By Angela Hughes
Searching the term “fireman” will reveal two definitions:
- A person who tends to a furnace or the fire of a steam engine, or
- a firefighter.
Our words carry enormous weight. A word can often impact people for decades; it can provide someone with the courage to press on, to act or behave a certain way, or to create one more reason to give up. The word “fireman” is just a word that, to some members of the fire service community, may be a source of respect and to other members a term of disrespect and discouragement.
As a female officer in a major metropolitan department with more than 20 years of service, I have been called “fireman” more than once. I have sat around the firehouse and in training sessions and listened to conversations that used the word “fireman,” always wanting to correct the speaker to be more inclusive of all firefighters. I didn’t speak up because I had grown up with the term my entire career, and it seemed to fit my constant drive to prove myself. It was really just a word to me, until recently, when I read a blog by a young “fireman” on his learned interpretation of the term. This seasoned, 24-year-old “fireman” believes anyone can be a firefighter by completing basic training. This so-called veteran of the fire service defined a true “fireman” as being “baptized by fire.” He shared in his blog the story of a basement fire where other “fireman” had gotten burned. My first thought was to question his intellect if he measured ones worth in this dangerous profession as having to get burned to be a “fireman.” My second thought was how this was a learned thought process for this 24-year-old firefighter and the culture of the fire service in which he was initiated.
His definition associated with the word “fireman” caused him to act and behave a certain way. I can speak to this because I have experienced a fire, where I—by his measurement—became a true “fireman.” Our stories looked very similar, until this self-proclaimed “fireman” talked about the accomplishment of a dirty helmet and having “black snot” for days. So, my courage to write about this word comes because I am not a “fireman” but a “firefighter” who will not be proud of getting burned, having black snot, or inhaling smoke. The time has come to redefine the word and to make a change.
Can positive change simply start with a word? What should “fireman” mean? After my incident, I redefined what it meant to belong to this honorable and inclusive profession. As firefighters and company officers, we have a responsibility to make positive changes in our profession. We must recognize the importance of all people in the fire service and that words do mean something that often move people to action, as demonstrated by this young blogger. We can no longer accept the use of the noninclusive word “fireman” and push to use the universal term “firefighter.” We need to continue to train, educate, and empower all members of the future generations of the fire service so that they know that a dirty helmet is not a badge of honor and how important it is to wear your self-contained breathing apparatus during overhaul. We must always be students of the fire service and recognize that a “firefighter” is a person who cares about the profession of firefighting operating in a safe, calculated manner.
We do have a lot to learn from those who came before us, but we must also realize that, as our senior firefighters and officers retire, they leave us with both good and bad traditions. Let’s challenge ourselves to identify those traditions that should be stored in our memory and to endorse the positive actions that make our job safer and more inclusive. Maybe, it simply starts with just a word—“firefighter.”
Angela Hughes is a lieutenant with the Baltimore County (MD) Fire Department assigned to Station 10 in Parkville. She is aslo the Eastern Division Trustee for the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services.