By Rick Lasky

For more than 200 years, the fire service has responded to just about every call for help and emergency imaginable, and we’ve responded to those requests without hesitation, attitude, or complaint. And over the years those calls for help have grown. They have pushed us and prodded us into performing and handling situations that no one ever imagined we would handle. Our mission as a fire service years ago was a simple one: to put out fires. But through the years, the public has grown to understand that a firefighter will and can do just about anything, especially when it comes to helping citizens, their family, or their business.

We started out fighting fires, and soon it was realized that we could provide first aid. We started with basic first aid, Red Cross first responders, and the like and then moved into the emergency medical technician field, which elevated the EMS platform just a little bit higher.

And then we moved into paramedicine, thanks in part to the TV show “Emergency.” You know the show, with Squad 51 and L.A. County Firefighter Paramedics Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto. That particular show did more for the fire service and more for the field of EMS than anyone could have imagined. The show won even more support from the public and brought a little more attention to what we do. It was also probably one of the best recruiting tools that accidentally fell into our laps. I can’t tell you how many firefighters I know who say that that show is the reason they are in the fire service.

Shortly after our introduction to paramedicine, we began getting called to chemical spills and releases, because no one else would respond to or take care of them. Hazardous-materials response procedures were developed, and haven’t we come a long way from washing it down the sewer to a much more sophisticated and proactive approach to our response to these types of incidents! We jokingly refer to our haz-mat techs as our “Mop ‘n Glow guys.” But anyone who has been around an incident involving hazardous materials knows that they are definitely the people you want to rely on when the ethyl methyl bad stuff ends up on the ground or in the air.

Soon after haz mat came dive and swiftwater rescue. Then we entered the specialized rescue field—high- and low-angle rescue, confined space rescue, and trench rescue. There was a time when dirt was just dirt; now there are three different classes of soil—Class A, B, and C—and we treat all of them like Class C because of the engulfing hazard and everything else involved when you’re dealing with unstable ground.

We moved into collapse rescue, continued to hone our skills with auto extrication, and found ourselves handling all types of rescues. We became plumbers, electricians, roofers, and building construction and flood experts. A few years ago, they even turned us into hot water heater, stove, and furnace repairmen—this in part to carbon monoxide detectors commonly referred to by dispatch as “CO” alarms. Again, someone called us, and the fire service responded, often doing so with little or no training, as was usually the case when they threw us another job to handle. Specifically when we look at CO responses, we took this area like we do so many, researched it, refined it, trained for it, and ended up with a standard that others have modeled after.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, along came weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Before September 11, 2001, we talked about it and in many fire departments we trained for it. We discussed back then the idea of having to be trained and respond to an incident involving WMD and thought it was nuts. We’re never going to have to deal with something like this. That type of thing just happens overseas. We realized on September 11 just how vulnerable we are to acts of terrorism and that our way of life had to change both day to day as civilians and even more so in the fire service.

Now once again we have taken on another area of responsibility: We are at the forefront of homeland security. Most of our departments manage their emergency management program. We’re the ones that have planned for, prepared for, and responded to all major incidents and disasters. We’ve prepared our troops to march into the battle of homeland security issues and to handle everything from poison gases and substances to major incidents involving all sorts of terrorism. And what makes it tougher is we had to do it with little or no funding. We had to expand our programs and provide another service but without the money. Once again, the fire service has been called on to do something else outside of just fighting fires, outside of what we always envisioned as being a firefighter.

Firefighters continually ask, “How much more stuff are they going to give us? They keep giving us more stuff to do.” I’ve got news for you. It’s going to keep happening as long as the fire service is as talented and as full of as many special people as it is. They are going to continue to call us every time there is a new problem or challenge. If you give us any problem whatsoever, we will come up with a solution. Firefighters truly are the jack-of-all-trades, but we are the masters of them all. You give us any challenge, and we’ll face it and overcome it.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a paid or volunteer firefighter: We’re here to help people. We’re here to help their family. Simply put, our best day is their worst day. When they’re at their worst and life has them down, when they’ve got something horrible going on—whether it’s a fire, a medical problem, or some other type of disaster—we’ll be there for them and help them. We’ll do everything we can to make things better again. That’s what the fire service is all about.

The reality is, firefighters are talented, but it is also our aggressiveness in solving problems that can get us into trouble and, in some instances, to a point where we lose a firefighter. We end up putting ourselves in a predicament or situation that we shouldn’t be in. We end up going a step too far. We are so used to helping people, we are so used to stepping forward into harm’s way to help our fellow man that at times we take too many chances and we put our people in positions in which they should never be.

