Are You Doing Your Part?
By Rick Lasky
There are those who are into the job and those who are not. Working with those who are into it makes for an incredible experience. Whether it’s on your career department or volunteer company, they make the shift, drill night, or monthly meeting fly by. You’re almost a little sad when it’s over and it’s time to leave. You walk out of the firehouse already thinking about your next shift or the next time that pager goes off for a run. Even those who have time on the job will say it’s the best job in the world. Hey, everybody has a bad day or month, but there is a reason why little kids look up to you. There is a reason why you’re in so many children’s books, the reason they point at the fire engine and not the delivery truck, and the reason there is a whole aisle full of toys at the toy store dedicated to you, the firefighter. To a child, you’re a hero but more importantly a role model. So, the question is, are you doing your part to live up to that image, that reputation ?
One of the greatest experiences you will have in the fire service is when you surround yourself with people who love the job so much you can’t help but admire them. They talk shop; show up early for their shifts, meetings, and drills nights; and get you fired up about being a firefighter without even knowing that they do. It just happens! Their energy is addicting, and it spreads like wildfire, sucking everyone who is willing to love the job just a little into it even more. It is the best job in the world !
Sadly, one of the worst experiences you will have is working with someone who isn’t into the job. It’s just a paycheck to them, just a job, or they’re just there for the T-shirt. You know who they are, the energy suckers. They can suck the positive energy out of the air like a bad case of the flu. You come in to work or show up for that call or drill night, and there they are–miserable, angry at the world, with a bad attitude, and it’s always because of someone else. It’s never their fault. In some cases, it’s a result of something that didn’t go their way. They didn’t get the promotion, someone hurt their feelings, they got in trouble and were disciplined but are mad at the boss and everyone else, forgetting that they were the one who screwed up. During times like these, the best action you can take is to hang with those who are into the job. Again, surround yourself with those with the positive energy and not those who are miserable and trying to drag you down into their darkness. If not, misery loves company and you’ll be in for some hard times. Stay positive and keep those around you the same way. Be one of those whom others want to hang with and work with because you’re into the job.
So, where does it start? It starts with taking pride in what you do, pride in your accomplishments, pride in yourself, pride in knowing you are a firefighter–not the pride associated with arrogance. We’re talking about the pride associated with ownership! In Lewisville, Texas, my daughter’s high school were the “Fighting Farmers.” I used to take care of the softball field, hold practices for the girls, and coach the varsity fall ball team; all over the campus, you would see banners and signs saying, “Farmer Pride.” In an effort to define to our girls what “pride” meant and represented, I used the following description to explain where it all comes from. Coincidentally, it serves as a great definition for the fire service as well.
“So, what is pride? You can’t understand it from the outside looking in, and you can’t explain it from the inside looking out. Pride is a personal commitment. It is an attitude that separates excellence from mediocrity. It is that ingredient which inspires us not to get ahead of others but rather to get ahead of ourselves.”
It’s just that, a personal commitment. There is no such thing as a proud team, only a team that is made up of people who work to achieve excellence in their performance. It never has been about being better than another firehouse, company, or department. It’s about you and what you have to do to be better at what you do. That takes training, education, a positive attitude, and a desire to want to be the best. Hard work, dedication, and commitment pay off. Again, are you doing your part?
It’s a Privilege and an Honor
For those who have been lucky enough and blessed to serve as a firefighter, do they remember that it is a privilege and an honor to do so? That the fire service isn’t for everybody and that not everyone can serve as a firefighter? That it takes someone special, someone with a passion to serve others and make a difference in the community that they protect? Again, not everyone can do it. Some have tried and found out pretty quick that it just wasn’t right for them and moved on. And that’s okay, because some are not cut out to be a firefighter. But for those who are, those who make it, those who understand what the fire service represents, they know that it is a privilege and in their heart know that it’s an honor.
Are You Taking Care of Each Other for Real?
