BY JONATHON STEED
OF THE MANY ISSUES FACING the fire service today, none looms larger than the public’s expectation of our accomplishing more with less. Often, we receive less funding, sometimes less support, and yet are still expected to perform near-miracles with severely understaffed apparatus. For volunteers, this combination of public pressure and the ever-increasing demands of training can prove to be too much to handle. In these trying times, the volunteer service specifically must make an unwavering effort toward every group of people possible to attract membership. Although many fire departments appreciate the value of live-in firefighter programs, many departments have not even considered this as a way to improve membership, staffing, and response times.
Generally, live-in programs are designed to increase staffing at the fire department while providing the live-in firefighter benefits as an incentive. Most of these programs are geared toward college students attending a nearby school and provide a set of standards to which the member must agree in exchange for a place to reside. If the firehouse environment is attractive to a potential live-in member, that person will spend most of his day at the firehouse if it provides a positive atmosphere, sufficient privacy, and quarters.
I served as a live-in firefighter for two years while I attended a college a few miles away from the station. Although this experience was one of my best as a young volunteer, I stumbled across the opportunity very much by accident. As an incoming freshman in college, I was unaware of how competitive it can be to secure a dormitory room at a small commuter campus such as Penn State—Berks in Reading, Pennsylvania. I waited too long, and rooming options were gone quickly. I could now either commute from home, which didn’t embody the college experience I wanted, or I could delve into other options. During my two years of experience volunteering at my local fire station while attending high school, I enjoyed the sense of camaraderie and fun and the satisfaction of learning a trade. In an Internet search of area fire stations accepting volunteers, I discovered the live-in option on the Wyomissing (PA) Fire Department’s Web site.
I nervously drove to the firehouse and met the staff. Fortunately, the house was huge with comfortable accommodations, which was one of my concerns. Some firehouses are not very pleasant to sleep in or spend much time at. Moreover, this group of firefighters seemed to work together well. This was for me.
During this time, I lived at a combination fire department staffed around the clock by two career firefighters and volunteers. One roommate and I shared a large private room with everything we needed for our college studies, and then some. My roommate and I lived better than any college student in the area. We were issued desks and chairs and had a private bathroom and few limitations. The contract I agreed to while living there consisted of my service in exchange for free room and board. During my time there, I attended my college classes and spent time with friends outside the fire service. Because I was not required to spend a set amount of time at the firehouse, I felt no pressure that I needed to be there. Personally, when obligated to be somewhere for a given amount of time, my mind wanders, thinking about activities I would rather be doing. Often, I end up wanting to leave. Because I was not required to officially staff the firehouse or stay for a set time, I found myself spending most of my time there. Considering that two career personnel were on shift at all times in addition to my roommate and me, the community received a more efficient level of service.
The fire department was lenient on the live-ins; we were required to perform simple chores and run fire calls when we were in-house. As an aspiring career firefighter, this was as close as it got for me to doing the actual job. Because there were only two career members on shift at one time, our department was very tightly knit. A significant level of trust was built up quickly. Together, we went out to lunch and to the grocery store and cooked dinner.Our ability to rely on each other was demonstrated best when we went to fires. Unless any volunteers were at the firehouse when a call came in, only the two career members were guaranteed to respond. The addition of one or two live-in members to the specified crew was a substantial help. Anyone who has spent any amount of time as a firefighter knows how much of a difference one or two more people on a rig can make. This is the higher level of service.
Since I could spend so much time at the firehouse, I gained a lot of experience quickly. The career personnel possessed a great deal of experience and educated me on how to best handle incidents. But one of the greatest things I learned from my time was the leadership aspect of being a live-in. Because my roommate and I were always around and were very familiar with the department’s day-to-day operating procedures, we were often put in informal leadership positions—a great opportunity for young firefighters.
Although we were not as busy as some city departments, this experience was enough to convince me that this job was the one I wanted to do for a career. After this experience, I switched my college major from psychology to fire science. I hadn’t thoroughly considered pursuing a fire service career before. I know that I enjoyed the hobby and lifestyle, but that was the extent of it. This was a major turning point for me.
Our experience was very educational and extremely fun, sometimes chop-busting. My roommate and I woke up for class in the morning, ate breakfast at the firehouse, went to class, and came back. We would do some homework and chores such as helping the career members wash the rigs and check the tools, and we would take the truck out to pick up lunch. Later, we would decide what to eat for dinner (one of the hardest things to get firefighters to decide), and we would go to the grocery store together and buy our food and make it in house. This constant contact allowed us to become a very tight crew, enabling us to joke around and have a good time easily. I enjoyed my time at the firehouse so much that I chose to stay for a second year.
