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They are questions that are often asked by both those wishing to be a firefighter and by those trying to understand why someone would be a firefighter: what does it take and why do you do it?

I will often reach back into my past and resurrect some of the mental tools that I used during my time as a firefighter. It is a characteristic that is so ingrained into your being that it is yours’ to be used for the rest of your life. You will react to decision-making in a much different manner to all kinds of emergencies and other critical situations.

One of the most interesting phenomenon-or at least to me-is the actions that are taken by firefighters at that moment when they realize that someone’s life hangs in the balance and the only one who can affect that outcome is the firefighter who is there at that place and time.

In other words: what triggers the response in the firefighter that has them risking their life for another?

I know that it is not because of pension or pay. I don’t believe that a firefighter wants to be a hero. And it certainly isn’t because firefighters believe that it is a safe, stable profession.

I think that this desire to help others-however dangerous-comes from the most basic  part of the firefighter’s anatomy…the heart!

It is a healthy heart; full of sense of duty, honor, bravery, compassion and community. Traditional values for Humankind and service to communities, as described in our fire services’ glorious history, flows through a firefighter’s veins and at any moment will give them the superhuman energy against a supernatural foe.

It is a heart that is strong enough to engage the repeated assaults from strenuous and stressful events. And though outcomes may not lift the heart, but instead, weight it down; the heart will react with extraordinary resilience and will beat even stronger in the many men and women who wear the uniform.

When you think of the heart of a firefighter, can you think of any other profession where generation upon generation has that desire to join the ranks of their moms, dads, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and cousins? In many cases, children will go completely out of their comfort zone to NOT follow in their parents’ footsteps, but from the first, toy fire truck or peddle car and fueled by the stories of their parent; the child of a firefighter wants to be nothing else. It does not have to be thrust or forced upon them. It has become their dream. It is reinforced by the many fire toys, books, trips to the fire station and culminating in a junior firefighter program.

For most jobs; the heart only needs to beat. The employee needs only to show up. If their heart isn’t in it, they can call off, quit or get fired. If a firefighter discovers too late that they don’t have the heart for the job/a love for the job; it can have catastrophic results for the firefighter or his crew members.

No; the heart of a firefighter has to be there from the beginning. Everything else can be “developed”.

What about a brain?  

From an anatomical aspect, a firefighter has to have a brain that is wired to make critical decisions very quickly. The right decisions must be made every time that Life is at risk; be it the life of a victim or the life of the firefighter. Some would argue that this situation presents itself every time the tones drop, but it doesn’t.

Firefighters have the expectation that they are going home at the end of their shift. The many tasks that are taught develop conditioned behavior.

As an example, ventilation can be done by opening windows, cutting a h*** in a roof and using the assistance of a fan. Once it is decided to use either horizontal or vertical ventilation, then it is simply completing the task as we have been repetitiously trained to do.

I use ventilation as an example of a conditioned behavior.

What about instinct? Are their situations where firefighters act instinctively?

Instinct is defined as “a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason”.

So; do we attempt the rescue of trapped victims based upon our conditioned behavior reinforced by our training or is it done instinctively and done in spite of what we have been conditioned to do in that situation?

As firefighters, your reflexes in a situation are the results of conditioned behaviors AND instincts.

A crusty old jake once told me that you can do everything right and get a wrong outcome.

I interpret that to mean that firefighters control what they can control based upon their training.

The only problem that I see is that someone forgot to tell the building that is on fire.

I know this to be true: if we get to a scene and the building on fire is upright with no signs of impending collapse, no mitigating issues and the building has not been searched for victims; a well-trained fire department WILL initiate aggressive tactics to find victims and control the fire hazard.

Firefighters that die in the line of duty need to always be remembered.

Honor them by learning from a tragic incident only after everyone involved has had their time to grieve.

It is THEY who will decide when those discussions commence.


The opinions and views expressed are those of the article’s author, Art Goodrich, also known as ChiefReason. They do not reflect the opinions and views of, Fire Engineering Magazine, PennWell Corporation or any of their subsidiaries. All articles by the author are protected by copyright under The Adventures of Jake and Vinnie© umbrella and cannot be reproduced in any form without explicit permission from the article’s author.

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