The books we read (and promotional testing advice)

“Every man who knows how to read has it in his power to magnify himself, to multiply the ways in which he exists, to make his life full, significant, interesting.”

Aldous Huxley

Let’s talk about books.  I’ll make a bold statement that not enough firefighters read.  Your brain is like a muscle, though, and must be worked out.  And like working out, it’s a lot of work to start exercising and then marginally less work the longer you keep on.  People have asked me my advice on studying for promotions.  They have a hard time reading the five or six books (1,000 pages, or so) and absorbing that information.  My advice to all of them: turn off the TV.  You can’t watch TV every day in all your otherwise quiet time and expect to be an adept reader.  It takes practice and if you want to master the material then you need to read even when it’s not study time.  For this purpose you don’t need to read fire books; anything will do as long as it exercises your brain.  This post, however, will be about fire books or at least books related to our fire service careers.  At this point I’ll note that no, I won’t list the king of fire service bestsellers (though I do like that book).

There are some great books out there in the fire service.  Some I’ve known by reputation, some from friends, and some from promotional exams.  Josh, Doug, and I are all going to list the books that have been most influential to us in our careers.  Let’s get some discussion going in the comments.

Fire Command by Alan Brunacini:
It’s easy to mock Brunaciniism and the customer service mentality, and lots of people do. It’s true that we aren’t selling hot dogs here and we’re not going to do Ms. Smith’s laundry for her.  But I’ll leave aside that hornet’s nest and just talk about his other major contribution to the fire service.  I read this book for my EO’s promotional exam and it’s had a profound effect on my thinking ever since.  Lots of books attempt to rationalize and classify the chaos of a fire.  No one has done it as completely or as compellingly as Bruno.  I admit that his writing leaves a lot to be desired, at least mechanically.  It’s prolix, turgid, and redundant.  But wading through that morass leads to a powerful series of ideas that I use all the time.

The Fire Inside by Steve Delsohn:
This one is a little obscure and was out of print for awhile.  Steve Delsohn is a journalist who went around asking firefighters to comment on a variety of topics.  What sets this account apart is the enforced anonymity of the interviews and the resulting frankness of the accounts.  This is a great account of the enchantment and confusion of your first days in training, the adrenaline jolts and confusion of the fires, the magic of touching lives, and the blows to the gut of bearing witness to tragedies.  This is a book for perspective and, in a way, advice.  This book is like a written version of the firehouse kitchen table.

Collapse of Burning Buildings by Vincent Dunn:
This is one of the big classics.  The specifics need updating (the data are old, the risk management paradigms no longer acceptable, and discussion of lightweight construction too limited), but this one is the best succinct look at building construction from a safety perspective.  Excepting the lack of lightweight construction discussion, this is a great foundational book for a fire officer or anyone tasked with deciding a fire strategy.

The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven Sample:
I don’t generally read leadership books.  There’s a whole subset of the publishing world that concentrates on mediocre books about trite leadership lessons based on ephemeral hooks.  This book is much more practical (and interesting) than the vast majority of its class.  One of its tips: don’t pay too much attention to the books and magazines on the latest and greatest fashions in your industry.  That’s how contrarian this book really is!  It’s interesting, says stuff you won’t hear elsewhere, and the author has a heck of a pedigree (incredibly successful university president, influential educator, and the engineer who invented the thing that keeps time in your microwave).

Crew Resource Management For the Fire Service by Randy Okray and Thomas Lubnau II:
A few years from now I predict we see this book as having been at the vanguard of a movement in the fire service, much as we look back on Fire Command or Brannigan now.  Though the book itself may never be as big as those two, it’s about a field that has been making inroads in our national organizations for awhile now.

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