Tech Talk: The apparatus technician and mentorship
By Chris Dennis
By Chris Dennis
I recently became a member on Facebook. Not to go down the rabbit hole, but if I wanted to stay connected to my kids, grandkids, events, etc., Facebook was the way. It seemed that my friends and family were more “in the know” than I was because “the know” was posted on Facebook. Like the internet, it appears there is not much you can’t find or see these days. This includes good and bad information and an interpretation of many.
Since becoming a member on Facebook, I have also joined a couple of fire department apparatus repair groups. At first, I thought most of what I was seeing was American and there would be no comparison. Oh my, was I wrong. One thing I have learned in this walk-through-life of mine, is to always keep an open mind. Keep your eyes and ears wide open and mouth shut until you have something good to say. The fire department apparatus repair techs and EVTs (emergency vehicle technicians) in the U.S. deal with the exact same politics, repair issues, parts purchasing problems, parts inventory asset management and need to keep up with latest technology and manage the fleet, as well as being the silent unsung heros that keeps these fire vehicles going. A tip of my toolbox lid to all of you. Keep up the great work at keeping your municipalities safe by getting the operations staff to the incident safely with the best maintained fleet for the emergency services.
One problem that has been coming for some time is the shortage of repair technicians and the lack of techs wanting to step up to take the reins to be the senior officer in charge the foreman or service manager.
In Canada, the lack of techs and succession is a huge problem. We need to be mentoring those that are already employed to become the future leaders in our trade. This is not as easy as going to your toolbox and looking for that specialty tool you purchased. This is about going into that toolbox, be it a desk or a large metal box with drawers on wheels, and finding that life-long day-in-and-day-out custom made tool you learned how to build from mentors before you. Succession planning is something we don’t necessarily do well at in the mechanical repair field in general.
We apprentice under one or more techs until they are licensed. There is an EVT certification offered in fleet management (see evtcc.org) with a Level 1 and Level 2 EVT certification you can enroll in. This takes between three to seven years depending on your career path. During that time, you’ll think you knew it all. The mechanics I apprenticed under were old school knuckle draggers. They were not afraid to call you out and make you do it again. There were no worries about hurting somebody’s feelings or HR getting a complaint of bullying. It was the former culture and I have, and still do, work alongside some of the best fire truck repair technicians in the business, students of the hard knocks school of mechanics. A take the bull by the horns approach. Do what is needed quickly and effectively the first time. Be proud and honoured to be of service in this amazing career. I have been honoured to visit and meet many fire truck techs in my career from all over the world. I have read about and listened to many instructors at international conferences. I have taken courses after work online and courses offered by the City to make myself a better manager and team leader. Coaching happened in and out of class. I have been blessed with being both an instructor and guest speaker at conferences over the years. When I travel on vacation, I make a point to go see what the local fire department uses for equipment and compare. How much better are these guys than we are? I like to take the good away and make mine better. This is the knowledge you can’t buy or read in a magazine or a book. You can bring this back and share with your group, feeding them bits so that maybe they do the same one day. Knowledge grows by being in the trenches, doing the leg work, asking questions and paying attention. Being involved outside the shop will assist the learning process. It will assist those wanting to be the future senior officers to become leaders in this service to bring forward new ideas and innovations.
The new generation of techs are certainly not less skilled because they are growing in a time of a different way of doing things. It’s guys and gals like me who have been on and off the bench for a long, long time that must adjust and still get the message across.
For those of you that play sports, you have been trained by a coach, a person who has “been there and done that”. You study old plays. You study other teams or teammates. You make mental notes and apply what works for you to become the best at your craft.
This industry is no different. A great thing about the fire service is that most fire chiefs have been that top player. The fire chief did not get where they are without learning a few things, making mistakes and learning a bit more. Fire chiefs need to listen to their people and create one cohesive unit, like a large Olympic team. The difference is that our Olympic team is going into competition everyday, so we always need to train and learn to stay ahead and be the best
The internal dynamics of any fire department is rank and structure. We have an ORG chart that starts with the fire chief and trickles down to specific ranks and divisions. You all know what those ranks and divisions are within your own departments. They might be laid out a bit different, but they are all doing the same function. In those divisions, senior people in charge of that unit. More rank and structure. From the newest recruit in any department to the most senior officer, there are people that have been put in charge in between to make the system work effectively. At the end of the day, it’s designed to create a well-oiled machine. The brand-new recruit, like the new apprentice mechanic, is eager and excited to get started. But don’t just sit back and figure those early learners will know what to do. Without training and mentoring they will trip and fall or possibly worse. With help, they will trip and fall but the ouch will not be so bad as they have been prepared for it.
