BY RICK LASKY
Our fire service is rich in tradition and has a history so fascinating that as a firefighter, young or old, the more you dig into it, the more you can’t get enough of it. From how it all started in this country to all of the many different changes and directions it has taken over the years to where it is right now, many of the changes were and have been good and have brought us to new levels. A few, however, have been and are still whacking away at the very foundation that supports it all.
I’m not saying that change is not good. Some of it is, but a lot of it depends on how you go about it. It’s just so hard to watch some in our profession work so hard to take the firefighter out of the firefighter and the firehouse out of the firehouse when, in fact-and we’ve said this before-we should be trying to put them back in. There’s nothing wrong with a firehouse looking like a firehouse instead of one of those hurry in/hurry out lube and oil change places. There’s also nothing wrong with letting our firefighters dress and act like firefighters. So many seem to be trying to remove these things, turn us into a “business,” and hide us from the public. I’m not saying that there isn’t a business side to what we do-quite the contrary, there most definitely is. I’m just saying that if you’re looking into why you can’t get your guys to do something for you or can’t understand why it seems as though they’ve lost their love for the job, maybe bringing back some of the “traditions” we used to have just might be that method you need to stoke those fires they have within them. Maybe that’s all you need to get them back to acting and looking like firefighters and maybe, just maybe, you could rekindle their love for the job. Trust them; they’re extremely smart and talented. They’re professional and will do a great job if you let them love the job just a little.
THE RIGHT TRADITION IS NOT A BAD THING
Often, the first thing you hear from some people when you mention the word tradition is that the only thing tradition does is keep us down: Tradition opposes change, it’s stubborn and close minded to new ideas, and it gets us hurt and killed because we are doing the same wrong things over and over. Or we hear, “We’ve been doing it this way for 20 years; why change it now?”
The fact of the matter is that when it comes to hurting and killing our own, WE DO NEED TO CHANGE the things that get us into trouble. We should try to change and implement anything that will keep our firefighters healthy and safe. When I speak of tradition, I’m not referring to the habits that have hurt us in the past. I’m talking about the kind of tradition that celebrates our heritage and what we’re all about, the traditions that come with the greatest profession in the world. Many great and wonderful things have been going on in the fire service for decades and decades, and we should reach out to them because if we’re not careful, they’ll keep slipping away one by one until they’re all gone. That kind of tradition is good. We often refer to our department as an extremely traditional fire department that is very progressive. You can have it both ways!
THE JOURNEY BACK
As you begin your trip back in time looking for and learning about our fire service history, what you start to see is that, throughout it all, there have been a variety of ceremonies and celebrations-so many that it would be difficult to describe them all in just one article. Many people have asked about them so that they can bring that type of tradition in or back to their department. So let’s take a look at a handful of them. These are just some of the ceremonies that promote pride and ownership in the fire service, that provide an avenue for that love for the job.
THE NEW FIREFIGHTER
First, and probably one of the most important ceremonies, if not the most important one, is swearing in the new firefighter. This is where it all starts. This is where we have to make an impression and have an impact. This is where we set the tempo for what’s coming up in the firefighter’s new career. Some departments hold this ceremony when they hire a new member; some wait until they have finished and are graduating from the fire academy. Either way, either situation, there is a reward for doing this.
First of all, we’re confirming to the new firefighters that they are about to become part of a very special family. Second, they know right from the beginning that they’re going to be held accountable. This is where we let them know that it is a privilege and an honor to wear our badge. Make them raise their hand and swear to do the right thing, to honor those around them and to carry on our tradition. Too many departments just hire someone, tell them to report for duty, and then later wonder why they have problems with their not caring about or appreciating their job and the department.
This is also a time to celebrate-for them and for us. For them, because they are entering the most fascinating and most rewarding job anywhere. It’s a time for their family to be proud as well. For us, because we’re adding to our family.
This is how we handle the swearing in of Lewisville members; obviously, you can add whatever you feel will make it more special:
1. We set a date and time for the ceremony that works scheduling-wise for both the new hires and staff.
2. We hold it at our Firefighter Memorial (weather permitting). It provides a very special backdrop and serves as a reminder of those who have sacrificed and gone before us and of what we owe them.
3. As many stations attend as possible. Staff members are to wear Class A uniforms.
4. The new member’s family and friends are invited. The family members are asked to stand just to the right and just behind the member being sworn in. This is a big day for them as well, and it’s nice to have them share in the moment and participate.
5. The ceremony starts with an introduction and welcome by the fire chief and, when possible, an invocation by our chaplain.
6. Next, the city secretary has the new firefighters raise their right hand and take the oath of office. And just to make it easy on some, she provides the oath in writing for them to hold onto and read along. Sometimes, a little bit of nervousness causes all kinds of words and noises to come out of your mouth, so this helps sometimes.