The main reasons I enjoyed living in the firehouse were the sense of belonging, the action, and the experience. We had fun, and I learned a lot from credible teachers such as Woody, who had been driving the aerial trucks at that house longer than I’ve been alive. He taught me the best ways to position the tower ladder for many situations. Derrick was a fire truck mechanic before becoming a firefighter. He taught me the ins and outs of trucks, pumps, tools, and anything with a truck engine. Although I had numerous opportunities to move out and move into houses with friends from school, I chose not to. The acceptance by the career members together with the wealth of knowledge to be gained meant much more to me than moving into an apartment or a house.
If you are a young firefighter considering living in at a fire department, go for it. Go to the firehouse, talk to the members, and scope it out. The opportunities that present themselves may surprise you. I was honored to be asked to become a lieutenant in this fire department after a year and at the age of 20. This opportunity opened more doors in the fire service than I ever imagined. Consider your options; this could be you.
Many live-in programs allow you to live for free or very inexpensively. Don’t base this decision only on the economics, although the significance of this advantage cannot be overlooked.
This will require a huge commitment from you and a radical change of lifestyle, especially if you are moving from a college dorm or apartment into a firehouse. The difference between these two living arrangements is immense in terms of accountability and professionalism. As a public building, a firehouse could have any number of outside visitors at any time, whereas a dormitory is a quasi-private residence with different social and societal standards. Simply, you don’t party at the firehouse. If you are not genuinely ready to commit yourself to the program, it may not be for you. But if, after contemplating your options, you still feel this is for you, meet with the chief or the live-in program manager. When I decided to become a live-in, I had not yet met anyone at the new firehouse, and I was very intimidated to be starting over as a new guy at a new department. Do not let this stop you. Get in there.
I was so nervous that the career staff wouldn’t accept me that I took the 40-minute drive to the station from my house twice before I actually went in and talked to anyone. One thing I wish I had done differently was to obtain even more knowledge from the senior members on shift. Don’t neglect these opportunities.
LIVING AT THE FIRE DEPARTMENT
For the aspiring live-in, these pointers may help you in your journey.
Do not forget why you are there. You accepted this position on the presumption that you would help provide a higher level of service to the community in return for a place to live. Do not take your acceptance into this program for granted. By accepting this position, you have agreed to represent the fire department as a professional firefighter. Ensure that you get trained up to the standards at which department members are operating. Become qualified and proficient on the apparatus. Learn all you can. Become an asset to your department. This will yield great results. Do what is asked of you in a timely manner, and represent your department in a positive manner.
Maintain discipline. Most fire departments that offer live-in programs gear them toward college students. If you do become a live-in, prioritize your time wisely. Many students find themselves struggling in school because they become so involved in the department where they are living. Many times I found myself blowing off classes or tests because I did not want to miss dinner with the firefighters or another fire response. In particular, new college students who do not realize how far behind they can get missing a few classes seem to get into the most trouble. Make sure that you discipline yourself to spend an appropriate amount of time on your studies. I cannot stress this enough.
Take advantage of the opportunity. Never take for granted your position. Consider yourself honored that a fire department trusts you enough to allow you to represent it as a professional organization. Take advantage of this great opportunity to better your firefighting skills and yourself. I was extremely fortunate to have career personnel, almost all of whom had served as career firefighters elsewhere before joining that department. This crew shared a tremendous and diverse amount of knowledge with me, and I was able to substantially better myself from their guidance. The career personnel took me out and trained me in more ways than I thought imaginable. Don’t tell me you don’t have enough time to learn at least a few new things every day when you live at a firehouse. There is no excuse not to excel in this position. Learn all there is to learn, and pass the knowledge on to less-experienced members.
Maintain a positive image. During my two years as a live-in at the fire department, I attended numerous public events to build public relations, train businesses on fire extinguisher use, and so on. When attending these events, the average citizen would notice the clean, well-maintained fire apparatus and the crew, the two career and the live-in firefighters. Could the public tell the difference? They shouldn’t be able to.
Your image has a huge impact on the citizens you protect. If you want to represent your department positively, take a second look at what you wear before you go outside the fire department. Do not wear the job shirt and the “blues” unless you know for sure you will not end up in a position embarrassing to you and the department, and just behave decently. It’s not difficult.
Especially for the college live-ins, use common sense. DO NOT wear your job shirt if you are going to participate in ANY activity that would not be considered acceptable at the firehouse. Better yet, if you think this may end badly for the fire service image, don’t do it. It is easy enough to get into trouble in a college setting; don’t make it worse. If your fire department is anything like mine, just about everyone participates in some form of social media, and no one wants to see you representing the membership poorly. Do not get into a position you may later regret.
