Fire Commentary: The Culture of the Firehouse

by Lee Look

Max Gilpin, a sophomore lineman on the varsity football team of Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville, Kentucky, collapsed during practice on Aug. 20, 2008. He died three days later at Kosair Children’s Hospital after his body temperature had reached 107 degrees.

I love working for the fire department. A co-worker explained it as eloquently as I’ve ever heard: “Whoever calls us, it’s their worst day. That is the beauty of the job.”

And like everything that seems perfect, it isn’t.

On many occasions in my years in the fire service, I’ve heard many seemingly unexplainable things justified rationalized? as, “Well, that’s the culture of the firehouse.” For a while, I thought I understood what this meant. I thought it meant that when something outlandish takes place, or when someone is treated in a certain way because of the status of his position in the fire department, it’s okay, because in the “culture of the firehouse,” everyone understands that it’s just in fun.

In most situations, it is all in fun. But, I believe that those times are gone. We’re in a different world, and things are changing.

In one of our popular trade magazines, there was an insert that partially read, “provided in support of firefighter safety, health & survival.” The title was, “Shut Up & Train More…& 49 other tips every probie (and all of us) should know.” This was posted on the walls of our offices and was pointed to as a ‘resource” when certain actions were questioned.

Much of what was on this sheet was reasonable and made sense–things like “Check your equipment” and “Never turn your back on a rig that’s backing up.” However, others things on this list struck me as antiquated in this day and age and as a desperate attempt to hold on to the traditions of the past while paying lip service to the trends of the future. Examples include the following:

  • “Watch your temper. Chop-busting is part of firehouse life.” Actually, this is called hazing, and it not only is wrong, but it is also illegal.
  • “After eating (you eat last), be the first to the sink to scrub the pots, pans, and dishes…perfectly.” Nowhere in any of our job descriptions does it dictate who is to clean the dishes. It’s what we all should do, after we all eat. Nobody likes housework; there is nothing inherent in any of us that indicates that we are more suited for cleaning than others. Yet, the job has to be done. From the top to the bottom, all should be involved.

I can hear responses to these complaints in my head: He’s trying to take the fun out of the firehouse. It’s all part of paying dues. He’s just whining. These are the same people who insist that a new firefighter should clean while the veterans sit around and watch television–admittedly, a popular stance.

For a few minutes, let’s assume these “cultures of occupations.” Here’s what could happen. In Louisville, Kentucky, on January 26 of this year, a local high school football coach was arraigned in court and charged with reckless homicide when a player on his team died following a practice. I have no idea if the coach is innocent or guilty, or what circumstances played into the death of this student. What I am relatively sure of is that the “culture of the football team,” according to reports from the practice, played a part in the level of intensity of the practice. The amount of running, the access to water, and the machismo in the face of intense heat and humidity all were influenced by the culture.No doubt, no harm was intended. It was all in fun. Until it’s not.

I’m not advocating lawsuits. Although they may be necessary in certain situations, in many cases they confuse the issues. The point is this: When the publications firefighters read reinforce the stereotypes of the “culture of the firehouse,” it provides a justification for those traditions to endure. Our trade publications endorse innovation in apparatus, equipment, and tactics. Why not pioneer the inevitable reformulation of the “culture of the firehouse?”

Lee Look is a firefighter, EMT, and swiftwater rescue technician for Lyndon Fire & Rescue in Louisville, Kentucky. He serves on the Board of Trustees and as the department grant writer. He also has a PhD in Counseling Psychology. Along with the Community Foundation of Louisville, Lee started and administrates a foundation to assist those with spinal cord injuries (

Subjects: Firefighter culture, firefighting commentary

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