As a young kid growing up in suburban America, I like most of you, developed an unexplainable desire to become a firefighter. The sound of the federal blaring down the street would draw me to the front window every time the local engine company went on a run. Firefighters and firefighting was something that seemed bigger than life! When you stop and think about it, it’s crazy so many of us knew exactly what we wanted to be when we grew up; even before we knew how to count to ten. Like most, my mom and dad would tell themselves, “it’s only a phase, he’ll grow out of it”, but obviously they were wrong. With each year that went by, my love for the fire service only grew as I continued to really learn what it meant to be a firefighter.
In my heart of hearts, I truly believe most people who join the fire service, do so with the initial goal of becoming the best firefighters they possibly can. Probie’s speak so passionately about the life they are entering. How they want to dedicate their entire life to becoming the best firefighters imaginable. They use words like tradition, pride, honor, courage, and integrity. I mean come on, have you ever heard a probie on their first day say, “Yeah it’s kind of cool, I’ll try this job out and see if I like it.” Hell no!!! In the probie, you see a reflection of yourself; exactly how you were the day you were hired. When new members come on this job, it’s a very honest and refreshing experience for all of us. We are reminded of how awesome it felt when all of our hopes and dreams finally came true. With one single phone call from the Chief, or whoever had the honor of welcoming you to the fire service, your life was forever changed from that moment forward. When you stop to think about it, we’re really talking about some pretty powerful stuff.
This leads me to a question that’s been bothering me for quite some time. What is happening to so many of our firefighters passion for the job? What happened to the new firefighter who couldn’t wait to go up to the academy; the firefighter who was so excited to see what company they would first be assigned to; the firefighter who used to get to work an hour early; the firefighter who was so proud to wear the uniform that let everyone know the name of their new family; the firefighter who, besides for the birth of their child, just experienced the greatest thing imaginable, an invitation to join the most elite fraternity on earth?
What is happening to the passion of our firefighters? The firefighter who once had the feeling of “just hitting the lottery”, now feels as though his job is only a job, and the fire service somehow owes him/her something for just showing up. To that I say, “That’s a bunch of crap”. If we choose to tolerate those feelings and attitudes and let them become “the norm”, than that is a huge failure of us as individual firefighters, but more importantly a failure of our beloved service.
I am by no means implying this problem applies to all firefighters, not at all. There are many “passionate firefighters” still out there, currently on the line, working day in and day out on fire departments throughout our great country and throughout the world. We all know who these firefighters are. If you are one of these “passionate firefighters”, then this article is especially meant for you. Even more, than the firefighters who have lost his/her desire for the job. It is the “passionate firefighters” we need to be part of this conversation. It is you who needs to assist in finding an answer. It is you we need to help discover a way to prevent our fellow brothers and sisters from abandoning their job. It is you we need to help find a way to preserve this great brotherhood we call the fire service.
At face value, this simple question seems to be one that would demand a simple answer. However, after embarking on this mission, I have found the answer to be anything but. I have proposed this question of “what is happening to firefighter passion”, to members of many departments, spanning all ranks, from private all the way to Chief of the Department.
The answers I have received, which many times were given as a combination of the following:
“Oh it’s just a generational thing.” These young firefighters coming on the job today aren’t made the same as firefighters of generations past. Millennial’s are lazy, spoiled, selfish, and arrogant. In days past, a young firefighter had to work hard to prove themselves in order to gain the respect of their fellow brothers. Young firefighters today feel as though the fire service owes them something, simply for just showing up and wearing the T-Shirt. In other words, it’s the “me generation”.
“All the true firefighter’s are gone” Throughout the history of the fire service, senior firefighters were just that, senior firefighters. This was the firefighter who had twenty to thirty years on the job. The firefighters who, not only knew their job and took it seriously, but had the experience to back it up. The firefighter who, if you messed up, would be the first to let you know but then would take you under their wing and show you exactly what you did wrong. The firefighters who was the first one up from the breakfast table to start chores and “set the tone of the day”, and the firefighters who never had a problem putting in the extra time to teach a young probie who had a thousand and one questions. Simply put, the firefighters who led by example. It appears that many, not all, veterans in the fire service today are “SINO’s” (Senior In Name Only). They will be the first to tell you how many years they have on the job and they are the senior firefighter of the station, but will refuse to pass along any knowledge or information they have acquired throughout their tenure. If someone has the time on the job, but refuses to step up and lead, than that does not make them the “Senior Firefighter”. It strictly means they were hired before you, period.
