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Renewing the Fire Service Tradition Starts with You

I recently attended the IAFC-VCOS Symposium in Clearwater Beach.  It was a tremendous experience filled with great course content, lively discussions and debate about how to move the fire service forward in a unified fashion, and awesome networking with current and future fire service leaders from all across the country.  As you might expect, one of the most talked about topics was the ongoing UL/NIST fire behavior research.  It’s important stuff, to be sure.  In fact, the underlying theme of the symposium, “Taking it to the Streets” focused on effectively communicating the results of these studies as well as eliminating the sometimes fragmented messages we tend to deliver across the American fire service from time to time.

The UL/NIST studies aside, I happen to agree with Clearwater (FL) Operations Chief Ricky Riley’s opinion that along with embracing the new scientific data that we have before us, we also have to get back to teaching the basics and demanding that they be done consistently, efficiently, and effectively.  We need to get back to doing our jobs the right way 100% of the time if we are to improve fireground operations and firefighter safety.  It’s a core value that applies regardless of the fireground tactics we employ at a given fire scene, and we need to take that to the streets too.

As I reflect on my fire service career, I can tell you that things were quite different when I started than they are today.  While I am not old enough to remember the days of horse-drawn fire engines, I do remember a time when we did not have the safety of enclosed cabs, a guarantee of apparatus mounted SCBA, or even bunker pants (you got ¾ boots until a set of pants became available and you earned them).  We did not have the advantage of modern scientific research to help us make potentially life-altering decisions.  We carried steel SCBA cylinders on our backs, (if you had an SCBA at all).  We rode the tailboard or hose bed of the engine, and the ratio of SCBA to firefighters was rarely 1:1.  You had to be quick to get one if you weren’t lucky enough to be riding in a jump seat, and if you did get one, it was usually stored in a case in a compartment.  If you wanted to get work in, you had to be quick and efficient.  You had to know your equipment inside and out, and you always made sure you were properly geared up, because you would pay dearly if you weren’t.

Today, the technological advances in apparatus, equipment, and protective clothing are nothing short of amazing.  And while I am grateful that these advances have put us in a safer place overall, they have also made us lazy.  No longer do we have to compete over equipment.  It’s all there, safely and securely mounted on our apparatus.  We get in (not on), slide a couple straps over our shoulders, and we’re off to the races, so to speak.  Fires are down; protected buildings are becoming the norm.  That’s a good thing from a community safety standpoint, but it’s made us complacent.  We’ve become victims of our own success.  “Back in the day”, we had a healthy respect for fire and what it could do, we appreciated the equipment we had, and we wore it and used it properly.  Today, instead of ramping up our training in the basics to account for less frequent fire activity, some seem to place more emphasis on how we look.  We often assume the best instead of assuming the worst and remaining vigilant and prepared for anything.  It’s downright dangerous, and there’s no tradition in that.   

What’s my point in all this?  If we want to get back our tradition, we have to get back to our roots.  I’m not talking about discarding new advances in science and technology.  I believe the willingness to be open-minded and engage in progressive thinking that helps us do what we do safely is a big part of supporting our tradition.  But my generation of firefighters is evolving into leadership positions.  What we do in the station and on the fireground sets the standard for our younger firefighters.  So, while we embrace emerging technology (some of which is actually stuff we did before we had science to back it up), we must also get back to when we were good at the basics: Gearing up, pulling lines, throwing ladders, and conducting searches – we must get back to being prepared for the reality that bad things happen in our line of work and we’re the ones that are expected to deal with them.    

Then vs. Now

When I was a rookie, I can assure you that if my captain caught me watching TV in the dayroom instead of practicing donning and doffing of turnout gear and SCBA in the engine room, there was hell to pay.  On training nights, we almost ALWAYS included time on the basics, regardless of the topic of the day.  We pulled and packed attack lines, we raised ladders, we competed against each other to see who could gear up and mask up the quickest and do it properly.  We were required to learn our districts: Streets, occupancies, building construction, water supply, and special hazards.  When we weren’t practicing on the streets, our kitchen table discussions consisted of “chalk talks” that challenged each others’ thinking about what we would do in different fireground situations and our knowledge of our districts (not the firehouse drama that seems to take center stage more often than not).  We were taught to think about what obstacles we might have to overcome and to stay prepared to do our jobs proficiently, and we were schooled in the importance of projecting the appropriate image to the public.  And while we strived to educate the public, our eyes remained wide open to the fact that fires happen, regardless of our prevention efforts.  Folks, there’s pride and tradition in that. 

What do I see today?  Today I see our reputation being damaged by firefighters planted in recliners watching TV or playing video games.  I see them standing in front of the engine bay smoking cigarettes instead of engaging in fitness training.  I see firefighters coming off the apparatus with exposed skin, waist straps dangling, and chin straps behind their helmets.  I see equipment that is stowed on apparatus without being serviced and restored for the next run.  Although these people and actions may represent a minority, their impact is powerful.  Frankly, it’s embarrassing.  If you’re in a leadership position in your department (note that I did not say “officer”), and you’re allowing this to happen or acting like this yourself, you need to take a hard look in the mirror and re-evaluate your role and your priorities.  What are you teaching the younger generation about pride, tradition, and public service?   What are you doing to repair the reputation of a profession that is plagued with a minority group that engage in unethical actions, taking advantage of their positions to better themselves?  Do your actions project that it’s “cool” to look and act like that, or are you walking the talk?  If you’re not part of the solution, it’s likely that you’re part of the problem.  It’s embarrassing to those of us that like to think hard work, training, and pride still exist in our profession, and it’s dangerous to us all.

