What’s in Your “Bag of Tricks”?

By Tom Sutkus                                                       

Wouldn’t it be nice to have an answer for every possible problem that we might run into? I know that most of us already have someone in our firehouse who thinks they already have all the answers. But, wouldn’t it be nice to have a “bag of tricks” that contained the solution to any problem or situation that we might encounter? It would come in handy when things go bad, but where do we go to get one? How much would it cost? Would it be big, heavy, and cumbersome? Does such a thing really exist?  

I believe it exists. By definition, a “bag of tricks” is a collection of special techniques or clever methods by which someone achieves something. It is a set of skills, items of information, or other resources that are used to help achieve personal as well as professional goals. Think of it as a form of acquired knowledge that we have stored somewhere for easy reference when we need a resource to tap into.  

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a cartoon character in a TV series called “Felix the Cat.” In the storyline, Felix would always carry a satchel, known as his “bag of tricks,” everywhere he went. A line of the song in the cartoon stated, “Whenever he gets in a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks.” When Felix wanted some apples off a tall tree, he reached into his bag of tricks and pulled out a portable escalator. If he needed to cross a pond, he turned his bag of tricks into a canoe. When he got hungry, he reached into his bag and pulled out a picnic, complete with the table and chairs.

It’s understood that those types of tricks belong in a cartoon, but in the fire service, having a bag of tricks is not a fantasy—it’s a necessity. Even though we may not have the ability to perform magic, we all carry a bag of tricks of one kind or another. The bag may be personal, containing all the resources and technology that we have collected throughout your life. It could also be professional, packed with the knowledge and skills that we have acquired from our training and experiences throughout our careers. Then again, it could also be a combination of the two.                                                              

Another fire service instructor (and mentor to me) looked at it a little differently. He would refer to the bag of tricks as a “card file” or a “rolodex in our head,” where the cards hold all the information that we collected on various topics. When we are confronted with a problem, concerning a particular subject, the correct card pops up so we can find the solution. If it’s a new topic, one that we haven’t encountered in the past, there won’t be a card to pop up. Henceforth, we may come up with a blank stare on our faces.

I also think of it a little differently, so try to look at it this way: On the first day of our basic fire school training, we receive an empty bag (your “bag of tricks”). There is nothing in it because we haven’t started learning anything yet. As we advance through the fire academy, all the classroom hours and the hands-on practical skills as well as the knowledge shared by our instructors will go into our bag. When we finish the academy and get out into the field, we begin to collect our experiences from each day on the job and every call to which we respond.

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In the long run, personal experience will prove to be the most valuable item in the bag. Daily training drills at the firehouse along with any additional classes, training seminars, or formal education that we attend also goes into the bag. Whatever we pack into our bag of tricks will only make the bag larger, but it will not get heavier. All of the knowledge, training, and experience that we have acquired since we started in the fire service is now contained in our bag of tricks.   

Responsibility is a huge part of the fire service. We are held responsible for displaying proficiency in our job performance. The degree that we know our job will go hand-in-hand with our training and experience. It’s your responsibility to pack your own bag of tricks, so gain all the knowledge and get all the experience you can, because knowledge is power.

Don’t be fooled into believing that the exact answer or solution to your obstacle will just be sitting in your “bag.” If you encounter something that you never saw before, then the answer probably won’t be in there. But the idea is, with more items in the bag, there is a better chance that you will be able to find the pieces to assemble an answer and solve the problem.

On graduation from the fire academy, we may be certified as firefighters, but that does not mean that we are fully educated in the fire service. It only means that we have been shown the basics and we now have a foundation on which to begin to learn our job. Learning to master our profession continues throughout our careers, so don’t ever think that you are too old—and don’t ever be too proud—to learn something new. The tools and techniques of our job are always changing and improving.

There are only two ways to gain knowledge in the fire service: experience and training. Experience comes from going on calls and actually doing the job. Training can be performing hands-on practical skills or sitting in a classroom or a more informal atmosphere, learning from someone else about their job experiences.

There will always be a measure of people who will graduate from a fire academy and then just sit in the firehouse, believing that the job somehow owes them something. Since they are already certified as firefighters, they might feel that they don’t have to train or attend any more classes. When things go bad and they get into a situation where they need help, what will be in their bag of tricks?

And so I ask you, what’s in your “bag of tricks” and how much time and effort have you invested in filling it?


TOM SUTKUS is a 36-year fire service veteran and a battalion chief/EMT with the Chicago (IL) Fire Department. He is certified as a chief fire officer and fire instructor III with the State of Illinois. He has an associate degree in fire science and is an instructor for the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute and the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy.

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