By Craig Schwinge
“Important principles may and must be inflexible.” – Abraham Lincoln
There are good reasons why things are the way they are. Fire has and always will give hard lessons; it is what binds us. Much of what we say, do, and remember are from what we have garnered from our big brother firefighters—those who came before us and endowed us with wisdom, wit, and humor and showed us what it means to be great firefighters. These firefighters knew themselves, knew their jobs, and took care of their partners and crew. They showed us a timeless set of norms and, most importantly, actions that demonstrated our job’s clear purpose. They displayed the true character of firefighters; that we are at our best when we work for and with each other.
Because the future is unknown and chance and circumstance enter into each of our emergency responses, we internalize moral and ethical principles to be strong, resilient, and enduring. These fundamental precepts will not improve your already good looks, make you financially successful, or may not even help you to get promoted (if that is your aim); they will remind you of the time-honored truths of being a firefighter. Our core beliefs are reflected in the following “Firefighter 10 Commandments,” which will help align our attitudes, perspectives and, most importantly, actions with those of the great firefighters who came before us.
I. Thou shalt always protect and save lives.
“There is no wealth but life.” – John Ruskin
We do this because life is everything. In choosing the life of a firefighter, we become part of an unending cadre of like-minded folks prone to action in the service of others, like a dependable brass spanner that has been time-tested and found reliable. Great firefighters acknowledge the vagaries of fate and the sometime random, senseless loss of life. It seems beyond our ability to understand. We know that cause-and-effect is the way of fire and that futures are affected by our choices and actions at emergency scenes. Fire demands that we perform well, like an 8V92 Detroit Diesel. As one big brother firefighter relayed, “That’s our life, brother. ‘Sempre stabilitas’” (always dependable).
Photos by Craig Allyn Rose/emergencyphoto.com.
II. Thou shalt always be courageous.
“Bravery never goes out of fashion.” – William Makepeace Thackeray
Firefighting is not for the weak-minded or unprepared. We fight because we must; our character requires it, and it would be unworthy of us not to. This is most evident when firefighters commit to the rescue. We will always remember the most courageous rescue attempt at the World Trade Center on September 11. 2001. FDNY committed to saving lives with great courage at even greater odds. Long ago it was said,“Virtutis Fortuna Comes”, (good luck is the companion of courage), but no good and no luck was to be had that day. The 343 who have gone before us kept this second commandment, and we honor them by being courageous and always prepared to fight the right fight. “That’s what brothers do, ‘Sempre fortis’” (always brave). (And God Bless Paddy Brown.)
III. Thou shalt always heed all cries for help.
“Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful.” – William Shakespeare
Helping others is a prime force and firefighters are the visible embodiment of help under dire conditions. Fire has no regard for any living thing and “never says ‘Enough’” (Proverbs 3:16). Over the centuries and throughout all places vigilance has been our watchword and basis for preparedness. When fire demands decisive action, great firefighters respond to the call to make the save and make the stop. Like a 1.75-inch, 200-foot attack line at 160 psi, it is solid, secure and steady. “This is what life is for us, little brother, ‘Sempre firmus‘” (always firm).
IV. Thou shalt always help all those in need.
“ Life isn’t made up only of good stops (life is not perfect).” – Alan Brunacini.
Need takes many forms – physical, mental, emotional – and firefighters are known to give help no matter what the need. Many great firefighters live the ethos of helping others outside the job, as coaches, teachers, club leaders, at fund raising events, charitable organizations and as champions for the less able or less fortunate. On and off duty, great firefighters support the needs of others. Like your family, our firefighting family’s brothers and sisters have needs as well. At times we all need and rely on a big brother firefighter, and other times we each become a big brother firefighters to another. We all need help along the way so have courage in order to ask for help. “That’s what makes us firefighters, sister, ‘Sempre subvenio’” (always help).
V. Thou shalt always have strength of heart and body.
“Be steady of heart, and stout of hand.” – Walter Scott
Strength is the strong suit of firefighters, i.e., having the physical capability to perform. It is the proper measure of what we do and requires commitment, stamina, and endurance. Strength of character, of “having heart,” is one of the intangibles that most firefighters recognize. Together, we are as a body, with a perseverance developed and built in the company of other firefighters. Derive strength from your calls like water flowing from a hydrant. Great firefighters maintain and sustain a strength that allows others to draw on. “That’s our measure, son, ‘Sempre validus’” (always strong).
RELATED: Murphy on the 10 Commandments of Getting Along with Others ‖ Kastros on the 10 Commandments of Command ‖ Moran on the 10 Commandments of Primary Search
VI. Thou shalt always work as a team.
“Fire is the test of gold; adversity of strong men.” – Seneca the Younger
Because fire is a demanding, thoughtless, and careless force of nature, fighting fire requires us to work well together and to do one’s assigned job. Great firefighters are about performance. Sometimes, firefighting is like a fast break in basketball or a breakaway in hockey. Other times, it is like the ground game in football. There may be times when your position is like a soccer goalie: Sometimes out of the action but positively at the heart of it other times. It is always about working well together, and each of us being great at our position. Find your “fit” at the nozzle, at the pump panel, or as an officer and be a valuable member of your crew. Being part of a firefighting crew requires that each of us maintain our “fitness” to perform well and take care of each other. There’s no time for egos, personality issues, or “hissy fits.” “Well-fit” companies depend on each other to fully do their job, which involves a high degree of competency, an unfaltering level of trust, unconditional faith, and physical aptness. “That’s our lot, partner, ‘Sempre protelum’” (always a team).