But that’s the nature of the beast in the fire service. It’s not an excuse but something we need to be aware of if we are ever going to control it. What we can do as fire service leaders and future leaders is everything possible, everything within our power, to make sure that we protect our personnel every way, whether it’s ensuring we have the proper PPE, portable radios that work, the proper training to do the job, the support from the fire department administration or the upper echelon, the proper apparatus and equipment, and MOST IMPORTANTLY the proper number of personnel—anything that will help us do the job better and more safely.

It’s kind of funny. Before September 11 so many politicians, city managers, and in some cases fire chiefs were beating up the fire service about staffing issues, about NFPA 1710, saying, “You don’t need as many firefighters,” “Back in the old days, we did it with a lot fewer people,” and “It’s just a push by the union.” But after September 11, you didn’t hear much out of them—well, you heard from them when they wanted to make an appearance with you or put their arm around you when the cameras were on or when they needed votes. They were the walls to climb and obstacles to overcome when it came to trying to increase staffing and obtain more funding. Their feelings were we didn’t need four people on a rig.

What amazes me is these are the same people who won’t go golfing without a foursome. They’ll call everybody they know trying to get a “fourth” but have no problem sending two or three people as a first-in company to a structure fire.

Our fight for staffing has to be strong. We need to continuously fight not just for more people but also for better equipment, better portable radios, better training, better facilities, and better apparatus.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of very good fire chiefs and some pretty good politicians. I’m talking about those who kind of woke up one day and found out they were chief. And a lot of fire departments don’t have the funding for more people and are fighting as we speak to keep what they have and not lose anything. And they’re some pretty good departments. I’m referring to those that have the money and don’t want to spend it on the fire department. They need to realize that all we want to do is make it safer for our troops. And for their comments about the unions, the fact of the matter is when you look at all of the great things that unions do, all the unions really want when it comes down to it is to ensure that their members are safe and go home to their families. Pretty simple.

And where are the politicians now? It makes you sad and angry to read about another fire station closing or the layoffs of firefighters, yet the politicians find the money to pay themselves and take care of their pet projects. That’s until the next “big one.” Then they’ll be asking where we were and why we weren’t prepared, and, when it suits them, they’ll be back out taking pictures with us and patting us on the back.

Our mission, when you look at it, is kind of split right down the middle. We’re there to provide the best protection possible for those we have sworn to serve and a service that is second to none. When you need us, when you have a problem no matter what it is, call us first. Even if it’s out of our area of expertise, we’ll find someone to help you.

Our mission also has been to promote family values. Whether you have a decent budget or not, one simple answer for accomplishing this kind of stuff is promoting family values. Treat people like family. Get your firefighters to treat the people to whom they are responding as family—as if they were their mom, dad, grandparent, or child. As if that’s their home or business. If you can produce that kind of atmosphere, that kind of attitude, then all the rest kind of falls into place. Your politicians will be happy. The boss will be happy. Your firefighters are going to enjoy the accolades for doing a good job and the thank-you notes for going above and beyond the normal expectations of a firefighter. And most of the public, which we have sworn to serve and protect, is going to be grateful and thankful for the services we provide.

That’s our mission. It’s simple. Our mission is to take care of people. We talk about the fire service family. We talk about our families at home. We can’t fulfill our mission and meet our goals if we don’t live by core values. And I’m talking about real-life, doable, realistic, attainable core values. We have to have something in which the entire group believes—something to stand by. People should be able to see firsthand what we stand for.

Without core values, we have no vision, no guiding principles. Without a vision, we have no way of fulfilling our mission. Without any of this, we’re like a bunch of ducks wandering in a thunderstorm, kind of hoping that what happens does so for the right reasons.

We’ve learned over years and years of mistakes, failures, and successes that we have to plan our strategy. We have to have a plan of what we’re going to do and a plan to back up that plan. They dialed 9-1-1 for us. We can’t dial 9-1-2. We’re it!

RICK LASKY, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. Previously, he was chief of the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department and training officer for the Darien-Woodridge (IL) and Bedford Park (IL) Fire Departments. While in Illinois, he taught at the Illinois Fire Service Institute and Illinois Fire Chiefs’ Association and received the 1996 International Society of Fire Service Instructors “Innovator of the Year” award for his part in developing the “Saving Our Own” program. He is the lead instructor for the H.O.T. Firefighter Survival program at FDIC West and is co-lead instructor for the program at FDIC. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and serves on the FDIC and FDIC West advisory committees.

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