Locked-down lives: How to pass the time – and learn something

Books and movies to help fire service personnel broaden their knowledge base and stay entertained


Quarantine, isolation and social distancing are words that have come into frequent use during the current COVID-19 national emergency.

Whether in the firehouse or at home, we are living locked-down lives. How can we make the best use of this time? You can only watch so much reality TV before it melts your brain.

So let’s use this time to gain some knowledge and skills through someone else’s experiences. Books and films are the pathways to that knowledge. In the words of Emil Faber, “Knowledge is good.”

Whether in the firehouse or at home, we are living locked-down lives. How can we make the best use of this time? You can only watch so much reality TV before it melts your brain. (Photo/Getty Images)
Whether in the firehouse or at home, we are living locked-down lives. How can we make the best use of this time? You can only watch so much reality TV before it melts your brain. (Photo/Getty Images)

Great reads for firefighters

Some time ago, I came across the Commandant’s Reading List – that being the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. I soon learned that all the branches of the military have one or more reading lists, some listed by rank, others by specialty. Interestingly, the Commandant’s list is mandatory for all Marines. From recruit to generals, each Marine must read three books on the list as part of their ongoing training and evaluation. The books on the list are varied and include classics such as Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage.” In the spirit of a fire service reading list, here are a few suggestions.

Frank Brannigan’s “Building Construction for the Fire Service”: I taught the firefighter safety section of probie school. I always told the rookies that if they were going to buy just one book for their fire service library, this is it. I have several editions of this book, including one the professor signed himself. I was fortunate to attend a couple of his lectures back in the mid-70s. I know the information gleaned from that book has saved my skin several times over. It remains one of the first books I would recommend.

Dr. Burton Clark’s “I Can’t Save You, But I Will Die Trying”: This more recent book could take the No. 1 spot. This book is primarily a collection of essays and articles dealing with the culture of the fire service. It focuses on those practices and methods that make up the low-hanging fruit we can implement to prevent needless firefighter deaths and injuries. This book should be required reading for every firefighter, no matter their rank or years of experience.

Dennis Smith’s “Report from Engine Company 82”: It would be malpractice if I didn’t include this one. For someone new to the fire service, it’s akin to a new Marine reading “The Red Badge of Courage.” Smith’s masterpiece describes what it was to be a firefighter in the South Bronx during the “War Years” of the FDNY. For younger readers, the War Years lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s, when America’s inner cities were burning every day.

Joe Flood’s “The Fires”: While “Report From Engine Company 82” is a great read, pairing it with “The Fires” provides some sociopolitical context to the War Years and why the Bronx burned to the ground. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t just arson. As part of the Bronx tale, I also suggest watching the 1972 BBC documentary “Man Alive: The Bronx is Burning.”

Navy Adm. James Stavridis’ “The Leader’s Bookshelf”: For those firefighters looking to broaden their collection, “The Leader’s Bookshelf” is a summary of the top 50 books generated by a survey of more than 200 four-star admirals and generals. The books range from the Bible to “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” to “Ender’s Game.” The summary of each book has notes about the author, the book itself and the leadership lessons within. There are also chapters on building your personal library and the lessons learned from extensive reading.

Last, I recommend books by two modern patriots distinguished by their dedication to military service, leadership and a lifelong desire to learn.

James Mattis’s “Call Sign Chaos”: Mattis, a retired marine general, offers life lessons on direct leadership, executive leadership and strategic leadership.

James B. Stockdale’s “Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot”: Stockdale, who died in 2005, was a Navy Vice Admiral and Medal of Honor recipient. Stockdale’s book is a collection of his essays and speeches on character, leadership, virtue and ethics. I found his essay on studying classical philosophy informative. Stockdale did not begin studying philosophy until he was 37 years old and had been a fighter pilot for 15 years. As a graduate of Annapolis, his formal education was mostly technical – not much philosophy offered or learned. How similar is that to our educations? If you have a fire service bachelor’s degree, I’d guess your course work was mostly technical, with the bare minimum of a few arts and sciences credits. Stockdale’s point is that without some grounding in philosophy, it is much harder to be a good leader.

Heading to the (home) movies

Perhaps books aren’t your thing, or maybe you’re a film buff. If that’s the case, there are any number of Hollywood films that the fire service can use as learning tools, particularly in the area of leadership.

Over the years, I’ve seen instructors draw from the full spectrum of cinematic genres for their lesson plans – everything from the witch scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for a lesson in communication during a National Fire Academy course called “Strategic Management of Change” to a character study on leadership in “Twelve O’Clock High.” It is with this history in mind that I present these suggestions:

“Paths of Glory”: In this 1957 film starring Kirk Douglas, soldiers are accused of cowardice by a general, and their commanding officer must defend their actions. The responsibility of fighting for your people when they are right is the takeaway.

“Remember the Titans”: In this 2000 film starring Denzel Washington, the underlying focus is on setting clear expectations for your people. It is a reminder that setting and then enforcing clear expectations will be unpleasant. Still, in the long term, you will gain their respect. “Coach Carter,” from 2005 and starring Samuel L. Jackson, is an excellent companion film because it examines resistance to change and defines what success means.

Although many decisions we make under pressure occur at emergencies, senior members may be involved in decisions that require dependence on others and building consensus.

“Lincoln”: This 2012 film starring Daniel Day Lewis is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “A Team of Rivals,” which examines the relationships between President Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet.

“Thirteen Days”: Like “Lincoln,” this 2000 film starring Kevin Costner highlights the interpersonal skills needed for navigating complex decisions.

Lead by example. Easy words to say, much harder words to live by.

“We Were Soldiers”: This film from 2002 starring Mel Gibson and Sam Elliott examines the relationship between the Lt. Col. Hal Moore and his command. This film is based on the true story of Moore’s leadership during a brutal battle that occurred early in the Vietnam war. If you are interested in the complete story, read the book, “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young” by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway.

Put the downtime to use

“I cannot live without books,” Thomas Jefferson said. Aspiring fire service leaders, as well as established officers, should be voracious readers.

According to retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, reading provides opportunities to “experience a variety of life experiences without leaving home for school.” The fire service is no longer experiencing the workload of years past, when young firefighters gained the experience to become smart, tough fire officers. Today we need to read and study to make up for the change in workload.

The books and films presented here are just a sample of the different materials from which we can taste other work and life experiences. It is a given that we read and study the technical books and articles of our profession. But by turning to different books and films, we can stretch beyond “how-to” and try to experience circumstances that we have not yet encountered.

In your COVID-19-driven downtime, read one of these books or watch one of these films with a purpose. If you can, turn one of the movies into a company drill. Ask yourself or your crew questions about what you would do in the situation. Compare similar situations experienced by different people to seek out the reasons for their reactions to the event. Put the extra downtime to good use.

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