Unless you shut your trap, it's a voice that can easily be drowned out among the others at the firehouse. Amid the cacophony of noise in the kitchen of the firehouse, I was privy to a conversation today with one of the most senior firefighters in my department. Needless to say, it left an impact on me, not so much in what he said as how he said it. His emotion, choice of words, patient manner, and friendly demeanor spoke volumes about his character.
In a department the size of mine it is easy to go for a few years without seeing people. Then out of the blue you'll find them detailed to your house for the day due to staffing shortages in your battalion and an overage in theirs. Alas, that's beside the point. Today's conversation was enlightening to say the least. For once, the Quiet Voice of Seniority was spoken, and more importantly HEARD by those at the kitchen table.
By no means am I a salty vet. I've been a firefighter for almost 16 years, and I've spent the last 7 at my current department. While I may have enough time on the job for my voice to carry a little weight, I am by no means an authority on anything. I'm still learning. Listening to the senior man today was a breath of fresh air, and I'll get to that in a moment.
First though, I want you to fix your mind on some of the "Loud Voices of Seniority" you've heard on your journey through this profession. They are the ones consistently badgering the probie, proclaiming their greatness (without merit), and counting the days until their pension kicks in. You know them and hopefully you respectfully let them have their say then walk away. That's what a good junior man will do, even though over time that type of personality with tear down more than it builds up. Of course, the probie needs to have his chain pulled a few times to test his mettle, and there is nothing wrong with the occasional embellished war story, but where is the substance? Where is the gentle guidance? Again, you have to shut your trap to hear it, because it will often get drowned out by all that goes on around it.
Let's call him John to be anonymous, because if he knew I were writing this, I'm sure he'd get embarrassed and then angry. He's not the type to draw attention to himself. While he and several members of the crew on duty were enjoying a cup of coffee, he had the floor, speaking of past fires, retired members, and the current state of the department. What struck me was his enthusiasm. You see, John's been on the job for 25 years. In that time, he's remained a Firefighter II, the position he loves. He's paid his dues in full, riding the back of one of the busiest engine companies in the city since 1991. Now he's eligible for the pension that he's rightly earned. When asked about his future plans, he gave a puzzled look and simply said, "As long as I am healthy and can contribute to the team, I'm sticking around."
Truthfully, it was inspiring to hear the quiet voice that is so often ignored. To talk with a man, on the cusp of a deserved retirement that isn't even on his radar at the moment, who still loves the job as much as he did when he earned his badge was a moment that could have easily been missed had we let the duties of the day get in the way. The next time you have a senior man in the house, get him a cup of coffee, sit down, and give him the floor. You never know what you may learn about him.