So, how do we get our tradition back?  Here are some things you can do to project the right image:

Take care of our own.  Firefighter health and wellness goes to the very foundation of our profession.  Even before we discuss training and fireground operations, it is vital that we embrace the core value of achieving and maintaining our own fitness for duty.  We work in one of the most physically and mentally demanding professions known to mankind, yet there is no national requirement for medical evaluations, fitness training, or behavioral health.  Until we can change that, it’s up to you.  Become a champion for firefighter health and wellness.  Get a physical, engage in fitness training that is appropriate for the job, and watch out for each other. The effects of what we see and do every day are cumulative as much as they are acute.

Wear your seatbelt.  Not a lot needs to be said about this.  It’s not only the law; it is clearly one of the simplest yet most effective means to reduce the chances of serious injury or death in the event of an accident.  This should be a no-brainer.

Buckle your waist strap on your SCBA.  In case you still haven’t heard, modern SCBA technology is designed to take the weight off your shoulders and transfer it to your hips, thus reducing fatigue.  Our job on the fireground is difficult enough.  Why would you make it even harder?  Leaving your waist strap unbuckled completely defeats the purpose of modern SCBA design.  It also puts you at risk of entanglement in interior operations, and it sets a terrible example for our younger generation of firefighters.

Your chin strap goes under your chin (hence the name).  When we bought our own helmets, you can be sure this was where our chin strap was.  It only takes one time for your helmet to be catapulted across the fire room after a hose stream hits it to change this behavior.  And by the way, your helmet will do a much better job of protecting your skull if it’s covering it.

Snap your snaps, zip your zippers, and close your Velcro.  Wear your turnout gear properly, and clean it if it’s dirty.  What’s the point of technologically advanced turnout gear if you leave your skin exposed or if you expose yourself to the hazards of the job needlessly?

Get off the couch and into the apparatus bay.  Practice your SCBA techniques.  It’s your personal lifeline.  Motivate.  Compete.  So your SCBA is mounted in brackets in the enclosed cab?  Good, but are you practicing your mask up technique?  How much dexterity do you have with your fire gloves on?   If you want to watch TV, go home. 

Throw ladders, pull attack lines, and know your equipment.  Climb the ladders, and charge the lines.  See how long it takes you to get water on the fire.  Know how to use your equipment, and know its capabilities and limitations.  Remember the old saying: The quicker the fire goes out, the safer the situation becomes?  This applies to civilians and firefighters alike.  Fire goes out-problem goes away.  Our profession is a craft.  You must continually practice the basics even as you advance to more complicated or specialized techniques.

Maintain situational awareness, and practice survival skills.  As Chief Gasaway likes to say:  Brave is good, bravado is bad.  Pay attention to what’s going on around you on the fireground and in the station.  Don’t assume that those in charge are always on their game (the number of bugles does not always equate to level of competence).  You are as responsible for your own safety and well being as your commanders are.  If you get into trouble, know how to get out, and know how to help your partner.  If you see something going on that’s unsafe, unproductive, or cancerous to your organization, speak up.  Better yet, find a solution.  Be a positive influence on your own department’s reputation, and you will also promote the fire service on a national level.

Act in an ethical manner at all times.  You’re a public servant.  The fire service doesn’t owe you anything.  You are blessed to be a part of it.  Whether or not you get paid is irrelevant – the job is the same in the eyes of the public.  You are in a position that many of your friends wish they could occupy.  The image you project to the public and the actions you take not only reflect the reputation of your organization, they affect the reputation of the fire service across the country.  Doing the right thing when nobody is looking can’t be overstated.  We’re in the public eye, on their cameras, and in their videos every day.  Act accordingly.

Conclusion

Folks, we need to re-focus on taking care of our most valuable asset:  Our own people.  Everything that we do or that we choose to ignore directly affects our community, our organizations, our co-workers, and even our families in one way or another.  If we are going to re-energize pride and tradition, if we’re going to regain the trust of the people we serve, we need to get back to basics.  We need to be intelligently aggressive.  We need to embrace and infuse new technology and new methods, but we must also emulate professionalism, skill, and pride.  We work in a profession that not only requires intelligence, it demands skill and knowledge that you can demonstrate (not talk about).  In fact, it’s my belief that the skills you possess are usually inversely proportional to the amount of time you spend talking about how “good” you are at firefighting. 

It’s really quite simple:  Learn your craft.  Lead by example.  Project the right image. You can’t expect any more out of your people than what you are willing to invest in them or do yourself.  Remember Ben Franklin’s old adage: Well done is better than well said?  This should be the approach you take every day.  

Dan Kerrigan is a 28-year fire service veteran and an assistant fire marshal/deputy emergency management coordinator and department health and fitness coordinator for the East Whiteland Township Department of Codes and Life Safety in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Kerrigan is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master’s Degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership. He is a PA State Fire Academy Suppression Level Instructor as well as an adjunct professor at Anna Maria College and Immaculata University. Contact Kerrigan at dkerrigan@eastwhiteland.org or follow him on Twitter @dankerrigan2.

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