When I look to the bigger fire departments around our department in Vaughan, Ont., I see Toronto as this huge machine with multiple mechanics trucks service bays and senior leaders. I see rank and structure and promotional routines within the mechanical division. The same can be said about Brampton or Mississauga fire departments. These departments have a program that promotes people to be better to want to excel to become a leader. Programs that continuously send their mechanics out for training on new technology or on how to be a better leader. Programs that are in no way even remotely close to the main business of a fire department, but what they we do every day: fix fire trucks. These programs must be embraced and put into play within your fire department. This really only pertains to dedicated fire department apparatus divisions, but this is where all technicians who work on fire trucks or ladders and swings can dig in and learn and want to be better than.
I remember when I was interviewed for my job so many years ago by the best group of senior fire leaders I have ever worked for, and I was asked this last question: If we hire you what will stop you from moving onto another fire department? The answer came from within. I said, chief when you first started, you rode the tail board marred in water, salt, good and bad weather and the fear that maybe you might fall off. You held on tight because you were told by an old timer not that it would hurt if you fell off, but you will miss out on the action because we won’t stop to pick up until after. You moved up to the hydrant seat, the hose jockey, and the can man, and it was then you started training and showing the next tail board firefighter purely by example. From there you became the pump operator, the ladder operator, the engineer, until eventually you became the acting captain, the captain and one day you made it to deputy chief and then fire chief. All the way, you showed others how it’s done and shared what you learned with any who wanted to listen. I did the same thing cleaning tools and benches; doing the dirty jobs because I loved it. This helped to shape me to be the senior technician I am today. The only way you can get to this interview was to trip and fall, to learn from those ahead of me, and to be able to keep advancing. I ended with letting them know that I wouldn’t let them down. I was grateful to even be at this part of the process to think that I had enough to strike your interest and give me a chance. The rest is history. I have worked and been trained and schooled by many more since that day. I learn every day and keep an open mind.
The future of the fire service is 100 per cent the people coming up from behind. The time you take today to mentor the future fire truck chief mechanical officer will be paid back with nothing more than being the outsider now looking in. But with your ego and pride in check, say to yourself: “Not only did I help build this department to where it is today in my division, but I have shown those up and coming what I did good and bad. I showed you the systems we work with every day. The people you answer to. The business proposals and future plans and ideas you had. How to sell what you want to the senior management team.” How do you get somebody to understand the mechanical side of this business when they have no idea? You have to teach how to speak in terms that can be understood. To be able to relate what you are trying to get across in terms the person can understand and relate too. Not to be ungrateful or speak badly about anybody or anything. The journey for the operational firefighter, fire prevention and communications personnel is understood. Not enough is known by the fire service about the mechanical trade to prepare the next person. It’s just assumed the person is doing a good job. Leave them alone, don’t ask questions or try to understand, and when the time comes the next person will do the same.
I make it a point whenever possible to engage my entire staff to participate in a decision. I encourage ideas. I give credit where credit is due. Even if I have to be the bad guy, I help my staff to understand why and not leave the door closed. I learned from those that also have a “my way or the highway” approach. Those that enforce “don’t ask questions, do as I say.” I too brought some of those traits to this CMO job because that is all I knew. The workplace has changed. With this, we have to change or move on. Change does not come easy to many, but if you are not close minded, you too will understand, cope and lead by example. Those that say nothing are never heard and ignored. Those that speak up will listen and be heard.
Keep the entire department engaged. Encourage growth and advancement. Create positions within your divisions so that the staff have something to stive for, to be better at. Showing somebody how, when and why, means you want them to be part of not just a part.
My information and opinions are my own. The information imparted here are what I see and hear and operate by. Succession planning is not only for operational divisions but for all divisions. Treat the entire fire department staff with the same amount of respect and discipline and the rewards will be well worth the efforts.
Remember, stay safe my friends. Rubber side down.
Chris Dennis is the chief mechanical officer for Vaughan Fire & Rescue Service in Ontario.
He can be reached at Chris.Dennis@vaughan.ca.