7. After the oath of office is conducted, the mayor pins their badges on the firefighters. A nice touch at this point, if the new firefighter’s father or mother or another family member is a current or retired firefighter, is to have that family member pin them. In this case, the mayor shakes the firefighter’s hand and hands the badge to the person who is going to pin the firefighter. It’s a really nice touch and brings back that family feeling.
8. We provide a printed program of the event.1
9. We take lots of pictures.
After all our ceremonies, we serve coffee and cake. A reception area is available for guests to gather, take photos, and offer congratulations.
1) The oath-of-office portion of the swearing-in ceremony is paramount in getting the new firefighter fired up and headed in the right direction. [Photos courtesy of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department.]
The ceremony to mark the promotion of one of our members follows the same format as that for swearing in a new firefighter, but with the addition of a very special step.
2) The collar-pinning event is special for the family of the member being promoted.
After the mayor or family member pins the badge, we conduct a “collar pinning.” The member being promoted invites a special person(s) to assist in pinning the collar insignia. The individual might be a spouse, children, a family member, a friend, or a mentor. It’s a big day for family as well as for the member being promoted. In one case, a member being promoted to captain had his long-time captain pin one of his collar pins. When it was over, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It is really a special moment and adds just a little more class to the event.
This occasion must be special. When our members get to the point where they can retire, the event should be celebrated and the member should be congratulated. Not to wish retirees well is just not the right thing to do. Now, I know there are many firefighters who say that when that time comes they want to slip out like they slipped in-no parties, no tributes or speeches; they just want to quietly leave. I can respect that, but I always warn them that they’re going to miss it down the road. They’re going to miss saying “good-bye.” And often, not having something for them is rough on the troops as well-not getting to say good-bye or wish them well leaves the remaining members with this hole or void.
Some departments don’t do anything for a retiring member, and that’s a shame. After all that these members have put into the department, the lives that they have affected, the impact they have had on their brothers and sisters, it’s only right to honor and thank them. We owe it to them! Here is how we do it in Lewisville:
1. We hold the event at headquarters on the last day of the retiree’s service.
2. We take the retiree’s company out of service during the ceremony and try to bring in as many stations and companies as possible. The retiring member and staff wear their Class A uniforms.
3. The chief starts the ceremony with an introduction and a welcome; the chaplain gives the invocation.
4. If the member is an officer, all members of the shift or company, or, in the case of a chief officer, as many from the department as possible, line up and come to attention (while wearing their Class A uniforms). The retiring officer, flanked by the chief of the department, conducts a final walk-by and inspection. When the retiring officer reaches the last firefighter, the order is given to present arms. All members salute, the retiring member renders those at attention a salute, the order is given to “order arms,” and the honor guard or a chief officer presents the retiree with a flag that was flown over the station on the retiree’s last day of work.
5. The station paging tones for the retiree’s company (all call tone for a chief) is activated, and an announcement of the retirement is made. The retiree is thanked and wished well.
6. Everyone is dismissed and asked to gather in an area or room where presentations can be made. Gifts and tributes are given. Everyone is given an opportunity to offer thanks and good wishes. This is the perfect time for some good stories as well.
This one is fairly easy. Give your fire academy or community college a call and ask for the ceremony program; they’ve been doing it for a long time. After gathering a few of these programs, you should be able to put together something really nice. One key point is to get a good keynote speaker. There are so many talented people out there who could get the graduates fired up and have them sitting on the edge of their seats. This is a great way to send them out with a bang. It’s also a good time to remind them what’s it’s all about.
Regardless of where the ceremony is held, this occasion is very special. One of the hardest things to do in our business is to recognize a firefighter for a job well done. The firefighter’s immediate response is always, “No thanks, Chief. I was only doing my job.” And that’s not bad, but we still need to recognize our firefighters. To be honest, I know it’s our job to do the things we do, but when an incident or an action is above and beyond or has impacted someone in a special way, we need to recognize the individuals for their efforts. If we don’t, no one else is going to. We handle our awards ceremony as follows:
1. An awards committee plans the event, makes the award selections, and really puts in a lot of hard work getting the whole thing together. There are many variations of this process; most are very good, so it doesn’t take looking far to get hold of a good one. We hold a banquet, but having it at a fire station with refreshments also works well.
2. A date is set, a location determined, and we ask for station coverage from our neighbors. In our case, those on duty still staff their companies, but because of the station coverage by other departments, they don’t have to push out on every call. If needed, they can respond or take in a structure fire; this arrangement allows them to join in the festivities. This is not a problem for on-duty members, because alcohol is not served at our ceremony.
3. All members wear their Class A uniforms.
4. After everyone is seated, the chief welcomes attendees. One of our assistant chiefs introduces any special guests (the mayor, council members, visiting chiefs, and retirees, for example). Our chaplain gives an invocation.
