By Rick Lasky
What’s amazing about the fire service is that when you look around, you see about the widest variety of people imaginable. Some are young, and some are old. Some have a lot of experience, and some have very little. All have different interests—some are into the fire side of it, some are into the EMS side of it, some are into the specialty areas, and some are into it all.
But when you look at the fire service, what do you want to get out of it? Why did you get into it? Whether you’re a paid firefighter, volunteer, paid-on-call, or any combination, you obviously didn’t get into it for the money. We all realize that we’re not going to get rich being a firefighter. (That’s why we all have side jobs.)
You got into it for something that money couldn’t buy. You got into it to save lives and protect property. To help people. To make a difference. To be a part of a team that is second to none. Most of you can remember wanting to do this from the time you were little. I know I did, just as my son does now. I can remember hiding under my dad’s turnout coat on the back seat of the car, only to scare the “you know what” out of him when he got to the fire. Then he didn’t know whether to leave me with the police or the driver of the pumper. He should have left me with the police; I probably would have stayed out of trouble that way.
The excitement of being a firefighter, responding to calls, fighting fires, and helping people was unmatched by anything else. But once you got there, you realized there was more to it than just that. First of all, you realized that the fire service was made up of special people. People who valued family. Little did you know that soon you’d belong to two families: the one at home and the one at the fire station.
You know the fire station family I’m talking about—the one your spouse is jealous of. We’ve all heard, “He’d rather spend time at that fire station than with me” or, as my wife would say, “To get his attention, I need a siren on my head and red lights on my chest!” Well, come to think of it, that would grab my attention. You know whom I’m talking about; you’re out there. My ex used to say, “I can’t get you off the couch to go to my mother’s, but that darn pager goes off and you’re running down the driveway with one leg in your pants yelling ‘Yahoo.’ What do I have to do to get you to do that when it’s time to go to my mom’s?” I said, “It’s simple; start her house on fire.”
In all seriousness, you realized that it DOES take a special person to do this. The kind of person who loves to help people and lives to be challenged. As we already know, you give a firefighter any problem, and he will solve it. You give any firefighter any challenge, and he’ll beat it. It’s because we can do it and do it well, no matter what it is.
THE QUALITIES OF A FIREFIGHTER
What qualities does it take to be a firefighter? We already know that you need to care about people, but probably most of all you need to have a love for the job. That unshakable passion of being a firefighter. You know, the one that never leaves you. But how do you get it? I love this job more than life itself. My family comes first, but I love this job. That passion didn’t just appear one day. It came from inside. It came from my father, who was a firefighter, and from being around great people like my mentors. People who love this job so much you couldn’t help but admire them. People like Chief Jack McCastland, who taught my Firefighter 1 class when I was 18 years old. Mac said then, “You want to be a good firefighter, you need to know building construction and fire behavior. You have to know how the building is going to react with the fire and how the fire is going to react with the building. Anyone can go out there and chop, but you still need to know building construction and fire behavior.” How very true.
The first time I saw Mac was at a fire. There was this big guy, leather helmet all bent up in the front, pike pole in one hand pulling gypsum board, a nozzle in the other hand that he was opening and closing with his chin. I said, “Man, I want to be like this guy.”
People like Chief Eddy Enright, who taught me about caring for and respecting your guys. He’d always say, “Look for their positives, Rick. Anyone can pick out the negatives. You do that and the negatives tend to go away. Catch them doing something right. It’s easy to catch them doing something wrong.”
And others like one of my best friends, Chief Tom Freeman, for being one of the smartest firefighters I’ve ever met and sharing that knowledge with me, saying things like, “A good officer or incident commander is the one who can predict his next alarm. Any mope in a white helmet can stand outside and handle what he’s got right now and burn it to the ground, but it’s the guy that can predict his next alarm, knows when he needs more resources before he runs out, where the fire’s going, and can think outside that box that does well.”
But probably the most important thing my mentors taught me was that you have to have core values, such as pride, honor, and integrity. And every last bit of it starts with integrity. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who talk about integrity and profess that they have integrity, but they do not.
Integrity. Integrity is built on character. It’s built on honesty—honesty with yourself and those around you. It takes having values. There’s more to it than just saying you have integrity. Just because I sleep in the garage one night, that doesn’t make me a car. You have to live it. Because when you really look at the whole issue, integrity does serve as the foundation for character and, simply put, your character is defined by how you act when no one is around, by how you act and what you do when no one is looking.
Honor. This is a quality built by respect and loyalty, by caring enough about those around you that you would do anything for them—on duty and off. The brotherhood to me means more than just a sticker on the windshield of my car. It means that when your kids are sick, we help out. That when you’re having a tough time with your bills, we help. That when you need to move into your new house, we move you; and when that new house needs a new roof, we tear off the old one and we reroof it. It also means that I would lie next to you and burn the ears off my head before I would ever leave you in a burning building. Honor is also not allowing anyone to give your company or department a black eye or do anything to hurt its reputation. You want to see an example of honor? Take a look at the majority of the instructors teaching in the fire service today. Most are trying to share or make it all a little better or safer and hoping to do nothing more than make a difference in the lives of the firefighters they teach. They are on a mission to teach firefighters how to go home from fires. I guarantee that you’ll see honor, and pride.