“We don’t get as many fires as we used to” Long ago, the fire department was just that, a “fire” department. The bulk of the calls were fires and we happened to cover those “other calls” when needed. Young firefighters would go to the academy with images in their head of a firefighter being Kurt Russell charging through a doorway with a small child in hand, coat open and all. Don’t lie to yourself; if you’re reading this article, you know you’ve seen the movie at least a few times. Young firefighters would go through the process of getting hired, thinking they were going to be at work every night crawling down a smoky hallway; Mattydale in hand. Only soon to find reality is being crouched to the floor at 2:00 am with a blood pressure cuff in hand, for the third time that tour. To be a good firefighter is much more than charging into a burning building and putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. Being a good firefighter means putting your all into every aspect of the job, no matter how big or small. It means checking your truck just as thorough on the third tour as you did on the first. It means taking pride in your training and stretching lines with your crew as you would at a working fire. It means staying up on recent near misses to avoid tragedy striking you and your crew. And yes, it also means treating nice old Mrs. Smith, who fell from her bed again, just as nicely as you would your own grandmother. The members I’ve seen retire with reputations of being great firefighters wasn’t because they knew how to work a hose line, while extremely important, it was due to the great pride they took day in and day out with all aspects of the job.
It’s everyone else’s fault. It’s the Chiefs fault we have this new S.O.P. which contradicts how we’ve been doing it for the past 50 years. It’s the Commissioner’s fault we haven’t had a raise in two years. It’s the alderman’s fault we have to drive this old pumper that’s scene better days. It’s the public’s fault for not understanding what a “true emergency” is. It’s the other shifts fault for not cleaning out the fridge on the last day trick. It’s everyone else’s fault but our own. When a firefighter first comes on the job, they could care less if they are riding in the oldest truck in the city or the one that was just delivered from the factory. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about our livelihoods and our safety, not at all. We need to be champions for ourselves. We need to educate our local politicians as to the safety features of our gear, the benefits of different apparatus, and the importance of proper manpower. If we don’t, no one else will. The problem is that many of us don’t harness our concerns properly. Sitting around the kitchen table complaining day in and day out will never solve anything. As like most of you reading this article, I too, have been sucked into these never ending conversations at the coffee table. The conversations that point out a problem but never actually try to solve it. The conversation that simply turns into a session of whining and complaining, without ever actually trying to solve the issue at hand. Eldridge Cleaver said it best, “If you are not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.
It’s no longer a team effort. The fire service was once where everyone worked together in order to accomplish the mission. Today it seems as though many are out for individual glory. After a fire, members will tell you how great they did flaking out the line and running it up to the seat of the fire. While in the same breath, be sure to inform you of how the other firefighter was fumbling around masking up at the front door. When a young firefighter or lower ranking officer comes up with a great idea, which could serve the betterment of the whole department, it immediately gets shot down. Why? Simply put, the idea didn’t come from someone with more bars on their collar. We are so quick to judge and demean others in an attempt to make ourselves look and feel better as individuals. I’ve heard and scene stories of firefighters and even officers screaming at probie’s on the scene of a fire simply because they were “not doing it right”. I say shame on any senior firefighter and especially any officer, for yelling at a new guy, because the task wasn’t preformed up to their expectations. Last time I checked, a firefighter was a direct reflection of their officer. If the firefighter isn’t performing up to the standard, than it is the officer’s fault for not teaching them the proper way. It is up to the senior firefighter and officers to mentor and encourage fresh young minds in the fire service. We need to build their confidence and ensure they will become great firefighters, not yell and shatter all of their self-esteem. Individual companies and entire department’s are only as good as their weakest link. We need to help improve our weakest link in order to make our company and department successful.
While embarking on this fact-finding mission, other explanations of why firefighters were losing their passion did come up, however, it was these five that were continuously being repeated. With every firefighter I spoke with, this list of five was of real concern, and each member felt these issues had serious contributing factors to the overall problem in some way or another.
When you become a firefighter, everyone tells you, you will never be rich, you will miss many of your kid’s baseball games, and you will have many of sleepless nights. But with those drawbacks, come along a thousand and one reasons why it’s the greatest job in the world. The firefighter who helped provide answers to this question, made me realize the answer is anything but simple. On the contrary, it is one that is extremely complex. My intentions are not to solve this problem with one simple article and wrap it up nicely in a bow; that is not my intention at all. My hope is to start a conversation. This concept of firefighter passion may not be as sexy when compared with topics like firefighter safety and survival, or forcible entry, but it is one, which is essential to the basic survival of our beloved fire service. If we lose the drive and love for our job, then all of the training and educating on strategy and tactics will be futile. I think the old saying, “It’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle” is extremely important to this conversation. If we allow our beloved fire service to become just another job, then we will be failing all of the generations that came before us. We need those who haven’t lost the love for the job, the “passionate firefighters” to help in finding a way of retaining the pride and integrity of our life style and to our fraternity. We must keep our family together.