The Firehouse Meal: Where the Learning Continues

BY STEVE MILLS

One of the many benefits of being a firefighter is the opportunity to sit down each shift and enjoy a meal, albeit occasionally cold and sometimes unfinished, with the people with whom we work. Throughout the history of the fire service, mealtime has been, and remains today, an opportunity to communicate, educate, socialize, and share experiences. Mealtime for most people suggests dinner shared with immediate family members who exchange summaries of their respective day’s events. In this instance, many envision brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and even grandparents and grandchildren. However, we in the fire service typically consider the brothers and sisters with whom we serve side by side, day in and day out, as our family as well.

“FAMILY” BENEFITS

Whatever benefits members of a traditional family can gain from a shared mealtime experience can also be applied to firefighting teams. “Family mealtimes are a crossroads of both people and an interactional process. They are on occasion a fairly unique occasion in some families of family member engagement around at least a partly shared agenda,”1 observe Larsen, Branscomb, & Wiley, who have edited a compilation of writings on mealtime and its impact by a variety of researchers in the fields of anthropology, psychology, and education.

The role of a traditional mealtime experience is important to the fire service, because it enables members to gather in familiar and sometimes historic surroundings to share their experience and knowledge; become familiar with each other, which is essential for team cohesion and effectiveness; and decompress from the related stresses of the profession.

CONTINUITY AND PRIDE

A fire station kitchen invites those stepping into it to observe the department’s or company’s historical transformation and the key events that shaped its identity. It is relatively easy for firefighters to share experiences and knowledge while preparing the meal and during mealtime, because the firehouse kitchen often reflects firefighting nostalgia. Firefighters take pride in their profession, and this pride is meticulously preserved so that events, practices, and—most of all—people are not forgotten.

The firehouse kitchen provides an ideal setting for generations to pass on learning experiences and historical facts, because it is often filled with company, station, and departmental logos and memorabilia. In addition, on the walls is usually an array of photos depicting current and past members posing in a spirit of camaraderie as well as members performing the tasks of their trade.

HOSPITALITY CENTER

The kitchen also serves as the hospitality or reception center for invited and unexpected guests. Whether a brother or sister firefighter is specifically invited to a prearranged dinner, such as a meal for a retiring or promoted member, or arrives unexpectedly, we assume the role of host. In either circumstance, the kitchen brings members and guests together and provides for all a window into each other’s customs, procedures, and beliefs.

GENERATIONAL GAPS

Firehouse mealtime is crucial for meshing generations of firefighters—baby boomers and generation Xers, for example—into a single team with shared goals and objectives. Anthropologists Ochs and Shohet relate how mealtimes form bonds within a family state: “Meals are cultural sites where members of different generations and genders come to learn, reinforce, undermine, or transform each other’s ways of acting, thinking, and feeling.”2

RECOGNIZING TALENTS

The structured routine of fire station duties that include roll call, equipment checks, training, inspections and preplanning, and responding often leaves little time for members to examine in detail the many attributes of their fellow firefighters. The gathering of shift personnel in a firehouse during mealtime, usually informally and often without a preset agenda, enables firefighters to explore the diversity among firefighters in the areas of skills, education, and other talents.

During mealtime, exchanges among firefighters are casual and flow freely; the conversation shifts from person to person and subject to subject. The flow of conversation helps the diners to identify each other’s characteristics and talents and skills. With this information, team members can draw on them when their team needs these attributes, skills, and talents.

INTEGRATES NEW MEMBERS

Firehouse mealtime provides an opportunity for newly inducted firefighters to observe the atmosphere and the interactions of the crew to which they have been assigned. They become aware of members’ personalities and their expectations and also of the routines and norms of the group. Mealtime interaction also helps to ebb the anxiety that accompanies new members as they strive to perform and not make mistakes, all the while under the watchful eyes of the crew. This anxiety is often compounded if the new member is replacing a firefighter who was well-liked or a solid performer.

The interaction at mealtime also helps the new firefighter to develop insight into which members of the crew would make good mentors. Mealtime fosters the opportunity for new firefighters and experienced members to develop a relationship in which the probationary firefighter receives guidance and support from the veteran.

