Fire/Rescue StreetSense ❘ By Kate Dernocoeur
I watched recently as three members of the Lowell (MI) Fire Department were promoted to full firefighter status. They had earned their Firefighter I and II certificates at the fire academy and were done (or nearly so) with their EMT training. While wearing those yellow helmets signifying “I’m still learning,” they had also passed the state emergency driving course, hazmat operations certification, a bunch of FEMA ICS courses, and several in-house competency exams. Naturally, everyone in the department has a full physical/medical exam annually, plus a personal fitness test—all that just to get started as a full-fledged firefighter!
The process can take about two years, but no one gets a black helmet until the rest of the department has seen what grit they have and whether they have the heart for the job. In a job like firefighting, that is as it should be.
Of course, it’s not how it always is. Every department does things its own way, but the differences are hard to appreciate if the only fire department home you have is the only one you ever see. And, for the members of the community you serve, you are the only ones who will show up in their moments of need. Are you and all your colleagues as well-prepared as the three new firefighters in Lowell?
In many firehouses, there’s a banner, maybe above the whiteboard in the training room, that says something like, “Train like your life depends on it—because it does.” After a while, it’s easy to stop seeing that reminder, but it’s true. It’s too easy to become complacent about the things we need to be able and ready to do, unless there’s a communal insistence on not falling into that trap. I think this is especially so for volunteer and low-volume departments because the fact is, you may not need to access the baby delivery kit … until you do. In many smaller communities, every firefighter on the roster must be able and ready to take on all the different roles and do any task at any time, depending on who shows up for the run. You may not actually hook a line up to a hydrant for years if others get into the right seats first. We cannot afford to fumble any of our skills, and yet there are so many we barely ever need to do … and that’s why we train.
We train for three things: our community, our team, and ourselves. The mission is to be as prepared and ready as humanly possible for every possible need that might bubble up in a day or on a shift. Here are some motivational quotes to keep you from losing sight of that goal.
Training for your community: “We don’t train until we get it right. We train until we can’t get it wrong,” Lieutenant Bill Manning of the Kissimmee (FL) Fire Department once said. A much-respected lead instructor for the Central Florida Fire Academy, he died in May 2013 after being struck while riding his motorcycle.
Notice the way Manning’s word choice emphasizes the extra effort that it often takes to be really good at anything. It brought to mind the hours in the fire academy, listening to lectures while tying my rope into different knots behind my back. It left me with an above-average ability to tie and untie knots. I can’t get them wrong. I also never fell asleep in class!
We all want our communities to feel confident that we won’t get it (whatever “it” is) wrong. We need that public trust now more than ever. We cannot afford anything other than a widespread community feeling that your department is top-notch at everything it does.
Training for your team. “Would you want me coming to rescue you?” Assistant Chief David McGrail, longtime veteran of the Denver (CO) Fire Department, once said. A well-known author/educator on fire service topics, McGrail knows the value of looking to your left and to your right and seeing that your colleagues are fit for the same job you’re doing. When you head out to a fire call, are you the person you need to be to climb a ladder with equipment in hand to vent a roof? Roll 800 feet of four-inch hose? Help an injured colleague? My promise to my team was that I’d retire when I no longer felt able to “pull your sorry butts out of a burning building”—even though the chances of having to do that were slim. I kept that promise, because as my Medicare years loomed, it became clear: I wouldn’t want me coming to rescue me. What’s your story?
Training for yourself. “You can never train too much for a job that can kill you,” said Captain Patrick Brown of the Fire Department of New York. He was in the North Tower with the crew of Ladder 3 when it collapsed on 9/11. Although the job indeed killed him, it was not for lack of his own dedication to training. A former Marine who served in Vietnam, he stayed fit for the job because he knew it mattered. In addition to personal physical fitness, every firefighter deserves ongoing personal training not only for strength but also to minimize stress injury, mitigate the effects of harmful exposures to substances (such as the PFAS in bunker gear), and so much more. A commitment to your wellness is a gift you give to yourself and your family.
What was heartwarming about the recent promotions in Lowell was the care the department took to celebrate its newest firefighters. They got a proper promotion, with dress uniforms and a swearing-in oath, and their families were on hand to pin their badges. There were shiny new black helmets to replace the yellow probationary ones and a cake. It marked their passage across the first of many finish lines inherent to our world.
Whether your personnel are going from civvies into probation, probation to full status, into the officer ranks, or on to retirement, each is an inflection point signifying achievement. I know celebration of such events as these is not done in every department, and that’s a shame. Such traditions matter, because they signal a departmental culture that insists on noting every element: the community, the team, and the individual. With such an unrelenting eye for improvement, their training (and celebration of it) is never “done.”
KATE DERNOCOEUR, retired firefighter/EMT, serves as a medical examiner investigator as well as a SARTECH-II with Kent County’s SAR K9 unit in western Michigan. She retired from the Ada (MI) Fire Department in 2019 and was a paramedic for the Denver (CO) Paramedic Division (1979-1986). Her emergency services career began in 1974 with the Vail (CO) Mountain Rescue Group. A journalist and MFA (creative writing), she has written for EMS publications, including JEMS, since 1979, and was a frequent speaker at EMS conferences from 1984-2004. Her book Streetsense: Communication, Safety and Control was released in its 4th edition in 2020. She also coauthored Principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch with Dr. Jeff Clawson, MD (first edition, 1988), among other books. Her blog, “Generally Write,” is at www.katedernocoeur.com.