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priv·i·lege

: a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others
: a special opportunity to do something that makes you proud

It is a privilege to be a firefighter. Do you really believe this statement? Firefighters often talk about feeling privileged when they are first due to a “good” working fire, but does the privilege cease when we are doing the things not pictured on the cover of Fire Engineering magazine? There are literally thousands of people who would love to fill our seat on the engine. They would jump at the chance to get on the truck at two in the morning and go pick up Mr. Jones for the third time in a week; okay maybe not ‘jump’ but they might do it without complaint. Think back to when you applied to be a firefighter. Think about those applicants who were not chosen for the position you now hold.  I bet they view the things we may treat as a nuisance as a privilege.

At one point (and hopefully still) you wanted to be a firefighter more than anything else in the world. Sometimes we need to hit rewind on our fire career DVR to hear the promises we gave in earnest during our interview. Ask yourself honestly - are continuing to make good on those promises? Are you the team player you claimed to be? Do you still have a rock solid work ethic? Are you still a self-starter? Are you still willing to be educated and trained? Are you really the person who can be relied upon to deliver in a time of need? Do you still treat this job as a privilege? Your fellow firefighters, lieutenants, captains and chiefs probably already know the answer, but do you? If you have honored all of these claims, that is impressive, but have you prepared to identify when you no longer are? If you have not fulfilled your promises, or feel yourself slipping, ask yourself, “Where did I go, where is the engaged, more eager version of me?”  

Perform an internal primary search - I bet he or she is still occupying a survivable space, behind a closed door, somewhere inside. Get in there and bring ’em out.

I currently have the privilege to serve on three different fire departments. One is a full-time department, one is a combination department and the other is a paid-on-call/part-time department. My involvement in three different models of fire service delivery offers me a somewhat unique perspective. The more I learn about the different ways of serving citizens the more I realize that John Salka was correct when he said “Same circus, different clowns.” I have noticed is although the patch on the uniform may be different, the issues are very similar. We, as firefighters and departments, are more alike then we will ever be different. We contend with the same level of resistance to unexplained change. We encounter the ‘haters,’ guys that are unhappy for any and all reasons. We stand in awe of our co-workers who seem to have boundless energy and passion for the job. We have those who want to take those go-getters out at the knees for continually raising the bar. We disagree with certain promotions and know bitter candidates who were passed over. We have been disenchanted by ill-equipped managers and we have been inspired by solid leaders. We have been poor followers and we have been loyal supporters. We know those who were born to do this job and those we know that should be doing any other job. We are held together by a core group of informal leaders who can lead from anywhere. We juggle the challenges and feel the stress of having to do more with less, and often for less. We are all on the same team. We are all a part of the same group of professionals who put the needs of others first, whether you get paid in money or satisfaction. We are all truly privileged to be able to call ourselves firefighters.

It is easy to get drawn into negativity and complacency on your shift, at your station or at your department.  It is simple to say “we don’t need to train today” or “the trucks only need to be washed from the stripe down” or the catchall phrase “that’s probably good enough." Cheeseburgers and milkshakes are tasty while treadmills are sweaty and weights heavy. Every fire department has rock stars, mutts and those somewhere in between.

The people who complain occupy every department in the country. I am thoroughly embarrassed to admit that I have stumbled into being a complainer at times. When things didn’t go the way I thought they should, I have voiced my frustration. When the new guy seemed like he was trained by a character in the cartoon Fireman Sam instead of by someone qualified, I have complained. When we had a long shift with no calls, I have bitched. When we had a crazy, no-time-to-eat-busy shift, I whined. When the shift before mine didn’t wash or fuel the truck, I lambasted my brothers behind their back.  I have even complained about how much others complain. How lame is that? I realize that my gripes sound as whiny and petty as when others complain to me about the greatest job in the world. I despise the fact that I have at times sullied this great opportunity by grumbling about things that given time, distance and shielding prove not a big deal. There are times I have become disoriented to the privilege of being a firefighter. I regret using a deck gun of complaints trying to solve a pump can of a problem.

By taking a minute to conduct a personal 360 once in awhile, I am able to read the volume, velocity, density and color of the smoke pushing from my ears and remember that I can control the flow path from my brain to my mouth. 

Now, before we shift to a defensive attack with this blog I want to make something very clear. I will never be comfortable with sheep-like acquiescence. There are only a few spots below a chronic complainer on my personal totem pole of firehouse punks. The very lowest is the 'yes' man. A 'yes' man is a bobble head who has no critical thinking skills or imagination and agrees with anything his puppet-master does or says. There are still times when issues need airing out and the proverbial chips need to be put on the table. Conflicting opinions offer a chance for productive discussions. Honesty is necessary for real progress and effective change. We still must be prepared for an aggressive interior attack of our real problems by bringing a steady supply of solutions to mitigate the hazard. But we also must remember to cool the complaining as we go because the flashover to negativity happens fast and without much warning.

At times, we all need to challenge ourselves to get reacquainted with the privilege of being a firefighter. This means less complaining; more creating solutions. This means less cannibalizing other firefighters for their weaknesses and more offers of coaching and instruction. This means more training and less dodging. This means fixing something if it is broken. This means cleaning something if it’s dirty. This means appreciating that people rely on you for help, regardless of the time of day or their chief complaint. This means enjoying time at the station, on the training ground, and time spent with your brothers and sisters. This means honoring tradition without impeding progress. This challenge should begin anew each shift and ends only after retirement. Remember your interview, rescue your more eager self, control the unidirectional exhaust from your mouth and embrace the PRIVILEGE of being a firefighter.

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Comment by Shea Chwialkowski on July 15, 2014 at 10:10am
Chris, that is a great perspective. It seems for too long and for too many departments the go-getters have to endure the ire of the disengaged. My hope is that those roles will be reversed and the minimalists will begin to be called on the carpet and be pressured to raise their bar. High performance and hyper-engagement should be the goal for all to strive for, not targets of opportunity for the uninspired.
Comment by Christopher Huston on July 15, 2014 at 7:28am

Shea, after some thought about this line "We have those who want to take those go-getters out at the knees for continually raising the bar" I have this comment, those who continually raise the bar, do it so these people can walk right underneath it on their way out the door. The complainers, the haters, and the unmotivated are deflectors. They are the "it’s not me it’s you" type; they point out fault to deflect their own inadequacies. The problem is themselves, not those who work hard and show pride in everything they do. Keep it up!

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