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I recently sat down and had coffee with a probationary firefighter to set him up with a training officer and discuss our expectations for the coming year. During this conversation I was hit by a question that’s been haunting my subconscious for years.  I began the meeting by asking our new Probie a few boiler plate questions: “What did you do before you decided to become a firefighter? Any related experience? Do you have family in our profession? Married? Kids?” like that, trying to get a feel for the guy.

 Then I asked him what he thought of our cadet training program. This is a rigorous program that our department, which has elite per capita run numbers, takes a great deal of pride in. To this he gave the usual Spartan responses. “Sir, it was tough but I learned a lot”, and so forth. However, I decided to press this young firefighter for a genuine answer. After significant hesitation he said “Sir, this job isn’t what I thought it would be”. The question that had been nagging me for so many years hit me like a parapet wall collapse: “WHY IS THE REALITY OF “FIREFIGHTING” TODAY SO DIFFERENT THAN THE PERCEPTION?”

Halleluiah! Here’s a guy fresh out of our premier metro fire training academy where we’d had him as captive audience for four months and his initial field experiences were completely different from his expectations. How can this be? He had thought and hoped he would be spending most of his time breaching doors, crawling down smoke charged hallways, rescuing victims, cutting roofs, and cleaning his gear. He was misinformed. The fact is, this job isn’t what most of us had hoped for when we signed up; many of us had the same culture shock when our boots hit the ground.  It’s because we thought this job was something different than it is. We jokingly describe our profession as “Hundreds of years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” This is not a joke, it’s a cautionary tale.

We are at a critical point in the evolution of modern fire services. The rules and conditions that applied to the generations before ours no longer apply.

This has created an identity crisis in our profession which negatively impacts every aspect of our work. 

Evidence of our identity crisis is easily found. Simply ask a few people in the streets to list the services we provide from our fire stations. I challenge you. At best you’ll hear a few vague clichés about bravery, courage and running into burning buildings when others are running out. At worst you’ll hear snarky comments about saving cats, video games, and afternoon naps.  

It’s likely you won’t hear about the elderly lady you pulled from behind her bed after lying alone in her own filth all night, your third response in a single day to the same alcohol saturated bipolar gentlemen who spits on you, or sharing your doughnut with a seven year old lice-infested girl with bruises on her skinny arms.   

These are the kind of situations that now make up the bulk of our workload in most progressive municipal fire departments. So why don’t people know this?

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing you have one.  

We do have a problem and our problem is denial. Our problem is that some of us resist and even resent some of the roles and responsibilities we are now called upon to perform. We want to go backwards instead of forwards.

The irony is that the work we do today requires a deeper tradecraft tool chest and more intestinal fortitude than our forebears could ever have envisioned. We justifiably pay homage to the courage and valor of those who came before us; we envy their more frequent opportunities to test themselves against smoke, flames and uncooperative buildings. Firefighting then was mostly grunt work and you could, to some degree, steel your heart against the destruction and pain and suffering you observed. The older among us look back nostalgically, the younger jealously, to those “simpler times” when fire work was more often and more straightforward.  

That was then. Our work today is anything but straightforward, it requires more technical aptitude, maturity, emotional and mental stamina, discipline, insight, creativity, training and empathy than those “simpler times” required. It requires us to think and yes, to feel.  Our work today exposes us not only to higher levels of physical trauma; it also exposes us to higher levels of contagious disease, environmental disease, and emotional trauma.

We have to be able, in an instant, to doff and don our armor, both literally and figuratively, able to provide tenderness and humanity to a suffering patient and in the next moments unleash disciplined violence on a door breach during a fire quick attack. There is no other profession which requires an individual to execute such extreme transformations of character and presence, often when the stakes are very high. This environment is brutally challenging for the body, the mind and the spirit.

And, of course today we STILL fight fire, but today’s fire is a different animal. The fuels are more volatile and the buildings are more dangerous. These dangers are compounded by the fact that, because of our success in fire prevention, we now fight relatively less fire, so we have relatively less experience fighting these more dangerous fires. This means we are managing substantially MORE fire risk than previous generations.

But now, in addition to managing these riskier fires, we have become front line social workers and health care providers in our streets.  We have been challenged to assume roles and responsibilities that our forebears couldn’t possibly have foreseen. We have adapted to these new roles and responsibilities admirably, and we perform them well, if sometimes begrudgingly. However, we often don’t identify ourselves as practitioners of these new roles and responsibilities or take ownership of them. We resist acknowledging who and what we really are.

This denial affects every facet of our work:

1. It dampens our hiring practices because the archetypal firefighter of the 1970s isn’t necessarily the person we need now. Then we needed infantry. Now we need Special Forces.

2. It stifles our training and professional development when we emphasize the sexy dimensions of firefighting and gloss, omit or even condemn some of our other roles, like EMS, which help to justify and insulate our very existence.

3. It divides our departments into different camps when we don’t recognize that every call for service is not only job security but another chance to be at our best when some other person is having the worst day of their life.  We didn’t swear an oath to pick and choose the duties in which we would excel.

4.  It hurts us negotiating our budgets when our political leadership and their constituents think we sit around polishing chrome and playing ping pong, waiting for “the big one.’’  When WE don’t articulate the superior value and effectiveness of our modern, fire based “all hazards” response systems, our politicians will always choose dollars over sense.

Our denial can expose our departments to greater dangers of reduced staffing, underfunded training, and broken equipment. It can expose our customers to the potential for reduced services and increased response times. Our failure to take pride in, and COMMUNICATE our ever expanding roles in our communities is dangerous and irresponsible. It can threaten our safety and it can threaten public safety.

Dealing with these threats will take courage, discipline and the right attitude. As with all cultural change, there are no single or easy solutions. We need to recruit the right people to this work and we need to provide them competent leadership to ensure they are eager, prepared and equipped for ALL the work we now do. This means our leaders need take pride in and take ownership of ALL the work we do. We need to get out in our communities to tell them the WHOLE STORY about the breadth and depth of the services we now provide. But first, we need to take a good, hard honest look in the mirror and see what our communities have needed us to become.

Yes, this will take courage, discipline and the right attitude. Luckily, in our profession, this is a skill set we already have.

Go strong, stay safe.

BC Jed Hyland, B.U.S

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