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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Its Not Just about the Coffee

There are so many time honored traditions in the fire service it’s occasionally hard to keep track. Some have little real purpose other than simply a tip-of-the-hat to the way it used to be, while others, such as learning your streets; hitting the books for your first year; and keeping what happens at work at work, have a more significant role than many seem to ever realize. 

Such is the situation with the coffee.  I don’t mind making it.  I really don’t.  In fact, truth be told, I prefer my way of making it to most of the others practiced in my particular backwater of the FDNY.  However, the other day, when at 6am I had to make the coffee because none of the twenty or so dispatchers (many with two years or less on the job)  even thought to do so;  I was genuinely annoyed.  When a few actually watched me make the trip down to the water fountain to fill the coffee pots (why there is no sink is a rant for another time) with not so much as the slightest “I’ll get that Chief”—I was downright aggravated.  I could just hear the justifications rumbling through their minds, if they were aware enough to even offer a faint excuse—at least to themselves:  “so and so is junior—he or she should do it;”  “I don’t even drink the coffee”; “why do I always have to do it”; “who cares about the stinking coffee—its too much work anyway” and so on.

In that moment, as I rolled around their comments and justifications and accommodations in my own mind I was reminded about the traditions that are more than traditions.  Little traditions in the fire service that actually help teach a new person (a Probie!)  to be responsible without direct instruction for something—no matter how seemingly insignificant.  Moreover, how that responsibility, even if its just coffee, trains you to be aware of more than yourself.  How being concerned about others—even if its something that doesn’t directly impact you—is critical in the fire service if we are going to be a successful team.  How, as a Probie, looking out for the little things instills confidence in yourself and in others that you can be trusted to do the right thing.  After all, if you can’t remember to  check the coffee a few times a day or do it without whining about fairness or justice—then how can you be trusted to learn all the rules, and the policies and the intrinsic and essential skills  you need to know that cant be found in any book or on any test. 

In that way, making coffee is not just a Fire Department lesson.  Just as with many other simple tests of character, it is a minor event that reveals so much more and serves as one of the many ways that character and responsibility can be developed.  I have been told that no-one spends even a moment explaining to our new generation why making the coffee is so important.  I have been told that none of our new people are ever told why it’s important to be a part of the team, to do your “probie duties” and serve the role that a new person should.  One department I know of has even banned the use of the word “Probie”—under the thought that it harms our newest members and erodes their sense of self-esteem. 

As I drank the cup of coffee I made, and knew it would not be the last, I couldn’t help but wonder about all the other things we do to help this new generation’s self esteem—and all of the other things they will likely be unable to do effectively—or confidently, if they don’t even get the most basic skills right or the lessons of why the little things are so important.  More importantly, I wondered if they will ever understand that doing the little things right leads directly to doing the big things right.

Finishing the cup, with just a slight touch of salt to cut the bitterness, I had to ask myself—are we really doing them any favors at all?  I can’t help answer that we aren’t.

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