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While attending a recent training seminar the presenter, a well respected, seasoned veteran of the fire service made a statement that I seem to hear a lot lately, “the fire service sure has changed from when I first started thirty years go! Where has all the brotherhood and pride gone”.  Now, many are quick to blame the “newer generations” of firefighter’s, but talk with any retired firefighter and they’ll tell you that “these new generation of firefighters” have been “ruining” the fire service for as long as there’s been one. Maybe, there is a larger issue at hand.

There are many reactions and answers to this hypothesis but let’s just look at one key factor that I feel is often overlooked. Where have all the tradesmen and women gone? The fire service began as a job that no one wanted; in fact it usually fell to immigrants who couldn’t find work anywhere else. This is where the rich Irish heritage of the fire service comes from. The fire service has grown quite a bit from being the job no one wanted to being “the best job in the world”. But have we grown too far? Firefighting, up until relatively recently, say the last ten to fifteen years, has always been as blue collar of a job as they come. There was less concern about uniforms and appearance and more concern over performing the job and performing it well. Firefighter’s where a “down and dirty” bunch who could fix anything. They were jacks of all trades who could be counted on to get their hands dirty and fix the problem. Have we grown too far? Are we too focused on being a Profession and not being a Trade?

Do not confuse “being professional” with “a profession”. Being professional is a must, and always has been. Being professional means treating people with respect and providing them with the highest quality service possible. A profession on the other hand is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification”. The example they give is a professor or teacher. This is typically a position that requires advanced education such as bachelor’s, master’s, or even doctorate degrees to learn the required skills of the position, and which upon completing the education, you can usually perform the job. Another dictionary defines it as “a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation”. Surely, there is no fire academy that can teach everything required to be a firefighter. Most skills are learned “on the job” but have we forgotten that? Have we become too focused on being a profession rather than a skilled trade?

On the other hand, skilled trades have been around for a long time and are typically someone who works with their hands and learns the skills of the trade on the job through an apprenticeship program. Webster’s defines a trade as, “an occupation requiring manual or mechanical skill: a craft”. A craft is defined as, “a job or activity that requires special skill; an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill; the members of a trade or trade association”.

Doesn’t this sound more like firefighting? Is firefighting not a craft or trade that is learned through experience and performing the job? Have we lost our pride, traditions, and brotherhood because we’ve forgotten to be proud of the work we do or have we settled for being mediocre? Let’s take a closer look.

Unlike a profession, where everything needed to know about the job is taught in an academic setting, a skilled trade is learned on the job, in steps. Someone who wants to learn a skilled trade, such as someone who wants to be an electrician, will attend a vocational school to learn the basics (our fire academy). Once completed, they become an apprentice, working under a much more experienced tradesman or woman, much like our probies or rookies who are assigned to a field training officer (FTO) or mentored in the station after completing the fire academy. Here they receive on the job training and mentoring under someone who has mastered the craft.

Once their apprenticeship is completed and they demonstrated they have the basic knowledge and skills to work independently they become a Journeyman or woman. This means they are “fully educated in the trade or craft but not yet a master of the craft”. For us, this is the released firefighter, cleared off probation and able to perform as a member of the crew but still learning. They are still gaining experience and growing. Learning to drive apparatus or moving from the engine to ladder company. Finally, after years of experience of going to fires and other calls, and driving apparatus we become considered as “the Senior man” in the firehouse. This is the firefighter who has been around the longest and has the most experience that has proven themselves more than once. They are the “go to” firefighter in the station. In terms of the skilled trades, this person is known as a Master Craftsman or women. This is someone who has proven their work to their superiors to earn the title of Master Craftsman.

Which category does firefighting fall into for you? Does firefighting and our organizational structure not fit more neatly into that of a trade or craft? Have we become embarrassed to be called a skilled trade? Are we not proud of our craft? Many will immediately shout “NO”, but I beg to differ. If we are still proud of our craft and our work then why are firefighters consistently on the news because they did not do the right thing? Why are there firefighter’s who can barely pull a hoseline and don’t care? Why are there firefighters still getting killed and injured in the same ways? How come as the construction trades grow with new ways to build buildings, do we have more and more firefighter’s who do not know the difference between a philips and a flat head screw driver? Many departments no longer give credit for experience and years on the job in promotional processes yet they give up to fifteen points for college degrees! Have we allowed ourselves to become too white collar for our blue collar profession?

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