Commentary by Mckayla Conner
“Give it a few years, that’ll change.”
I have heard this statement and those like it too many times to count since my start in the fire service. It usually comes after I say how much I love my job, how I love being a part of three departments, and how much the fire service is a part of my life. Here’s me, young, excited, eager, a sponge ready to soak up all there is to know and learn about one of the greatest jobs on earth. More often than not, I’m met with a senior fireman (or sometimes a young one) with a terrible attitude and negativity towards my love of the job.
If I remember correctly, the first time something like that was said to me, I was about a month in to being a career firefighter. Someone had come by the firehouse that was a member of another department. He asked me: “So, how are you liking it?” Of course, I went down a five-minute rabbit hole of how much I love my job. I smiled as I spoke, my face was bright, the words rushed out like white water rapids, and every one of them was filled with passion.
And then he said it
“That will change. In 10 years you will hate it, give it time.”
Why is this the narrative that some senior firemen are presenting to eager, fresh-out-of-the-academy, rookies? Am I really going to hate my job in 10 years? Will my love for the fire service fade away like some say it will? Why are we spreading this negativity? Is it almost unbelievable that there are firemen out there who genuinely love what they do? So many questions, and no answers.
I would have much rather heard this guy say: “Hey, that’s great that you have a love for it, this is amazing thing to be a part of, but that doesn’t mean it will always be easy. It will be taxing on you, some days you won’t be in the mood for it.” See? Much better. A few months ago in a staff meeting, my chief really got fired up for a few seconds about poor attitudes and people speaking negatively of the job. He looked at us and exclaimed: “If you don’t like it here, leave! If you don’t want to do this job, then go! I know plenty of other places are hiring.” The room was silent. Finally, someone said it. Someone with 13 years on the job compared to my mere one year. Finally, someone else understood, and I felt as if I finally was on some sort of common ground with someone like me.
My dad was a fireman for many years, from before I was born to my first year of high school. Respected but goofy, smart, overly qualified, driven but loved the life of a black helmet and being a plain old fireman. And my dad’s last few weeks on the job were during a time that I can remember. I can tell you I have a very vivid memory of those last few shifts and the mornings of them: putting on his duty shirt, packing his bag.
My dad loved the job the day he left, as much as he did the day he started.
Read that again.
My dad, who had seen some of the most terrible things, who worked two jobs to provide for me, who was tired, worn out, overexerted… still loved his job. Since I started, he talked to me about the challenges, the achy knees, bad leadership, and B.S. calls. He makes sure I know that it isn’t always going to be sunshine and rainbows, but he also reminds me about how special it is to be a fireman. To be among some of the bravest men and women in the world, how special a firehouse is, the family you gained along the way that isn’t blood, the laughs, the “grabs”, and the pride.
So why are there still people who utter the words that firefighters like me hate most? “That’ll change.” What is the point they are trying to make with this statement? Are these firemen so stuck in their own mediocrity and complacency that they aren’t making this job the best it can be for them? Are they so unhappy that they can’t just appreciate the fact that they get to do a job that a lot of people would love to be able to do? Being a fireman is a blessing and an honor. It is inspiring to come after those before us who paved the way, moved mountains, and gave the ultimate sacrifice to make the fire service what it is today. Why fill the heads of people who just want to live up to the expectations with negativity?
Why do we ostracize people for wanting to be better? Why are there firemen who put down that rookie who just wants to be the best they can? We have taken an oath to protect property and the environment we are blessed to live in. Many times, younger firefighters like me just want to train, to do a project for the firehouse, or to learn to be a better firefighter. Instead we are met with someone’s smart aleck remark, calling them a “brownnoser.” Is this what fire service culture has amounted to? Ostracizing and making fun of someone for just wanting to be better, to improve station morale, to put up an awesome sign in the bay, to go to the training grounds instead of sitting at the station? Where is this toxicity coming from? I would hope that the person who shows up when I call 911 is someone who uses every opportunity to improve and who genuinely loves their job, not some armchair quarterback who is halfway to retirement and is just showing up for his 24 hours to collect a check.
My chief and I talked about this the other day. He said: “Sometimes people do stuff like that and say those things because when that person is trying to do things to be better, to improve or has an idea, the other guy is mad that it wasn’t their idea. So they shoot it down or belittle that person, and that’s not your fault.”
I’m not a perfect fireman. I have made mistakes. I have had days where I wasn’t on my A-game. But I love my job. Some people are just meant to be here. And I refuse to be sucked into a hole where complacency and mediocrity thrive in the fire service.
Change the narrative. Don’t be that guy. And for some of us…No, it won’t “change.”
Mckayla Conner is a career firefighter in Georgia who is assigned to an engine.