Bill Packard: Not the Slate Award

Posted:  Tuesday, October 9, 2018 - 11:45am
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All volunteer departments have certain traditions as do fulltime departments.  How they come about can be very interesting.

At the scene of a chimney fire one night, the Chief and I were standing on the homeowner’s front lawn with him between us as the crew made their way onto the roof and up to the chimney. 

Like many chimneys in Maine, this one had a slate cap and the cap would need to be removed in order to chain the chimney and put out the fire.  The house and chimney were in pretty tough shape, but it was still home to somebody and we always tried to respect that. 

When the crew got to the chimney and removed the cap, it needed to be safely stored on the roof somewhere while the chimney was cleaned and the fire extinguished.  We saw the lieutenant look around at the roof, then the general area and finally at the ground.  The Chief and I both knew what was going to happen next, but didn’t say a word. 

Just as though it was routine and how we always did it, he heaved the slate cap to the ground and began to put the chimney fire out.  We were horrified, but acted like it was all normal.  The homeowner looked at me and then at the Chief, but not a word was said.

Back at the station, we asked the lieutenant what in the world he was thinking.  He said he didn’t really know what made him do it, it just seemed like the only reasonable way to handle the situation. That evening we created a new SOP that slate roof caps were not to be thrown to the ground during chimney fires.

Every year, the department held an awards banquet. We invited mutual aid chiefs and any citizens or law enforcement who impacted our year and recognized them. 

The Chief had access to many slate roof shingles so this year we took a shingle, painted our seal on it and added the name of a firefighter.  Thus began  “The Slate Award.”

There was no contest that first year. The lieutenant won it, hands down.

The slate award generated interest, and all year firefighters worked hard to not be deserving of it at the following year’s banquet.  The slate award became a popular part of the banquet and a highlight of the evening for many years. Nobody was immune. I have two.

The banquet was a great event every year and the turnout was always high.  After all the awards were handed out, the finale was the firefighter of the year award. 

The top officers met and discussed who should be the recipient and it was all kept a tight secret.  The tradition was that the current firefighter of the year would read a summary of accomplishments and accolades about the new year’s winner, but preceding that was a video that gave away the winner.  It was something that I had started, so with the help of a local TV/video guy(long before Imovie or any of the apps we have today) we would create a video from photos and slides. 

One year, we decided on a worthy candidate and I gathered material and created the video.  The current firefighter of the year created the announcement presentation speech.  Everything was set.  

I should add here that I was a stickler for having this whole event go off smoothly.  Too many times I had attended events where the speakers and organizers made it about them and gave no consideration to the audience. We even rented a big-screen TV for the videos. 

When the time came, it was my duty to announce that the new firefighter of the year was to be named.  At that point, I would say a few words about the current firefighter of the year, return to my seat and then start the video. When the video started playing, it was me, not the person we voted on. I couldn’t believe it.  I had even placed the video in the player and queued it up, but they had gotten me. 

It was a very humbling experience and a complete surprise.  Turns out all sorts of people were in on it and nobody leaked a thing. You can’t trust firefighters.

More Bill Packard

Volunteer firefighting is one of the most rewarding, fun things anyone can do if they’re on a department with the right culture.  My hope is that these stories can create enough interest in even one person to join a local department and feel the satisfaction that comes from being a firefighter and understand what makes it so special.

Bill Packard lives in Union and is the founder of BPackard.com. He is a speaker, author, small business coach and consultant.

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