Fitting In: Foreign Firefighters in the U.S. Fire Industry

By Hsien-Yu (Alex) Chu

In today’s fire service industry, more and more “foreigners” are joining fire departments–not only the volunteer fire departments, but also the paid career fire departments. By “foreigners,” I mean anyone whose native language isn’t English. After serving almost six years as a volunteer firefighter, I would like to discuss some of the issues/problems that foreigner firefighters will face in the fire service industry today.

There are three major types of challenges us “foreign” firefighters face: Fire training, social life at the fire house, and on-scene issues.

FIREFIGHTER TRAINING

With regard to fire training, the most difficult obstacle that many foreigners run into is the language barrier. For physical training, it is just based on each person’s health and strength, and that is not a big deal. But when it comes to the lecture part, there are many terms that are not used in our daily lives such (pack on/off, gear on, bailout, etc.) I was in college when I started my firefighting training, which gave me a little bit of an advantage because I was already a student in an American college. However, there are times that I just had to ask, “What does this word mean?” “What’s the meaning by saying that?” Trust me, if you are a foreigner, a translator or dictionary can be your best friend throughout the training. At first, I felt embarrassed and, sometimes, I would get picked on because of the words that I didn’t understand, but the only way to get through the training and pass is to ask and keep asking. Just remember, once you finish your training, you will need to prove yourself. Based on my experiences, you may not get accepted by others at first, but after several calls, you can show them you are still capable of getting the job done.

SOCIAL LIFE

Although foreign people today are more welcome in the country, discrimination is still a problem (it happens everywhere in the world, not just in America). As a foreigner, you may have to play along with it, but never fear to speak up if the language is bothering you. Just like in college or the workplace, people will get excited–or more likely, curious–to see a foreigner coming to the station. In my case, they asked tons of questions and had me translate into my language, which was Chinese. And yes, my accent got me made fun of, keying up in the radio. I had one friend told me on scene, “As soon as I heard the radio, I knew it’s Chu.” Some ribbing is not bad because it means that you are slowly blending in with the group. But expect that you may or may not be making close friends because of the biggest problem–language differences. I said may or may not because I actually have made lots of close friends from the firehouse.

ON SCENE

This is when all the training kicks in; you will do what you are told to do just like any other firefighter. The biggest problem foreign people may run into is the radio transmission; with improved radio systems, you can now hear the radio instructions more clearly than before, but hearing the radio transmission and understanding can be hard sometimes. Don’t be surprised to hear “Repeat that last message?” The same rules apply to the foreign firefighters on scene. Don’t be afraid to ask for the message again. It would be better to understand the information you got before you start doing the job.

Last but not least, the fire station is like a big family to me. Even though I wasn’t born here nor do I speak perfect English, it’s all about brotherhood and sisterhood. Despite the joking and doubting my ability, we will still always have each other’s back in the fire service, and that’s why I keep doing what I love to do. After all, it’s about saving people’s lives and property and contributing to the community.

Alex ChuHsien-Yu (Alex) Chu serves with the United Hook & Ladder Co.33 in New Oxford, Pennsylvania. He was born in Taiwan.

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