It Only Takes One: The Ego Driven Firefighter
By: Captain Aaron J. Heller
I believe that we in the fire service are truly blessed to live out many a child’s dream. We are still the one profession where people know and understand that our top priority is to help them in their most dire time of need. Collectively we have demonstrated this countless times throughout our storied history and we will continue to write amazing chapters to that in the future. Whether we consider it fortunate or not, firefighters are human with real emotions and a wide variety of thought processes. Now, by no means do I claim to have a formal education in psychology, but in the course of my 30 year career I have had the opportunity to work with and observe hundreds of firefighters. They are driven to be the best in their company or house, the best on the training grounds, the best in the department, and the best in the region. So I ask you, what’s driving them? I have asked myself this very question numerous times throughout my career and I have always hoped I came up with a true and unjaded answer. Are they driven by the desire to do good things and serve their communities? Is it that they feel the need to show how amazing the fire service can be and the tremendous deeds we perform across the globe each day? Is it the drive to possess skills that few will ever comprehend? Are they simply show-offs? Or is it something else?
My guess is that every profession that’s comprised of type “A” personalities can answer yes to all of these questions. We see it in the fire service, law enforcement, the military, and throughout the athletic communities, but there is also a darker side to our drive as well. We don’t speak of it, not at the firehouse kitchen table, on the rig, the drill ground, or the fire scene. We may never even say it out loud, but deep in the recesses of our minds we know that there are times where each and every one of us is or has been the dreaded Ego-Driven Firefighter. Let me clarify before anyone gets defensive and says “no way, I’m not that guy or girl”. There are many times that I feel a little bit of ego is not only good, but needed. Webster’s Dictionary defines ego as “1. The self; the individual as self , 2. egotism; conceit” (3rd college ed., p. 434). In the fire service we stress the need for teamwork and the need to fit into our para-military organization, yet don’t we look for self-motivated, highly-skilled individuals with a can-do attitude? Of course we do and these folks by definition bring with them an ego. Most all of us do, but the difference between the firefighter or officer who is an asset to our operation versus the one who is a liability is the ability to harness that ego and not let it dictate our actions. In my fantasy draft of fire companies, I am looking for the individual who is capable of learning, can develop within the framework of our system, add depth to our company, and show confidence in their ability to make us better. This person brings with them that confidence and maybe even a bit of swagger, but not the conceit most of us are turned off by. Many of these firefighters are admired because even though they know they are good at what they do their actions don’t belittle others and they strive for success of the organization, knowing that their own success will be tied to their departments’.
But what happens when a member’s goals are far more personal? Over the years I’ve witnessed plenty of firefighters who were so busy pounding their chest or patting themselves on the back that they not only alienated the rest of their crew, they completely lost sight of the big picture. If his isn’t nipped in the bud early on, it may be what derails a potentially great firefighting career. An inflated ego has caused more than one firefighter to endanger himself and his crew, causing injury and even fatalities to firefighters and civilians. Yes, this may be one of our dirty little secrets in the fire service.
For example, it seems the battle lines are being drawn in the debate involving the latest scientific studies regarding fire attack. Those who have read the UL and NIST documents without prejudice see that the research is important and their findings can aid the fire service as we go forward, but it doesn’t necessarily change what was known or surmised by experienced firefighters for many years. However, those who interpret the findings to back up their own agendas are subliminally using ego against those they disagree with. Many prominent firefighters, officers, and instructors across the nation come under fire daily by those out to make a name for themselves on the teaching or speaking circuit by claiming that ego and false bravado are causing firefighters to place themselves and others in harm’s way.
In some rare instances this may be true, but I see it quite differently. You see, I believe that educated, experienced, focused and aggressive firefighters are still and always will be the backbone of the fire service. The term aggressive doesn’t mean we send or lead our firefighters on Kamikaze missions where they are risking everything for little gain. It means that calculated risks are taken based on the knowledge, experience, and faith in our training and abilities in an effort to save lives and protect property as we swore to do on day one. To me it means that competent company officers with the nerve and ability to make tough decisions put their people in the right positions to get the job done and yes, with the goal that everyone goes home, a term coined by the Fraternal Order of Leatherhead Society many years before it became the popular slogan it is today.
Remember, ego can drive many people to do many things, yet when harnessed and combined with a solid fire service foundation and the desire to be part of the team, it can also save the lives of firefighters and the citizens who rely on us.
Since I wrote this article I have seen some firefighters face extreme personal turmoil. Some made bad personal choices along with poorly thought-out decisions. These caused me to re-examine all of my summations here and in life in general. Through this reflection, I have to add a thought on ego. I still believe that it is a necessary trait of a firefighter and my conclusions remain unchanged, but where it must end is what awoke my senses. Ego and arrogance has to be left at the firehouse, in your gear or locker at the end of the shift. If you do not do this and instead carry it home or throughout the rest of your personal life, you set yourself up for grave danger in your decision making process. The advice from this older veteran is simple, check your ego at the gear locker, go out into the world a more humble person and serve your families and God in the same manner you have sworn to serve the public when you pinned your badge on that freshly pressed uniform.
Neufeldt, V. (1988). Webster's New World dictionary of American English (3rd college ed., p. 434). New York: Webster's New World
Aaron Heller began his fire service career in 1984. He is a captain in charge of training for the Hamilton Twp. NJ Fire District #9 where he has served since 1990. Capt. Heller is a NJ Level 2 instructor, fire official, and EMT. He is a past chief of the New Egypt Volunteer Fire Company. Heller is a senior instructor with the Mercer County Fire Academy under the auspices of the Mercer County Community College. Capt. Heller instructs and has been the keynote presenter at several national, regional, and local training events throughout the United States and abroad. Captain Heller’s writings have been published in Fire Engineering Magazine, Fire & Rescue Magazine, The Fire Department Training Network, and several local publications. Aaron is a founding member of the Jersey F.O.O.L.S. He is the owner of On Scene Training Associates, LLC.