Remember the old saying “Don’t shoot the messenger”? I was just recently reminded of the adage and how we in the fire service need to heed its meaning as much as anyone. As I was cutting up freshly felled trees on my ranch I heard a voice from my past. It was of an experience I remember as though it just happened. I was a probationary firefighter in my first full time paid position at a small department when I decided to take advantage of some down time and train on chain saw maintenance. As I began to put the chainsaw back together ( I had completely taken it apart and proudly cleaned every part of it), the corner of my eye caught one of the “salty old timers” taking a smoke break in front of the apparatus bay. I decided to engage him as a possible mentor in at least the area of chainsaw maintenance and requested his help. Within a short time he said something I would come to hear numerous times in a variety of settings and by people of nearly every experience level, “we don’t hire people with experience in the trades anymore”. But what I remember the most were the words he used just prior, “I can’t believe you don’t have any experience with a chainsaw”. I felt so inadequate at that moment, as though I had slipped through the cracks of the hiring process and been hired just because of my active paramedic card (another favorite insult disseminated in fire houses all over). Is there a reason that everyone is supposed to get “chainsaw experience” at some point in their life? Had I missed a particular life lesson?

I have a great dad, I could say nothing bad about how he raised me and I wouldn’t change a thing even if I could. I truly believe that I am who I am and have accomplished everything I’ve accomplished because of his investments in me. Nevertheless, like every dad out there, he had shortcomings too. He is to this day a can-do person; his favorite saying is “Can’t Never Tried”. So it was no surprise that one day, attempting to teach me about car repair, that he would become upset with my daydreaming as I held the flashlight for him while he worked under the engine compartment. He worked without speaking very much, if at all, and I soon drifted off; the flashlight going away with me, pointing everywhere but the area he was working in. It wasn’t long before he was creating a means to keep the flashlight pointed where he wanted without needing my help. It was ingenious, as were most of his solutions. However, not needed for the flashlight detail any longer, not understanding car repair, and not interpreting the grumblings from under the car as communication with me, I was soon physically elsewhere to feel engaged in the important things of my life at that time. So when it came to cutting down a tree with a chainsaw, I had not invested in gaining my father’s trust for such a high risk detail. And cleaning up the saw was much easier done than taught to a boy that had trouble paying attention. So that salty old timer was exactly right, I didn’t have any experience with a chainsaw… damn it all!

For the longest time I thought that salty old timer was just a burned out, mean old fart that needed to retire and I tried to stay away from him from that day forward. But just yesterday, as I cut up these trees, I saw my chainsaw incident in the back of that apparatus bay in a completely different context and in a fair less insulting way. You see, I have now spent hundreds of hours with chainsaws, both on and off the job. I believe I use the saw the way it was designed to be used and know nearly every working part of it firsthand. When it malfunctions, there are very few times that I can’t rapidly recognize and address the problem so as to get back to work as quickly as possible. I can tighten a chain in seconds rather than minutes and clean a saw to inspection ready status in a fairly impressive time as well. I’ve learned short cuts to these areas of chainsaw use and maintenance that are never taught in academies, by dads or salty Fire Engineers. And so the words spoken about not having had experience with a chain saw were important but I lost the message through the messenger. I would have been a better firefighter on a truck had I spent this kind of time cutting up trees beforehand. I realize that we typically cut roof structures, not trees, as firefighters. But the experience and comfort I have gained with a chainsaw is due to spending hours with it. I am confident that I could wear a blindfold (imagine a smoky black environment) and hear and feel everything my saw is going through. I could even tighten the chain with a blindfold on, no problem. A binding chain, fixed in the dark, no problem…. Get it? So that salty Fire Engineer had a message… It had value and I wish I would’ve realized it back then, and maybe I would’ve figured out how to get some real chainsaw experience.

Now I realize that not everyone has the gift of teaching and mentoring. In fact, I believe that we all have particular gifts and should just realize that. So the next time you feel a little offended by the messenger, take a minute to reflect on the message. And for those of us with the opportunity to deliver the message, consider saving all the machismo and just speak from the heart for a second, perhaps share some personal experience that relates to why you feel the way you do. The fire service is one of the most dynamic professions that ever existed, knowing a little of everything is what makes us great most of the time.

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Comment by Michael Patterson on June 19, 2009 at 12:25pm
Well said for sure. I have had very similar experiences in my early years.

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