Have a life. Although you may be very fulfilled at the firehouse where you live, make sure to maintain contact with friends outside. Especially as an underclassman, do not cheat yourself out of the college experience. Make friends, and do not be too quick to leave campus once your classes are over. Go out, socialize, and have fun. If you don’t allow yourself to have fun in college, you will likely not have it anywhere else. Get out of the firehouse once in awhile. This may seem unnecessary to many, but this simple action saved me numerous times. No matter how much fun you have at the firehouse, once in awhile everyone needs a night off. One case I remember vividly is when I was promoted to lieutenant at the firehouse where I lived. It was a rather tense time, and I found myself very nervous about my new role. I was very stressed about how the dynamics would change around the house. For normal people, the solution to this problem is very simple: go home. If you’re a live-in, this may not be possible. I found it incredibly helpful to be able to go and spend time at a friend’s house. Sometimes simply getting away for awhile is enough to distract you from any troubles you may be having. Having said this, do not allow yourself to persistently avoid any issues you may encounter. When you spend enough time with the same people, eventually problems of some type will arise. Whether the issue is a personality difference between you and one of the firefighters or something else, don’t just leave. Deal with the problem.
LIVE-IN PROGRAM CONSIDERATIONS
For any administrative-level officers who are considering implementing a live-in program, the results can vary. First, some departments are simply not designed or built to accommodate one live-in member, let alone numerous ones. Ensure that you have the proper quarters to house these members. A live-in applicant will look at the following: How well does the department operate—e.g., how does the engine bay look? How do the firefighters conduct themselves? Does the leadership seem effective? How are members’ general morale, and how do they maintain their assigned living space? The program supervisor becomes almost a real estate salesperson because that person is selling potential members the living space and the environment. If the space you have to offer is insufficient, address that area first. Unfortunately, some departments simply do not have the tools or resources to offer a live-in program. Keep in mind also that according to federal regulations, you may be required to provide separate living quarters and facilities for any interested female firefighters.
Also, many department live-in programs do not require participants to be college students; the college live-ins are simply the most common. Many departments have implemented methods of employing firefighters at local businesses to open up their doors to a wider spectrum of people. The department leadership can build a relationship with local businesses who may find the “Type A” personality traits of firefighters desirable in potential employees. This is most effective when done through the department’s leadership, ideally by a chief or an officer who is well known and respected in the community. If there aren’t any colleges local to your community, this may be the way to go.
Advertising is one of the most useful tools to promote live-in programs. Many colleges have at least a small population of firefighters who volunteer in their respective hometowns; this is an audience you must reach. At school, I noticed that many firefighters were present on campus but unaware of the nearby live-in programs. After I talked to them about my living situation and the opportunities onto which I had stumbled, some were very interested. For the officers looking to implement these programs or increase membership, advertise with local colleges. Call the schools and tell them you would like to post some flyers for fire department membership or for a live-in program. Include some of the perks on the flyers, but keep in mind that higher education is big business and the colleges make money when students live in their dorms. Do not create a flyer that makes the school feel threatened.
Another possibility is sending fire department representatives to talk to students. Many departments’ programs allow new fire service members to live in after a probationary period. Just because a student is new to the trade does not mean that that person cannot quickly become an asset to your department. For best results, have one or a few of the current live-ins present to talk about their experiences. Potential participants will identify better with someone their age who actually participates in the program.
If you are an officer and want to implement a live-in program, you must have a defined command structure in place. Live-in members need a supervisor to answer to, if not necessarily the fireground command structure. College kids can end up getting themselves in trouble one way or another. It is important that they are made accountable and aware that they will have at least one supervisor to evaluate their progress for the duration of the program. This supervisor will verify that they continue to follow the rules by which they agreed to abide before setting foot in the firehouse. Ensure that someone who carries real “weight” and legitimate power in the department takes up this position, such as a chief officer or career member.
To provide accountability for us and our actions, we sat down monthly with a live-in committee made up of several career firefighters and chief officers. We discussed any issues we had, and the committee confirmed that we measured up as live-ins. At these meetings, career members always wanted to ensure we were learning all we could and making the most of our fire service experience. I will always thank these firefighters for taking that stance.
Although starting a live-in program will drastically change your fire department’s dynamics, you will be able to offer a greater level of immediate service to the community you protect. As a firefighter and an officer who has experienced a well-run program, I encourage any potential participants to inquire further about living in, but do not forget why you are there. The opportunities, experience, and memories you will encounter are reasons enough to get involved. For any officer wishing to implement a program, organization, preparedness, and discipline are the keys to success.
Consider live-in programs as a way to improve membership, staffing, and response times.
● JONATHON STEED is a firefighter with the Allentown (PA) Fire Department. Previously, he served as a fire marshal for Boston University and has served as a volunteer lieutenant and training officer. Steed has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration from the University of New Haven in Connecticut.
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