come back time and time again to see who is burning what down, which company has wrecked a fire truck or which fire department is involved in a scandal. Having a hand in what is on the site, like the Don Henley tune "Dirty Laundry",  the sarcastic song about news reporters who thrive on the bad news, I have to be honest. I tell it the way it is, some good news, but usually more often bad news. After all, on a daily basis there is a lot of "bad stuff" happening out there. 
 
We're all stuck in Groundhog Day

Like Bill Murray in the movie, most of us are stuck in Groundhog Day. Day in and day out we do the same things. We face the same drudgeries.... run medical locals, alarm bells, and maybe occasional working fire. We put fires out, go back in service, and run the next call. Shifts all seem the same. We complain about our bosses and bosses complain about city officials. We don't have enough staffing or enough money to do the job the right way, you think.

Day in day out, it all seems the same. "Will it ever get any better?" you ask. Probably not. Why? Because what we believe usually comes true. Tell someone how bad it seems, then usually we will go through extraordinary efforts to prove a point.

 

Point in case: Close an engine company, cut staffing

A fire administrator faces a dilemma. He has limited amount of money but yet the demand to provide the same level of services a community has grown to expect still exists. What are his options? He can close a company. He can take away staffing from a few slower stations to keep all companies in service. Maybe he should take other actions that don't effect the delivery of services, like get make cuts in fire prevention or reduce public fire safety education programs.  This chief is facing difficult decisions. Whatever  decision he makes, he will upset someone. Hopefully, he's chief because he is the most qualified and best informed individual to make those difficult decisions. 

The union will try to make it's point. After all, it has a responsibility to it's membership. Paint a picture of gloom and doom of what will happen if staffing is cut or a station or two has to close. Like the Groundhog Day movie, you know what will happen next. There will be a fire and someone will get hurt.... maybe civilians, maybe some firefighters.  There will be extensive media coverage, that the fire service will bring on itself.  Short staffed, stations closed. We told you that would happen!

How do we get out of it?

Like Connor's improvement of himself and concern for other people that he finds the solution to his unenviable situation. Maybe the fire service should take charge of it's Groundhog Day. We are all on the same team. Rank and file and administration, career and volunteer, let's convert all the negative effort we use to beat up on each other to come up with solutions that will let us rise above Groundhog Day.
About the author: Chief Ronald Richards has over 28 years of fire service experience, both career and volunteer. He rose through the ranks in the Forest City Fire Department, in Forest City, PA and became Fire Chief in 1995 holding that position through 2000 when he retired. He currently serves as the Chief for Training and Safety for Browndale Fire Company in Wayne County, PA. Chief Richards has over 24 years of service with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, having served as a Fire Marshal with the Department of Public Welfare, a Fire and Safety Specialist with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Currently, he is Superintendent Assistant  within the PA Department of Corrections, responsible for media relations, litigation coordination, accreditation, and the writing of policies and procedures. Chief Richards graduated from the State University of New York with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Service Administration.  Richards is a PA State Fire Instructor and an instructor with Command School.  He is the founder of WithThecommand.com. 
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