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March 3, 2004
A BOOK REVIEW: FIRST IN-LAST OUT......
Ever USED that term? Ever BEEN that term?

A Book Review by Chief Billy Goldfeder
 
Most of the time when I write...I write commentaries such as the ones I do for WithTheCommand.Com. For some reason, I actually think people want to hear what I have to say. This confuses me since throughout most of my career, most of my non-fire bosses (City Managers, Mayors, Administrators....those types) often didn't like to hear what I have to say. 

That's due to the fact that I am normally very narrow focused-and I say that without apology. I understand that those folks want their "fire chiefs" to really be "Fire Department Managers" and although I have to do it, I never really like doing it. I often feel that as soon as someone reaches the level of Chief...in some communities, they are really no longer part of the FD...they are now part of the "City Hall Team"...and that's fine for many-I never really took to that. When in put in that position, I always kind of felt like a square peg in a round hole. BUT that didn't change the fact that I had to learn how to speak their language and work it out for the benefit of the firefighters. Often I succeed-sometimes I didn't.

I have come to the conclusion that it is mostly me. I would rather have time to spend training our firefighters than going to some "Touchy Feely Management Bonding Team Building But We Are Gonna Cut Your Budget Anyway" Weekend City Government Retreat. Ever have to go to MANAGEMENT RETREATS? Most of them left me feeling like I needed to retreat. Ever feel the same way?

The same goes for many of the MANAGEMENT and LEADERSHIP books that are out there: 

-WHO MOVED MY CHEESE? Moved my WHAT? I want to know WHO MOVED THE APPARATUS RIGHT THROUGH THE BAY DOORS without looking.

-The SEVEN Habits of Highly Effective People? DOES THAT INCLUDE: Forgetting to do apparatus and fire equipment checks? What about making sure the saw has gas in it? And how about being "highly effective" in getting some of the troops to WANT to participate in today's drill?

-GOALS: How to Get Everything You Want-Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible? How to get EVERYTHING? How about if we can just get ventilation down pat...a handline stretched and operating and a search done without it being a cluster and without anyone getting hurt? I don't need everything.

Now don't get me wrong-there are a lot of great books out there, including the above, but in my narrow little mind, I always had a bit of trouble applying the management theories of some "suit" who doesn't do the job we do. Some would say to me "that is your whole problem Billy-FD's need to be run like a business and we need to do it the way they do it"...Yeah, OK, let's talk about Enron sometime. Besides, the fire service IS different, the job IS different (career or volunteer) and our people ARE CLEARLY different. It shouldn't have taken this long for us to figure this out.

Every once in a while, one of "our own" is able to help bridge the gaps between "us" and the rest of the world. Sometimes it is helping us get funding, sometimes it is helping us perform better, but the one issue that continues to haunt us is the "people" stuff.

Bridging the gap in getting some of our folks to do stuff can be a real challenge. Generally on the fireground we think it is not a problem...but I say "generally" because clearly, there are numerous examples of miscommunication, lack of planning, lack of strategy, lack of personal and personnel accountability and a general lack of fire leadership-on and off the fireground.  We have all read about those fires and the non-fire incidents...some resulted in tragic outcomes....and some we have even been at. So what can we do?

Sure...there are numerous courses and seminars out there and they are all pretty decent. It seems that these days there are more opportunities for training than I have seen in my 31 years as a firefighter. To me-that's a great thing. But sometimes we need more than a class or a seminar. Sometimes we need a "how to" guide to help us, one to keep and read...and read again...and honestly, I couldn't wait to share this one with you.

Most of you know of John Salka, Chief of the 18th Battalion in NYC. I met John about a dozen years ago and always got a kick out of listening to him, talking with him and going to fires with him. John is a no-nonsense "makes sense" kind of person....I never ran into anyone like that at City Hall. What a narrow minded life I have lead.

John has written a book called "FIRST IN-LAST OUT...Leadership Lessons from the New York Fire Department." Now, some of you will say "Wow, there must be NUMEROUS lessons from within the FDNY" and others will say "What can I be taught from FDNY?"

This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, your average "fire" book.

To the person who is eager to learn what lessons John has come up with from FDNY, this book simply and enjoyably bridges the gap between the "cheese moving" management books that are out there today and our real world-the world of inside the firehouse. Salka looks at issues including:
 

  • What are the foundations of a "real" leader?...one you will trust...or be.
  • Taking YOUR leadership to the next level...what is next?
  • Why our people don't focus on things that matter-or should matter.
  • The issues of TRUST between us. Brotherhood and Sisterhood must be more than words.
  • Connecting with your troops and getting them to connect to your organization....no matter what their generation.
  • Decision making under fire, literally.
  • Leading in an atmosphere of uncertainty and instability. Sound familiar?
  • Look at who's coming up the ladder! Developing your troops to be the future of your organization.
To the person who feels there is nothing to learn from a Battalion Chief in FDNY-take a chance. Like it or not, FDNY has more firefighters, more apparatus and more incidents than any of our FD's...which means that they have that many more issues to deal with-including both positive and negative results. And due to that, there are many "leadership lessons learned" that can be absorbed. Within the "fire world" this is not a book for just fire officers-it is a book for firefighters, Mayors, Commissioners, Board Members, City Managers and Administrators as well so they can better understand their officers-and the job.

In "First In-Last Out" Salka applies (and refers to) many of the tried and true practices of modern successful business leaders to a FIRE DEPARTMENT setting so the reader can clearly see how this stuff applies to their life and their FD. He uses specific fire department examples that can and have happened in not just FDNY, but to all of us at one time or another. You will read it and be able to easily "see the correlation" between the issue, his FD and your FD. The author shares many firehouse "anecdotes" as well as fire & emergency scene stories that we all will be able to relate to. And it must be noted that John is also still an active volunteer firefighter and a former volunteer Chief-so it's not just a "paid" thing. John is also a businessman-so it's not just a "fire" thing." He writes this easy flowing book so that BUSINESS LEADERS can learn from the many successes of FDNY-and apply FIRE SERVICE leadership to their businesses.

There are many excellent books that anyone "who wears bunker gear" should have in their personal fire study library. There are also books that are included as a part of a program when teaching future fire service leaders, and there are others that we should have because they are simply a great read. "First In-Last Out"  fits in all 3 categories. 

Every once in a while I find a book that is well worth the cash that I have to spend. From one firefighter to another: "First In-Last Out" is an investment that will pay you countless dividends throughout your entire life as a firefighter in both the firehouse and on the fireground. 
 

FIRST IN-LAST OUT...Leadership Lessons from the New York Fire Department by John Salka is available at most major book stores including Barnes and Noble and Borders, as well as through internet sales such as AMAZON.Com. Portfolio Publishing-Publication Date April 1, 2004.
ISBN 1-59184-025-2