5. Dinner is served. As soon as dinner is over, a keynote speaker addresses the group.
6. After the keynote speaker concludes, we show a musical tribute video that highlights the past year’s calls, events, and activities. Each member is presented with a copy of the video as a gift. When you think about it, after having served about 20 years, members come away with a pretty good documentary of the department and their career. This is something we never did before.
7. Next is the presentation of the awards, starting with years of service, then honorary mentions, awards of exemplary action (our award for civilians, police officers, for example), company citations, commendations, awards of merit, and the medal of valor. We finish with our Rookie-, Firefighter-, Paramedic-, and Officer-of-the-Year awards.
Note: One nice touch is that every now and then we invite a victim, usually a CPR save, to the banquet. We don’t tell anyone the person is coming. When it is time to recognize that company, the individual joins us on stage and helps us present the awards. The victims really enjoy it because they get to say thank you one more time. It also demonstrates to all just how special our people are and the kind of impact they can have on someone’s life.
8. Our master of ceremonies wraps things up, thanks the committee for all its hard work, and wishes everyone well. Some other nice touches include asking if any of the spouses would like to keep their table centerpiece; having a photographer on-site to take photos of the troops, companies, families, and so on; and just making sure everyone feels comfortable and at home. It’s a great night for our families.
NEW APPARATUS AND FIRE STATIONS
As we dig more deeply into our history, we discover that we have always had ceremonies when it came to placing a new rig into service-from giving it its first bath or a wetting down to actually pushing the rig into the fire station like in “the olden days.” But it seems that over the years we let this one go in a lot of places, just like we stopped taking pictures of the rigs or, worse yet, taking the pictures but forgetting to put the guys in them. This one in particular really reestablishes the whole pride thing; if done right, it can get some firefighters back to understanding why we take care of our rigs in the first place. Here is how we plan for this event:
1. Send out a notice of the event.
2. The chief welcomes all and introduces special guests; the chaplain gives the invocation.
3. We “wet down” the rig before pushing it in the station; the company officer usually handles this.
4. The dispatch office activates that station’s paging tones and an-nounces the retirement of the old rig and welcomes the new one aboard.
5. Then comes the fun part: pushing the rig into quarters. Note: With the weight of rigs today, it works well to have a driver in the rig backing it in slowly and members simulating the push.
6. It’s cake and coffee time.
When we dedicated our fireboat, we followed steps 1, 2, and 4 as for new apparatus and had our chaplain bless the fleet. Instead of the “push,” we announced and revealed the name given to the boat. Then we christened the boat with a bottle of champagne.
NEW FIRE STATION
A new fire station dedication is a special event for more than just us. It’s special for the neighborhood it’s going to serve. So when we dedicated our last fire station, we also held a mini-fire prevention week open house with a variety of activities and events for the families and businesses that surround the fire station. Following is the chain of events for that ceremony:
(3) It has been said for a long time that christening and naming a fireboat brings it and its crew good luck.
1. The same as for all those previously mentioned: The fire chief gave a welcome. Introductions were made, and a short speech noting what the opening of the fire station would do for the community was given.
2. All special guests were asked to line up in front of the bay doors for the “ribbon cutting”; however, instead of cutting a ribbon, we conducted a “hose uncoupling.” The mayor and fire chief stood in the center, next to each other at the coupling; the mayor was asked to uncouple the hose while the other guests held the hose at waist level, creating that “ribbon” you usually see at a dedication like this.
3. As soon as the mayor began to uncouple the hose, the station’s alert tones were set off, and an announcement welcoming that station and its personnel aboard and wishing them a safe journey was read.
4. The open house began.
These are just a few of the ceremonies that have been conducted throughout the years, and there are many variations on how they can be conducted. Whether it’s any of the above or a firefighter memorial dedication or one in which you make someone an honorary chief or firefighter, all these occasions are important.
4) Bestowing the title of “Honorary Fire Chief” is a great way to show your department¿s appreciation. Here, John Travolta and the cast of “Ladder 49” are being designated as honorary chiefs and captains.
The ceremonies are out there if you look. I’ve been blessed to have many friends who shared their ceremony processes with me; that’s something we all should be doing. It’s through these types of events that we can continue to strengthen our foundation. If we don’t get involved in these events, I guarantee you they will all disappear. Once they’re gone, they’re gone, and they are hard to bring back.
(5) The ‘hose uncoupling’ adds a nice touch in lieu of a ribbon cutting at a station dedication.
We’ve gotten to a point that the only time we have a ceremony is when we lose a firefighter. We kind of got a few things mixed up a while back. The time to honor someone is not when we’ve lost him or her-that’s when we pay tribute to him or her. The time to honor them is when they’re still with us, next to us, right in front of us. Let’s not wait until they’re gone. Let’s do it now. So celebrate, provide ceremonies for all of your special events, and steer your firefighters back into the right direction-the one that will rekindle that love for the job. ■
1. If you would like some examples of the various program flyers, announcements, and forms you can adapt for use in your own ceremonies, e-mail me at email@example.com/.