Anyone can have your back at a fire, say they’ll stick with you when it gets bad, and never leave your side. To be honest that’s the easy part. Adrenaline helps with that. There is a phrase one of my mentors used to say years ago: “Why do we have to wait for a good fire for us all to get along?” How true. But, those who are into the job, those who love it, know that there is so much more when it comes to taking care of each other for real.
The fire service has finally gotten to a point where educating firefighters about mental health awareness is a good thing. That it’s okay to not be okay and, most importantly, it’s okay to ask for help and talk to somebody. That doesn’t mean you’re weak; it means you’re human. It’s not normal to see what a firefighter sees. And tie that to all the other pressures that life can bring with relationships, finances, children, parents, and a long list of other contributing factors, and a person can reach a breaking point. You don’t have to have kids to recognize the signs that someone’s child is traveling down the wrong path in life. The friends they keep, their grades plummet, their attitude changes, the clothes they now wear, and there can be a darkness about them.
So, why do we miss it with our own people? The firefighter who was always early for shift or drill night. The uniform was proper and clean and they were into the job. Then, as time passes, they appear disheveled, uniform dirty, late for shift and drill nights all the time. Their attitude changes and they can come off agitated and confrontational or in some cases the opposite and keep to themselves, quiet and separated from everyone else. Where we fail in the fire service when it comes to taking care of each other is many of us no longer pay attention to each other. Other distractions keep us from looking out for each other the way we used to. What do you have to do to tune up and focus on taking care of each other a little better?
The word loyalty for some is one for which they throw around like loose change. For those who are into the job, it means something much, much more. It means being loyal to the people who gave you a chance to serve as a firefighter. Those who gave you a chance. To those you put your right hand up and swore to protect. That the moment you screwed that fire helmet to your head you became a public servant. That it’s not just about the T-shirt or the sticker on your car. That the public has placed their belongings, their businesses and livelihoods, their families, into your hands and are expecting you to do whatever you can to take care of them and protect them from harm. They welcome you into their homes and trust you with those they love the most. It also means being loyal to your fire department, your company, to that patch on your shoulder. That you would never do anything that could tarnish the image of your department and its reputation and to anyone who would, you’d throw them out. Loyalty, honor, duty, and integrity are the tenets that serve as the foundation for those who serve proudly and respectfully.
Do you and the people around you take care of the firehouse as if it were your home? Because it is. It may say “Fire Station” on the marquee outside, but it is a firehouse and our home. A firehouse has served for years as a symbol in a community of what is right and of those who have dedicated themselves to serving and protecting others. It’s not just a building; it’s a rallying point for those who have dedicated their lives to one of selflessness. That being said, each and every member should do whatever they can to ensure that it is clean and a true representation of the mission of their department. Old or new, it doesn’t matter; what does are the people who call it their home and what they do to show the public that they are ready to respond to their needs no matter what they are, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The Apparatus That You Ride On
It’s one thing to be ready for a parade or when it’s time for your Fire Prevention Month open house, but what does your engine, ladder truck, or ambulance look like the rest of the year? Old rigs were new once, new ones will be old sooner or later, but often how they look down the road years later is a direct reflection of the care, pride, and ownership shown by those riding them. We’ve all seen new apparatus that looks like you know what and old ones that have been ridden hard and put away wet, but age has nothing to do with it. There are fire departments with 20- and 30-year-old rigs that look better than some that are a year or two old. When you take pride in what you’re riding on and know what it represents to the community and more importantly how well they are going to perform en route and while at an emergency, then you find it easy to take care of them. And, yes, the appearance on the outside matters, but just as important are the tools and equipment on the inside. It’s the whole package that matters.
