By Jason Zigmont
Whenever I visit different fire departments and talk to senior members, they all seem to say the same thing: "The fire service is not the way it used to be." They may have a point. It's not just the ever-changing technology and regulations. The biggest change seems to be in the decay of the brotherhood of firefighters.
There was a time when you could rely on your fellow firefighters for help with anything and the firehouse was the center of the community. Now you are lucky if you know the names of your brethren. When it comes to volunteer departments, the sense of community that the firehouse brought to its members was a large part of why people would volunteer.
The lack of brotherhood may be a part of the reason why we are having trouble recruiting and retaining members. I grew up in a fire department — my father was Chief, among other titles. Looking back, every member of the department knew each other and all the families grew up together. Family picnics and carnivals were the norm, and Santa Claus always visited on a fire truck.
Big events meant that the entire family would be involved and the Women's Auxiliary was always there to help. Parades and parties were legendary and are still spoken about fondly 30 years later.
When my father was burnt badly in a gas explosion, the department was there for him both in person and in raising funds. Anytime anyone needed help, they were there. Family members would get visits when they were sick and if you needed a hand painting anything, half a dozen guys would show up with rollers, pizza and beer.
Even common courtesies have been lost. It used to be that if one of your family members passed, that the entire department would be at the funeral in full dress uniform, maybe even with an honor guard. Now you are lucky if your department sends a sympathy card.
It's no great mystery why we've ended up here. Fire departments historically had generations of members from the same family; there was no doubt that your son or daughter would join the department because it was where they grew up and a part of their life.
Now we are begging people to volunteer and saying that volunteerism is dying. We are very good at serving our communities — but our members and families seem to have become secondary. Even worse, some departments are so segmented that they help those members they "like" and not others, causing widespread dissention.
Maybe rather than pointing our fingers at volunteerism or changes in our community, we should look at the changes within our department. Our members — whether you like them or not — must always come first and we should always be able to count on each other. This should not be limited to the fireground, but encompass everyday life, too. Members should not have to ask for help but know that their fellow firefighters are there no matter what is going on. Departments regularly respond to public calls for help, but overlook our own.
If you think about your department, you can probably name a handful of members who could use a helping hand today! We all have members who are out of work, serving overseas, or who have a family member or are sick themselves. Little acts of support go a long way toward showing members the department as a whole values them and their contribution to it.
The question is, what are we doing to help them? How about visiting their sick loved one in the hospital or cooking a dinner for them and their family? If they are serving our country overseas, how about your department volunteers to help with the upkeep of their house and members take turns mowing the lawn? How about holding a fundraiser for your out-of-work members to help them make ends meet? For the volunteer service, throwing money at recruitment and retention rarely works, but supporting your fellow firefighters does.
The brotherhood may be fading, but it is not gone completely, and it can be salvaged. I challenge each of you to do one good act for a fellow member each week. It can be as simple as making a phone call to see how they are doing, but you will be amazed at the results. If each of us can commit to doing one good thing each week, I guarantee that within a year you will have a completely different department.
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