I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you one of the truths about “the job”. Please understand that these ramblings are my opinion and that of firemen I respect. It is not intended to imply condescension rather; it is intended to pass along some truths I have learned along the way.
With the endless hours of training a question that many new firefighters ask is, “So when does it get to be fun?” The short answer is... never. The demand of your courage and you honor is constant, even when off duty. If this is more than you are willing to bear than now is the time to seek another line of work. Remember, you knocked on our door and this is the price of admission.
The inescapable reality of the matter is that you have chosen a profession that is centered on the mitigation of chaos. Firemen wade through the muck and the mire of human suffering. Our constituents are driven by fear and consequently, no one calls us when they are having a good day.
Does that mean we should not enjoy our work? Of course not. Large companies and captains of industry spend millions of dollars in an effort to make their employees happy because they know that a happy employee is a productive employee. Enjoy your vocation but never loose sight of the reality.
In your career you will experience incredible high moments of achievement and wallow through valleys of utter despair. You will share great laughter as well as indefinable fear with your teammates. And though I have learned that the laughter is very prevalent throughout the day, it is those heart stopping moments of fear that truly bind a team into a company and forge friendships into family.
An old fireman once said that laughter is ok as long as you don’t make having fun the goal of your day. Never forget why the people in your city are paying you to be there... to rescue those souls in peril.
Another old mentor explained that you are called a firefighter when they pin the badge on you after graduating the academy but you become a fireman once you have had your heart broken. His advice to rookies was always, “I’ll call you a fireman when you can tell me what they taste like”. This always left the new firefighter wondering what in the hell the crusty old veteran was talking about. The answer became clear after that first true low water mark of a heartbreaking call and the rookie realized the taste the old veteran was referring to is that of your own tears. With a supportive hand on the shoulder the rookie invariably was indoctrinated with the words, “You may not be the hero you once thought you were but now you are truly a fireman”.
Ours is a business of easing suffering, wiping away tears and reassuring hugs given freely to strangers. It is a lifetime of courage. It is risking everything you have or ever will be for someone you will never know. It is the last place in our world where your word must be your bond; otherwise how else can you place your life into the hands of the men you work with and then ask them to do the same with you.
Trust is a public matter with firefighters that is on display for the whole city to see. Loyalty must be unquestioned.
Nowhere else is there the trust that is given to firemen. And yet we encounter it everywhere. We walk in to the home of a stranger and they thrust their most precious possession, their children, into our arms without question, in the desperate hope that we will make things better. They depend on us to rescue them from the worst, scariest and most dangerous moment of their life. Trust.
Tom Breenen once said that, “ the slap on the shoulder to the nozzle man and, his grunt, is the acceptance of a contract that says, “ if you get hurt brother, its because I’m already dead.”” Loyalty. Trust. Devotion. Courage. These are more than words to firemen.
Another old-timer once told me that being a fireman is not a job or a career; it is a calling. The job of a firefighter is special and the trust that goes along with the badge, the uniform, the helmet, the persona, is spectacular in its preciousness, its uniqueness and it is irreplaceable. Never embarrass the job or let down your teammates. A memorable piece of advice I have taken to heart is, don’t ever be the first guy to say, “It’s too hot”. Stick with your teammates; never leave your company.
My personal advice is, always remember that this is a service-oriented job; never forget that. We serve the needs of others. You may feel like you did a great job but always be mindful that we have arrived after someone has been victimized. This is the very reason it is more appropriate to call our constituents victims and not customers. A customer has not been victimized. A customer is restricted to what they have paid for; a victim is entitled to your best efforts coupled with your compassion and sympathy
Save the jokes, hand slapping and smiles for the station. Out on the street the victim and everyone else is watching you. They have just been raped by fire, victimized by violence or ravaged by an accident or medical situation. No matter how good a service we have provided the victim may not see things the same way, viewing our service as arriving after they have been battered and not in time to prevent the life-changing event. Always be a professional. That is what people expect and it is what other professionals demand.
You must also understand that being called a professional fireman does not denote that you receive wages for your time but rather it implies a level and standard of service delivery. Professional service is always a stipulation you must meet.
Chief Crocker was a fireman in 1900 and his proudest achievement was not being named chief of the F.D.N.Y. but rather in wearing the badge of a simple fireman. He wrote these words that have become the hallmark of real, professional, dedicated and courageous firefighters everywhere.
“I have no ambition in this world but one and that is to be a fireman. The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one but we who know the work which a fireman has to do believe that it is a noble calling.
There is an adage that says that nothing can be destroyed except by fire. We strive to preserve from destruction the wealth of the world, which is the product of the industry of men, necessary for the comfort of both the rich and the poor. We are defenders from fire of the art which has beautified the world; the product of the genius of men and the means of refinement of mankind.
But above all our proudest endeavor is to save lives... the lives of men, the work of God Himself.
Under the impulse of such thoughts, the nobility of the occupation thrills us and stimulates us to deeds of daring, even of the supreme sacrifice.
Such considerations may not strike the average mind, but they are sufficient to fill to the limit our ambition in life and to make us serve the general purpose of human society.
Firemen are going to be killed right along. They know it, every man of them... firefighting is a hazardous occupation; it is dangerous on the face of it, tackling a burning building. The risks are plain...
Consequently, when a man becomes a fireman, his act of bravery has already been accomplished.”
Lastly I leave you with some words I received in my rookie year; words that still ring in my ears. The day you stop caring, the day you think you know it all, the day your compassion has reached and end; that day should be your last day as a fireman. Love the job. If you love it you will protect it and nurture it, always striving to be the very best.
Have Courage while always focusing on the truth found in the words, “I am my brother’s keeper”.