That Uniform Represents Something Bigger Than Any One Firefighter
It’s one thing to wear that ball cap or T-shirt away from the firehouse, but what about the respect that you show toward the uniform? Our uniform represents so much more than just a badge or patch. It represents those who went before us, those who worked so hard for the image of the fire service we get to enjoy. It doesn’t matter if you wear a class A, class B, or polo shirt as your department uniform, it is what the public first sees as you approach them. First impressions are big ones, and it’s hard to call yourself a professional when you look like a mess. Be proud of what it represents and wear it with respect. It truly is bigger than any one firefighter. It represent us all.
Your Retirees and Past Members
And while we’re on the topic of respect, what do you do for your retirees and former members? Keep in mind this isn’t a job that once you leave it you never look back; it’s one that many truly miss once they hang up their boots. No disrespect, but I have never seen a factory worker drive by the factory they used to work at and say, “Man, I wish I could go back and work that machine or that press!” I have met very few firefighters who have left the job miserable and glad to be done with it. I feel sorry for those few who do. Don’t get me wrong. When you put in your time as a volunteer or career firefighter and it’s time for you to hang it up, you deserve it and congratulations! You’ve accomplished something that many never do. The question is what do you do to remember and recognize those who served and retired? Do you send them off the right way with a retirement ceremony ? Do you invite them to outings, to lunch at the firehouse or for a cup of coffee, to your banquets, to your ceremonies? When they show up for a ceremony, do you recognize them and make a big deal about it? You should. You’ll be there one day. And one day you’ll miss it too. Guaranteed! “Once a firefighter, always a firefighter.”
Do you have a means for preserving your department’s history? Do you have a history committee that records all apparatus from the newest to oldest to the very first rig your department owned? Do you track the careers of your current members as well as those from the past such as hire dates, promotions, awards, retirements, etc? Interview your past members on camera and have them describe what it was like when they were on the job, about “the big one,” and what it was like way back when. And don’t forget to record your department’s activities, major incidents, newspaper articles, videos, and pictures. Lastly, before you throw something out or send it to auction, remember that it too will be old one day and considered an antique. There are plenty of fire departments who wished they would have held onto a few things that they could proudly display today.
Are You into Training?
Appearance can only go so far. A well-trained firefighter, well-trained fire department is where the rubber meets the road. Do you take training seriously? As a firefighter, it is the very backbone behind how well you perform on the street. As an officer, why would you not want to train your people for a job that could kill them? And perception is reality to some, especially nowadays with social media and the videos and pictures that get posted. Sometimes things happen, but sometimes how well you look in a social media post is a result of how much effort you put into training. This is and always will be a dangerous job no matter how safe your fire department is. The basics are still vital. Stretching a line, forcing a door, throwing a ladder, cutting a hole in a roof, searching a building, and all the other basics still play an incredible role in how well we perform. Firefighters are the jack of all trades and the master of them all! That doesn’t happen by accident. Take every opportunity to train to be better at this job. Stay connected and read something about this job every day. Remember, there are very few “do overs” in firefighting. Train as if your life depends on it, because it does.
This IS the greatest job in the world! Career, volunteer, big or small, it’s the greatest. Treat it that way. Respect it, honor it, love it, and remember what it truly means to be a fire service brother or sister. Because when it’s all said and done and you hang your boots up, it’s over, and I promise you you’ll miss it. What will be your legacy?
RICK LASKY, a 40-year veteran of the fire service, has served in career and volunteer departments and was chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department for 12 years. Most recently, he was interim chief for the Trophy Club (TX) Fire Department. He began his firefighting career on the southwest side of Chicago, following in the footsteps of his father. He received the 1996 ISFSI “Innovator of the Year” award for his part in developing the “Saving Our Own” program. He was the co-lead instructor for the HOT Firefighter Survival program at FDIC for more than 10 years and is a member of the editorial advisory board for Fire Engineering and FDIC International. He is the author of Pride and Ownership-A Firefighters Love of the Job and co-author of Five-Alarm Leadership: from the Firehouse to the Fireground (PennWell Books) and is the co-host for the radio show “The Command Post” heard on Fire Engineering Talk Radio. In 2017, was the recipient of the Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award.