On September 11, 2001, I was a student in the Fire Academy of my local junior college. Having gone through EMT school and passed the state test, I was very excited about learning to be a firefighter. I was excited about the brotherhood. I was excited about the adrenaline rushes. And I was excited to start this new career that I had heard was so much fun.
I was a delivery driver for a local uniform company on that Tuesday morning. Working my normal route, I was trying to find ways to shorten my day so that I could read ahead in my “Essentials of Firefighting” text before class. At 0846, America was changed. The fire service was changed. I was changed. By 1028 that morning, 343 men and women doing their jobs, doing what I wanted to do, were dead.
Three hundred and forty three, three hundred and forty three, three hundred and forty three. That number, that remorseless number. I remember sitting in class that very night wondering if I had chosen the right line of work. I remember specifically thinking, “I knew there would be hard spots with this job, but everyone says it is so fun.” Three hundred forty three dead in less than two hours didn’t sound like my idea of fun.
I am now a lieutenant in a medium-sized department in Texas. A 14 year rookie of the fire service, working on ten years in my current city. Firefighters are still the same. Firefighters are pranksters; firefighters love the brotherhood they are a part of, and if you ask, most will still tell you “being a firefighter is really fun.” I would like to add more substance to that idea.
I have four goals when I go to work every shift. First, make good tactical and procedural decisions. Second, do a good job. Third, learn something. And fourth, make today as good of a day as possible.
We as professionals should spend a majority of our time developing ourselves, our crews, and our departments. If we look at our job’s complex nature, our first goal should be to know as much as we can about it. Knowledge of tools and equipment, knowledge of our department’s apparatus, and an in- depth knowledge of the events that are killing or hurting firefighters is essential. Sometimes we see training as a hurdle that we are made to clear, or a hoop to jump through. If you are a member of a department that has a training program that is “less than engaging”, it is your job, no matter your rank, to find ways to engage your crew.
There are several ways to improve skill and knowledge in your fire crew without seeming like a “drill instructor”. Firefighters are hands-on creatures; use this trait to improve yourself and your crew. A way to do this may be to pick a skill, perform this skill as a crew, and honestly review the performance. You will inevitably find, as you work together, places where certain people are very strong, and places where others are weak. If we find weak places in our crew we can work to fix those weaknesses before they show up at an emergency scene. As an officer, or crew member, you would much rather find out that “Jake”, doesn’t know what “right-hand search “ means in training, rather than in the middle of a RIT activation. Be a good steward of the crew’s time. Nobody wants to train four hours per shift, every shift. You must find a way to balance these “extra” learning periods with everything else that happens around the firehouse.
Another way to stay sharp may be to walk into the kitchen, or club room every now and then with a stack of “trade magazines”. Have everyone pick out and read an article of their choice. When everyone has finished their article, have them explain or teach the rest of the crew about what they read. I have found that doing this type of training accomplishes several things. First, it shows those who may not realize it, that there are some great experiences and learning tools found hidden in the pages of the magazines and web sites. Second, having every member share what they learned makes even the lowest ranking, or newest member, feel empowered. Third, the highest ranking, or oldest members of the crew, will almost always learn something new. Learning new things about our trade can and will make every member want to learn more.
Another learning tool that can be used is internet video. A simple search on YouTube will yield hundreds of results. Try searching things such as “RIT activation” or “firefighter mayday”. Some of the results will be good examples of one way to handle a situation. Other results may scream out to you as an example of what not to do. This method is one of my personal favorites. Watching these videos seems to work well as a teaching or learning aid, no matter your position on the crew. If you are the officer you may simply ask the crew to watch with you. If you happen to be the junior firefighter on the truck, pick a time you know the rest of the crew may “catch you”. Start watching some of these videos, and more likely than not the rest of your crew will end up watching with you. Use these video watching sessions to work out the “what if’s” or the “how do we”.
The knowledge we gain through self study will pay dividends throughout our careers. The trust and confidence in each other gained, by learning as a crew, makes us better off to handle these high risk, low frequency events we respond to. If I were to have to come up with a definition for “firefighter” it would be:
Firefighter- A person, who may be paid or unpaid, that when called upon, will risk LIFE or LIMB to fix your problem.
Being a firefighter is in a person’s soul, it is who we are; it is a calling. When people ask me about it, my response is usually “I don’t want to do anything else for a living” or “it’s the best job in the world”. Is being a firefighter fun? My answer is “Being a well- trained, ever-learning firefighter is fun.” Being a firefighter is also being in an ever changing career. Firefighters must continue to be students of their trade, or risk succumbing to it.
Stay Sharp, Stay Safe
John 15:13 Greater love hath no man than he who will give up his life for a friend.
Firefighters, all too often, may lose their lives protecting the lives of total strangers.