The modern day fire service is a world different than the fire service of 20 years ago. Hell, it’s a world different than 10 years, 5 years, or even 1 year ago. We live and work in an ever-changing, ever-evolving industry. Particularly here in Minnesota, change is in the air. As many departments are faced with evolving demographics, call responses, and training requirements, the ability to find people to take on this evolving industry is becoming ever more difficult. As a result, many fire departments are going through a myriad of internal change ranging from equipment to staffing and service delivery models, and must rely on their current rosters to stay the course, weather the change, and come out stronger on the other side.
There are many ways to incentivize the fire service so that people want to stay. Many Relief Associations work very hard to raise and keep retirement benefits. Many departments offer education or pay incentives. Sometimes, however, these aren’t enough with the volume and complexity in which our fire service is currently evolving. Sometimes there are people who’ve already got one foot out the door. Often times, when a departing member is asked why, he or she will simply state that “this isn’t what I signed up for.”
Let’s examine that sentiment, because often, my first response to that statement is “then what did you sign up for?”
I’d like each of us to take a little walk down memory lane… ok, maybe a long walk for some of you. I’ll narrate. Think back to when you first walked into the fire house. What did it look like? How did it smell? How did it make you feel? Is this what you signed up for? Let’s go back a little further. You’re filling out your application, or talking to a recruiter, and you’re excited because you could be beginning the journey of a lifetime. What is the draw? What are they telling you to attract you to the job? What are you signing up for?
While I can’t reach inside your head and extract what you signed up for, let me tell you what I signed up for.
Firefighting is one of the last true family professions. And no, I’m not talking about nepotism or legacy hiring; I’m talking about the family that you become part of when you put your coat and helmet on for the first time. That is what I signed up for. Of all emergency services, firefighters are the catch-all when a job needs doing. Think about it. Police need help? Call the fire department. The Paramedics need help? Call the fire department. Hell, when a fire department needs help? They call another fire department! That is what I signed up for. I signed up to ride fire trucks, to go to calls, to do EMS, to teach little kids to Stop, Drop, and Roll, to train for the job we may never get called to, and to make peoples’ lives better on the jobs we do get called to. I signed up to be a firefighter. Sound familiar?
As firefighters, our job is to constantly adapt and overcome. We are conditioned by our predecessors that we are there to beat the odds, because that is what firefighting is all about. I signed up to adapt, to overcome, and when I have to, I signed up to beat the odds.
This ethos, this unspoken code to which firefighters adhere, extends beyond the fire scene. It carries into our stations and applies to our equipment, our apparatus, our training, and even, our staffing models. We adapt, we overcome.
So let me ask you this: Did you not sign up for the same things? Did you not sign up to help people? Did you not sign up to serve your community? Did you not sign up to go on calls? Did you not sign up to be a part of the brotherhood? Did you not sign up to adapt and overcome?
Let’s revisit memory lane (because I hear it’s lovely this time of year) and think about everything that a firefighter is. What was in your head as you filled out your application? Does any of this sound familiar? If it does, then I’d hate to be the ants at your picnic, but this is what you signed up for. You signed up to be a firefighter in the American Fire Service. You signed up to be a member of the brotherhood. You signed up to get on trucks and go to training and go to calls and you signed up to adapt and overcome. You signed up to embrace the change. So quit kicking rocks and do it.
They say that our motto is “100 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress.” I will dare to disagree. Anyone in the fire service today can plainly see that times are changing, regardless of any cute phrases which say otherwise. Your stations will change. Your trucks will change. Your tools, the people around you, your tactics, and your training will all change, but your ethos never will. As long as you are part of the fire service, what you stand for to the community will never change. You will be looked to as a jack-of-all-trades and a solution to every problem. You will be that family member, friend, neighbor, whom everyone calls when they need a hand. That will never change.