By Thomas Warren
I recently allowed myself a reflective moment about my years as a firefighter. I was jogging along on an oceanside walkway one sunny afternoon when I heard a siren. I couldn’t help stopping and watching as a relatively new engine truck and ladder truck drove past responding to an emergency. All the firefighters were in full personal protective equipment and were wearing seat belts and headsets. I suddenly found myself thinking about my early years as a young “fireman” and how exciting and rewarding that time was in my life. As I watched the fire apparatus drive by, I saw myself in those young firefighters aboard those two fire trucks. Their excitement and enthusiasm could light up an entire city block. I briefly reminisced about my early years working alongside some of the most honorable and skilled men I could have had the privilege to have known. Watching the fire trucks go by, I realized that the heritage of the fire past 30 years.
Many of my contemporaries lament that today’s firefighters are victims of technological progress, with courage and firefighting skills more dependent on button pushing and technology than on traditional fireground tactics and bravado. They go on to argue that if the buttons and technology fail, today’s firefighters would not know what to do. One cannot dispute that there have been many advances in firefighting equipment and tactics and that the fire service is a much safer work environment that it was 25 or 30 years ago. The responsibilities and scope of a firefighter’s work have also changed dramatically and expanded well beyond what firefighters did in years past.
Firefighters today are performing medical procedures in the street that only a doctor in a hospital could perform just 10 years ago. The concept of hazmat was not even conceived, and water supply was limited to two 2 ½-inch feeder lines. I clearly remember operating the pump of a 1965 Seagrave pumper with only two gauges, feeling the feeder lines with my hands to detect if the pump was running away from my water supply (the gauges were not always reliable). The use of large-diameter hose, gauges for each discharge color coded with each discharge valve, digital touch pad throttle control, and reliable radio communications at the pump panel have made the fireground safer and more efficient than it was when I was the pump operator on that old Seagrave pumper. Sure, we got the job done, and we were very proud of our work, but working smarter and safer is always the better choice. Doing so does not diminish the commitment and heritage of today’s fire service.
We always hear about the good old days and how the new recruits could never measure up, but if one listens closely to what the old-timers are really talking about, it is the memories of working closely with fellow firefighters under the command of leaders they respected and the pride they felt being part of a noble organization. There have always been (and there always will be) people who will resist change, and the fire service has more that its share. But once a change is made, firefighters will embrace it. In the ladder company where I was once assigned, we used an old Maxim aerial ladder truck. It was a tiller truck that had seen plenty of action over the years.
When the chief informed us that it was to be replaced with a Mack tower ladder like the ones used by the Fire Department of New York, we were very excited, but, as you can guess, there were some who were not happy. They felt that we would not be able to maneuver around the city; the bucket would be obstructed by trees and wires, rendering it useless; and that it would be too difficult to supply with water. Shortly after the tower ladder was placed in service, it was taken out of service for scheduled maintenance/inspection, and we were given our old Maxim ladder truck to use for a couple of days. It was amazing to hear the very firefighters who complained about the arrival of the new tower ladder now complaining about the shortcomings of our beloved old ladder truck. It seems that it is not the change itself that prompts complaints, but it is more about disruption and that which takes us outside of our comfort zone. As this case illustrates, everyone adapted, and the organization moved forward.
Young firefighters today are taking on firefighting challenges that are increasingly more dangerous. The fires today burn hotter. and the smoke is much more toxic than the building fires of 30 years ago. Even with the same older housing stock still in existence, the content within these buildings has dramatically changed the fires themselves. The firefighting experience of today’s firefighters is clearly not as extensive as it was in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but the nature of the fires can be much more devastating to the individual firefighters. Today’s firefighters face communicable diseases, hazmat incidents, high-angle rescues, extrications, violence, poverty, terrorism, marine incidents, and many other incidents to which firefighters seldom responded 30 years ago.
Improvement in the tools and equipment used by today’s firefighters is remarkable. Safety is part of every evolution undertaken, and standard operating procedures provide a uniform approach to incidents. The improvement of tools and equipment has been rapidly producing equipment like thermal imaging cameras, computer-controlled pumps, air-conditioned apparatus, portable radios, and high-tech fabrics for use in our personal protective equipment (to replace the rubber coats and tin helmets). Training at every level is mandatory, and professional development of company and command officers is encouraged in most departments. Firefighters are being certified in many disciplines, and many firefighters are specialists in one or more disciplines. As the expectations placed on the fire service expands, so has the training and equipment.
Back in the firehouses, many things have changed. There are now women, bells have been replaced with tones, rubber boots have given way to leather fire boots, computers are everywhere, the apparatus is safer, and everyone is inside the truck. The one thing that remains constant through all these years is the firefighters themselves. They still want to serve and help people, they still want to be the best at what they do, they still want to be the ones you call when everything is going wrong, and they still have unbridled enthusiasm and excitement for the job they love.
THOMAS N. WARREN has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a certificate in occupational safety and health from Roger Williams University.