VII. Thou shalt always demonstrate leadership ability.
“First in, last out.” – John Salka
Knowledge and experience will always be in demand at an emergency scene; they provide the presence of mind to engage in right actions to get the right things done. Know yourself, control your words, and have the mental stamina and emotional endurance to see things through. Take a stand, say what you mean, and mean what you say. Great firefighters have the uncommon sense to know where and where not to be and when to do things and not to do things. Our actions have an affect on others, and we each have a stake in an incident’s outcome. Stepping up, filling in, being counted on, and stimulating right actions in others—this is leadership that does not require the wearing of bugles. “We are like that, cousin, ‘Sempre dux’” (always a leader).
VIII. Thou shalt always serve unselfishly.
“We make a life by what we give.” – Winston Churchill
Many great firefighters live the ethos of serving or helping others in a variety of ways. Having the welfare of the crew or the department before you is a rare virtue in an often competitive and individual-focused perspective prevalent in our world today. Firefighters are best known for what they do for others more than what they do for themselves. Be prepared to give the best of yourself; it is a generosity of spirit, a humble acknowledgement that life is more than just one’s self interests. Firefighters are all members of a like-minded group of workers of the heart. “Crew before you, friend, ‘Sempre innocens’” (always unselfish).
IX. Thou shalt always be proud to be a firefighter.
“…. with strong minds, great hearts, true faith and ready hands.” – Josiah Holland
Not many firefighters suffer from a questioning of identity. Fire-year-olds have a pretty good idea of what we do and what we are about. Being a steward of an honorable service that was here before our time and will remain long after we are gone is gratifying, fulfilling, and rewarding. Great firefighters have pride in one’s work, in one’s company, in one’s department. Flexible and adaptable, willing, and able to engage fire offensively when life depends on it, smart and secure enough to hold the course during defensive operations when fire demands it. Be a proud part of the fire service by being able to take on any job, any time, anywhere. “This is who we are, nephew, ‘Sempre altus’” (always proud).
X. Thou shalt always keep all equipment ready.
“Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them…the readiness is all.” – William Shakespeare
This is a shared cultural transmission of familiarity and simplicity of purpose that has extended over generations of firefighters. It is part of our collective DNA—to know and maintain the apparatus, tools, and equipment that we rely on. It is more than just being a firefighter who “likes to keep his fire engine clean” (thanks, Beatles), but rather a commitment to one’s personal protective equipment; nozzles and fittings; emergency medical services gear; knowing the rig’s inventory; and, if you are a driver, the proper and safe way to drive and operate that rig. Great firefighters do not “ASSUME” (making an “ASSs-out-of-U-and-ME.”); they check and ready equipment to protect and save lives. “That’s the way of it, probie, ‘Sempre paratus’” (always ready).
The “Firefighter 10 Commandments” are the result of our shared experiences that form an ongoing set of values to live by, never to be bought, sold, or traded. They belong to all of us, and each of us contribute to them in some way. They were not delivered from on high but down on the streets by the firefighters before us, naturally selected for in the process of doing the job. These are not an old, dead set of ideals but an alive, ongoing set of values and relationships we live daily in the company of other firefighters.
“Always” means constantly, at all times, continuously; it is a strong word used for good reason.
To protect and save lives, to be courageous, to heed all cries for help, to help all those in need, to have the strength of heart and body to work as a team, to demonstrate leadership ability, to serve unselfishly, to be proud to be a firefighter, and to keep equipment ready.
These words are just simple words until we make them a part of our character and translate them into deeds. They impart a clear set of beliefs to help create a proper mindset for living a good life and becoming great firefighters.
Living our ethos means internalizing these moral and ethical principles: Always thinking, working, living for more than oneself. Like the proverbial brass spanner, the good is passed on. We fight fire, take care of the neighborhood, and take care of each other for “the love of the good.” (Aristotle). It is the bonds of loyalty and friendship that unites firefighters. Be that great big brother firefighter with hard work, strong ethics, and humble sincerity. Our commandments are the ties that bind us, like a “figure eight,” follow through—be secure, solid, sound. “Do good and be good, brother, that’s all there is to it.”
CRAIG SCHWINGE, a 30-year veteran of the fire service, retired as a captain assigned as public information officer with the San Jose (CA) Fire Department in 2009. He has been an adjunct instructor in fire technology at Cabrillo College since 1992. He authored “Knowing Your Buildings: A Firefighter’s Reference Guide” Second Edition, soon to be published by PennWell Books.