The Other Side of the (Fire Service) Tracks

Issue 8 and Volume 12.

Dear Nozzlehead,

I’m a member of a small, rural, volunteer fire department and have been with this department for about three and a half years. First, let me say that I’m not the most popular person in our county, mainly because of my direct approach to telling others how I feel about their so-called firefighting tactics.

I have almost 40 years of experience in the fire service and joined this department to help it in its training program, which was nonexistent; assist in securing grant funding; and just an overall “If you need the assistance, then here I am” type of deal. This department has been in operation for 42 years, and there are still some members who think that I’m being pushy when it comes to safety and trying to get them to understand that this is not 1975 in the way that they go about their responses and how they maintain the equipment.

They don’t wear their gear, don’t understand how to properly attack a fire, and have no clue about friction loss or anything but refuse to try and learn. The main ones that I have a problem with are some of the chief officers. They cannot seem to understand why we have to fill out reports correctly or train more than one hour per month, etc.

I feel that they just want to be a “good old boys’ organization” and not take their responsibilities seriously. When we have an incident, we have a paid department that provides mutual aid to us, but when its members arrive, our chief believes that we should just turn it over to them because they are paid to do the job. What can I do or how do I go about trying to get them to improve everything about the department without getting run off in the process?

– Disgusted

Dear Disgusted Outsider,

One of my favorite sayings is that once you’ve seen one fire department … you have seen only ONE fire department. And that’s a fact. There are many places in North America where you can stand on the border of two different fire service areas and find very different ways of conducting business.

In some towns of 50,000 people, they are protected by fully staffed, on-duty firefighters who are regularly well trained and well led. Right next door in a different city you can find the complete opposite: poor staffing with firefighter training being as common as the 4th of July – an annual event.

In another town, this one of 125,000 people, you can find firefighters studying for promotions and then, once passing, having to go to officers’ school for months prior to even thinking about riding the front seat ….

And again, in a neighboring town of a similar population, you take a written test and jump right in the front seat – no training on the requirements of a company officer. Command, company operations, leadership, personnel – Nada.

Leadership. Apparatus. Funding. Services. Water supply.

Nozzles. Bunker gear. Radio systems. Ladder types. Staffing. Policies. No policies. Initial and ongoing training … NAME IT and you will find it different from one department to the next.

Is it right? Wrong? Depends.

It SHOULD depend on what the community being served is willing to fund. It should be based on risk assessment and risks protected and life safety issues in any particular area.

Should be.

Unfortunately, departments in some cases do what they think is best for the public but maybe what’s best for them. What THEY want. What THEY like. What makes THEM most comfortable. They are kidding themselves and the people they serve – and in many cases placing their firefighters in extreme and predictable risk.

When we speak with fire service old-timers or read the history books, almost every fire department and fire company was formed to take care of neighbors; it was about what was best for THEM in THEIR time of need. Unfortunately, some departments have lost their way.

I visit some volunteer departments that are well staffed, well trained, turn out quick (some members even pull in-house duty crews to save response time), and are focused on the current needs of the community they serve. They have evolved into what is needed by their changing community … not always what the firefighters and chiefs “like” or are comfortable with.

I visit other volunteer departments that are poorly staffed, and they may or may not get out on a run. The tones are sounded over and over … the sirens blow over and over … and sometimes NO ONE shows up.

But We Are Just Volunteers.

Bull. Take your heads out of the sand. You are a fire department and have a responsibility to meet the needs of a changing community based on what that community can afford. It’s a RELATIONSHIP between the fire department and the community.

Career fire departments are not exempt either. Some are focused on changing needs and some continue to conduct, or not conduct, business based on what they may or may not like.

For example, I was recently in a city with a fully career department (three stations) that DOES NOT respond on EMS runs. “We do fire ONLY,” they proudly stated. They do about a fire ONLY once a month. Phew … a feverish pace of activity.

But what about that person choking three houses down from any of their firehouses? The firefighters hiding behind those doors have NO idea and are not dispatched. Prepare to choke to death. They don’t want to go on EMS runs. Clearly the tail is wagging the dog in that town.

Career, combination, call, or volunteer department makes no difference. What matters is the use of a simple template that helps determine the answer to two questions:

  1. Is it good for the public?
  2. Are we able to do it? (What are the genuine obstacles?)

It really IS that simple.

In your case, the department you joined is clearly not like that other fire department that you were used to. Get used to it. After all, you did tell them you would help if needed. Unfortunately, their interpretation of your generous offer is that they will determine if they need help – not you.

I certainly understand that you are not the most popular person; you’re hardly alone. There are many good folks out there trying to initiate change against a very tough audience. Keep trying. Never give up. It is not 1975, and the group you are facing is worrying about what is best for them vs. those they serve.

They don’t wear gear? Why not? At the very least, maybe you can convince them that it’s “fun” to dress up as firefighters; maybe that will do the trick. Maybe a burn unit visit or some articles about firefighters who were burned might help up the ante. Maybe talking to the REAL old-timers would help, as they may remember how hard it was to even get gear, back in the day.

Fire attack? Water on the fire. But they can’t go in if they aren’t wearing gear – not because there is a policy but because without personal protective equipment they cannot go in. So maybe ask them what they would want done if it was their house on fire or their family members inside. Maybe share articles with the chiefs about how chiefs can be held morally and legally responsible. Maybe that will help. Maybe they are just morons … but let’s keep going.

Maybe you don’t do any of this. Maybe you are one of those types who are better off NOT being the messenger. Maybe someone else talks to them. Maybe a neighboring chief. Or maybe you copy articles and just leave them for them to read. Maybe you and your bubbly personality are the problem – not that you are a bad person, but they may not like this “outsider” with all these years of experience and training telling them what to do. Maybe you are intimidating. Maybe.

Of course, it’s a “good old boys’ organization” because that’s the easiest for them, and it’s what they want. They hope that if they ignore the changing world around them, all will be fine. After all, what could go wrong? Maybe they wanna be so called dumb and happy without having to make all these changes. Statistically, they may be right: Nothing may ever go wrong.

On the other hand, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Firefighter Fatality Investigation Program is filled with reports about departments that chose to not move forward with meeting the needs of their community – and their firefighters. The risk is not worth ignoring.

Your chiefs may like turning the fire over to your neighboring career firefighters, and those firefighters may like that as well – until something goes wrong. Who owns it? Who’s responsible? Trust me, the love between your chief and the mutual-aid firefighters will end like a really bad date when something happens to them on one of your chief’s scenes. History has proven it.

Let’s make a deal, Monty. You have the choices of the following doors:

Door #1: Continue to educate them your way, which isn’t working very well, as they may run you off.

Door #2: Educate them covertly and slowly by using other “message carriers,” who they may like better than you, to help improve the department. It will take patience and you will get no credit whatsoever, but it probably creates the best environment for the department to improve.

Door #3: Resign and make it not your problem.

Guess what? Door #2 is the grand prize. Yay, you win. Door #1 isn’t working and Door #3 addresses your personal needs vs. your service to the community.

Often, we see firefighters “quit” (especially in volunteer and call scenarios) because they don’t like this or they don’t like that. Once again, we focus on ourselves vs. what is best for the community. Stick to your guns, but have your message delivered through a different means. Walk softly and carry a big nozzle. Sorry.