Since the beginning of my fire service career, there’s been a concern I’ve heard time and time again, “we just don’t have the tradesmen coming on the job like we used to”. Stories are told about how “back in the day”, each of the various trades had representation in the fire service. Prior to getting hired on a department many members grew up in more of a “blue collar” environment. Children followed the footsteps of their parents and learned the family trade. If your parent was a stonemason, you became a stonemason; if your parent was a boilermaker, you became a boilermaker… and so on. Naturally, along with these lifelong tradesmen came tremendous amounts of invaluable experience. For every type of call that presented itself, it’s said there was always someone on the fire ground with special training to address it; Someone to deal with the situation and help assist the IC with bringing the incident under control. Plumbers on the job would have an answer on how to stop a water emergency. Carpenters would be called upon to frame out a wall after a car drove through a building. Electricians would assist in figuring out what caused the electrical fire and more importantly how to leave the property relatively safe. I’ve even heard stories of bigger cities having select members who came from the steel industry playing vital roles in building collapse and other USAR type emergencies.
Though I have never actually seen nor read statistics stating in this day and age there are less “tradesmen”entering the fire service, but looking through the lens of my own department and surrounding areas, I do think this concern has merit. Many newer members seem to have more of a white collared background when compared to the senior guys who were on the job when I was hired ten short years ago. Many new hires tend to have college backgrounds and less of that so-called “blue collar” antiquity. Taking an honest look at my own life, I must come to terms with the fact I am one of these “non tradesmen” we are all so concerned with.
Growing up in a structured family environment I had many opportunities. Without going into the minutia of my childhood, I will say I had a father who was a skillful and driven builder, not by trade, but by hobby. It was he who taught me how to measure, plumb, and frame out a wall. Looking back, I wish I took more advantage of his knowledge and skill but being the dumb kid I was, never saw the tremendous opportunity I was presented with. My years of high school and college were filled with many jobs: landscaping, waiting tables, building bikes, and installing swimming pools to name a few. It wasn’t until I was on the job for some time that I became versed and somewhat proficient with what one might call trade skills.
I am not certain as to why there appears to be less skilled laborers entering the fire service. Could it have something to do with the fact manufacturing jobs are leaving the country or some other deep seated socioeconomic reason… sure… however, I am not a business analyst, psychologist, or anyone who figures that kind of stuff out. Whatever the reason is, this concern does appear to have merit. As firefighters we do not have the ability to pick and choose the emergencies we respond to. If the situation happens to be one we have never been faced with, we always seem to figure it out. The same holds true with the apparent lack of tradesmen entering the fire service. There appears to be an issue and we need to find ways of capitalizing on what we have.
We have all seen, heard, or taken part in the ribbing of someone for not having the best hands on skills. “Hey did you hear the probe doesn’t know the difference between a flat head and Phillips head” or “what do you mean you don’t know how to read a tape measure”? In my opinion, ribbing and joking around is part of the job and should always be part of the job. Busting chops has its place in the fire service. If done with the proper tact and resolve, I actually feel it can help build the overall moral of a crew. It’s when the harmless joking around takes a turn for the worse and becomes mean spirited and downright vicious. It is then it becomes hurtful to the individual and counterproductive to the overall organization.
Earlier in my career I witnessed something I will never forget. A firefighter with a significant trade background purposefully set out to demoralize another firefighter who had little to no hands on experience. The group was reviewing vertical ventilation and was going over the differences of chain vs. rotary saws. It was obvious to everyone this firefighter had little to no background with tools. Trying to impress the group, the accomplished tradesmen decided he was going to get cute and absolutely destroy the firefighter lacking knowledge. While looking over the rotary saw he asked him with an overwhelmingly smug voice “where does the bar oil go in this saw”. The firefighter in a nervous state frantically began looking for any port where oil might go. This went on for maybe thirty seconds until the more accomplished tradesmen said “doesn’t he know the rotary saw has no bar oil ” proceeding to laugh hysterically. Looking back on what transpired, I’m ashamed I didn’t step in and squash it right there. Whether it was due to my immaturity or insecurities with my own skill set, something held me back from sticking up for him and I regret it. The look on the firefighters face was one of wanting to crawl into a h*** and die. Looking back on this, do I think he went to his job and began seeking out knowledgeable people to educate him on his shortcomings? I don’t think this at all. On the contrary, for the ridicule and humiliation he endured, I wouldn’t be surprised if he avoided having anything to do with power tools for the rest of his career.
Is this how we should be treating firefighters entering the fire service who have little to no hands on experience? Should we take young adults who probably are already embarrassed of their lack of knowledge and undermine them even more? If we choose to cripple them from the beginning, their desire to learn and potentially become an asset to the team will be handicapped right from the start. We all know when people get ridiculed and humiliated they often shut down. The chance of them redeveloping a love for the job is slim to none.
So how do we deal with this obvious issue? How do we take new firefighters with little hands on trade experience and mold them into well-rounded firefighters? I believe the answer is through mentoring. As stated before, my knowledge and skill entering the fire service was decent at best. Coming on the job at a relatively young age, I was fortunate enough to get hired alongside someone who was not only ten years my senior, but also a skilled laborer. One of my new brothers was the owner of a construction company and someone to turn to for tradesmen type advice. The advice I sought didn’t directly relate to firefighting, more importantly, it was simple every day questions I had about construction. It was walking me through problems that arose as I was renovating my newly acquired house. One might think renovating your house has little to do with firefighting, but as you acquire building knowledge and skill, your overall competency as a firefighter improves. Even more meaningful than his expertise, was his ability to communicate with people. With the proper tact and demeanor, he was always the guy assisting others like myself. During our time at the academy, I watched him take several recruits and help them out, while ensuring to be discrete and not call attention to their inadequacies. Were there times he must have thought to himself, “this kids a freaking idiot”? There is no question in my mind but would never imagine hinting at it. This being in his nature, the skill of mentoring obviously followed him and today has become a great “senior firefighter” within our department. Whether on the drill ground or around the kitchen table, he can always be seen helping firefighters and guiding them in the area of construction. Through the mentoring of my father and several skilled laborers like the one just described, my proficiency with construction grew exponentially as the years passed.
So it seems we have identified there is an issue with new hires lacking trade experience. Instead of sitting around complaining about it for the next twenty years, why not attempt to find a solution. I think having firefighters step up and become mentors is at the very least part of the solution. It’s easy to be a follower. By this I mean, when everyone’s laughing at someone for not knowing how to check the oil in the truck, it’s easy to follow the crowd and complain about how useless kids are these days. Sitting around complaining will have no impact on improving their skill set or do anything to develop the welfare of your crew and organization. Instead of being a follower, why not step up and be a leader. When everyone is having a good laugh, can it be hard to break away from the majority and do the right thing? Sure… but that's exactly what I’m talking about, doing the right thing. I recently had a conversation with a well respected fire instructor who has been teaching for quite some time. He told me one thing he notices that’s different today compared to when he first started teaching is “kids just don’t have the hands on skills like they used to”. He did not say this out of anger or malice but instead with genuine concern. When recruits go to the academy, it would be great to ensure all cadets graduate with considerable knowledge and skill for each of the individual trades… but it’s just not realistic. The skills and knowledge we are talking about take years to develop. In order to advance proficient awareness, one must surround themselves with knowledgeable people willing to put the time in and serve as mentors. It takes tradesmen in our service to stop being followers and start being leaders.