Overall, the firehouse meal enables new personnel to transition into the group. As occurs within families, explain Larson, Branscomb, & Wiley: “Evidence suggests that family mealtimes are an opportunity for families to engage children in cultural activities and meanings and, in so doing, help them become socialized as members of that culture.”(1) Probationary firefighters, of course, are grown adults. However, they are in the “infancy” of their careers, and the firehouse meal is a vehicle for their becoming integrated into the fire service culture.

BUILDS TEAM SPIRIT AND RELATIONSHIPS

Another crucial benefit of the fire station mealtime ritual is that it helps firefighting crews to know each other better. The potential devastation that a lack of familiarity can have on a firefighting crew is described in Norman McLean’s Young Men and Fire.3 In it, he relates how a lack of familiarity among the 13 men killed fighting the Mann Gulch fire that occurred in Montana in 1949 may have contributed to their deaths. The Forest Service, McLean says, was aware of the danger present when men who depended on each other were not familiar with each another. In an effort to produce familiarity among crews following the Mann Gulch incident, McLean explains, the Forest Service instituted a three-week training session at the beginning of each fire season so crews could develop this familiarity.

In another example of how familiarity impacts the effectiveness and survival of teams, the National Transportation Safety Board observed about the airline carrier industry: “Seventy-three percent of airline mishaps occurred on the first day the captain and the first officer were together, and 44 percent occurred on their first flight.”4

All in all, mealtimes in the fire station “constitute universal occasions for members not only to engage in the activities of feeding and eating but also to forge relationships.” (2) Members form emotional bonds and personal relationships and, ultimately, commitment to the group. Group cohesion builds as team members become familiar with each other, and the group becomes more effective.

DESTRESSOR

When sharing a meal in the firehouse, firefighters often unwind from the day’s/job’s stresses. The mealtime ritual is a break in the activities of a firefighter’s daily routine. This planned interruption of otherwise nonemergent activities during a shift enables firefighters to decompress on a routine basis in a setting where they are surrounded by familiar faces. We firefighters regularly confront tragedy that exposes us to the sights, sounds, and smells of incidents and accidents. What we experience in many cases is often a far cry from the prescreened and edited versions seen on the 11 o’clock news. Human suffering, whether from a single event or multiple events that span a period of time, carries with it stress that eventually impacts all responders to some extent.

We conduct our business anywhere and everywhere we are called and, as is often the case, in relatively unfamiliar surroundings, interacting with unfamiliar people. Mealtime in the firehouse provides a short respite from job stresses that firefighters can plan for morning, noon, and night. It becomes a familiar and dependable part of the day, because we are out of the public’s eye and in the confines of our own house. Mealtime provides a coping arena in which we can share problems, concerns, and even accomplishments, as individuals or as a group, in comforting surroundings with familiar and reliable people.

As stress accumulates over time, mealtime becomes a comfortable and trusting escape where support, free speech, and humor reign. According to Portia Rawles, assistant professor in the Doctor of Psychology program at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia: “It’s clear that a positive social support network at home and at work helps firefighters cope with the stress of their occupation, improving mental and physical health outcomes.”5

Mealtime in and of itself is certainly not a prescribed coping mechanism for stress. However, it does bring coworkers who have similar, if not identical, experiences together in the typically nonthreatening environment of a firehouse, isolated from outsiders, that enables them to more freely pursue whatever support fellow firefighters can offer on their own terms and timeline.

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Firefighting is a profession that is conducive to the development of powerful and long-term relationships among coworkers. Mealtime in the firehouse serves as an opportunity to develop these relationships as the firefighting family gathers together.

References

1. Larson, R.W., K.R. Branscomb, A.R. Wiley (eds.). “Forms and functions of family mealtimes: multidisciplinary perspectives.” In Family Mealtime as a Context of Development and Socialization. (San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 2006).

2. Ochs, E., M. Shohet. “The cultural structuring of mealtime socialization.” In Larson, Branscomb, & Wiley (eds.) In Family Mealtime as a Context of Development and Socialization. (San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 2006).

3. Mclean, N. Young Men and Fire. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

4. Okray, R., & T. Lubnau II. Crew Resource Management for the Fire Service. (Tulsa, Okla.: Pennwell Publishing, 2004.

5. Rawles, P. “Some friendly advice,” Fire Chief, 2004;48(8).

STEVE MILLS is a 14-year veteran of the fire service and a nationally certified fire instructor I. He has an associate’s degree in fire protection and a bachelor’s degree in management and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in education at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York.

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