Pride. Pride doesn’t just happen. It takes work. It requires ownership. I received my first true lesson in pride and ownership about 20 years ago. We were working a fire in an old school building. We were on the second floor chasing fire in the void spaces, cutting floor away and opening up walls. I began to notice a crew across the room trying to get their saw started. This went on for a while. A couple of them put their axes down to help try and start it, forgetting that their axes will always do the one thing their saw won’t. Start.
While this was going on, Lieutenant Tom Shervino looked to his chief and said, “Let me go get my saw, chief.” Tommy said it again, and the chief said to wait a minute longer. But Tommy persisted. Finally his chief gave in and said, “Go get your saw Tom.” So off Tom went. Soon he returned with his saw. One pull, and it started and off he was cutting. A short time later he stopped, went into the hallway, refueled his saw, and was back cutting. He knew when his saw was going to run out of fuel before it did. He knew how to start it. He knew everything about it because it was his saw. By the way, the other crew never got their saw started.
I first thought, How arrogant, “my saw”! Later, when I was outside getting ready to pick up and return to quarters, I saw Tom and asked him what he meant by “his saw.” He looked at me a bit confused and said, “That’s not my saw. That’s Oak Lawn’s saw. But it’s my saw today and that’s my squad. That’s my company.” They weren’t his personal items, but he owned them that day—on his shift. Then it hit me. This guy was proud of his department, proud of his company, and proud of his tools, and with this pride came ownership.
A couple of people lately have written that “pride” is a bad thing. I’m not talking about the pride that is associated with arrogance and creates problems. I’m talking about that feeling you get with a job well done or that you get when you talk about your department. That pride is a good thing.
And while we’re on the subject of pride, honor, and integrity, provide promotional ceremonies for your members. Have them raise their right hand and swear to protect and serve. Have the mayor pin their badge on them or if their dad is a retired or active firefighter, let him pin it on. Let the people important in their lives join them on this special day and let them pin their collar pins on. This could be a spouse, one of their parents, a child, or an officer who helped or mentored them. Make it special. Too many people have gotten their badge of promotion in their mailbox or the old “give me that one and I’ll give you this one.” Take lots of pictures. Make it special, because it is.
By the way, what happened to the pictures of the guys? You know, after a call or next to their rig. Give them an awards ceremony and do it annually. Invite their families. Have the victims from some of the incidents to which you responded present them with the awards if you can. This can really work out great.
During one of our recent award ceremonies, we gave out the Award of Valor and several other awards. One was for a CPR save. While we had the companies on stage, we invited the “victim” to join us and present the awards to the guys who saved his life. Up until that point nobody knew who he was. Most thought he was a relative of one of our firefighters or maybe a past politician. No one realized that he was the guy who was down in full cardiac arrest after jogging and was at the ceremony in thanks for saving his life. When we were done, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Celebrate their accomplishments and brag about them. Same thing when you place a new rig in service. Do it right. Announce over the radio the retirement of the old rig and welcome aboard the new one, give it a bath, and push it in the firehouse (with the help of the driver) like we did in the “olden” days. Let them have company logos, something they can be proud of.
When I came to Lewisville, Texas, as chief, I noticed there were just two companies with logos. I asked the troops where the rest of the company logos were; they said there hasn’t been much support in the past from the administration, and they had to pay for them on their own. How much do decals and flags cost? How much of a return are you going to get back in pride? Support that, and maybe you won’t have to talk to them so often about taking care of the rig. Put the firefighter back in the firefighter and the firehouse back in the firehouse. Allow the firefighter to love the job and to have the passion.
WHAT KIND OF A FIREFIGHTER DO YOU WANT TO BE?
What kind of a firefighter do you want to be? How do you want people or, for that matter, your fire service brothers and sisters to feel about you? Where does it all start? It all starts on day one—your first day! Once again, what did you get into this profession for? What do you really want to get out of it? For years, a lot of our folks have sat around and reminisced about how it used to be and tell stories about that “star” rookie who walked into the firehouse, great attitude and all, the kind of new firefighter who, after you sat him down and filled him in on how it all works and what was expected of him, only had one request: “When you need something done, anything, think of me first.”
Where did those kinds of firefighters go, you may ask? They’re right in front of us. They’re the new guys walking in the door, and it’s most of the people we already have. We kind of forgot to instill those core values we talked about.
Do you have that passion for the job? If not yet, do you feel it growing inside of you? Are you willing to commit to our family? To our tradition? Understand that you really have to live by those core values. That you don’t disrespect the fire service family. That you don’t steal from a brother or cut him down at the kitchen table with trash talk. That you would do anything to make our profession better and anything to protect our family. That you would do the right thing, keeping in mind that doing the right thing doesn’t mean doing the right thing for the wrong reasons or to hurt someone but because it is the right thing to do.
Do you think about the things you did or said today? Do you regret any of it? If you do, how would you fix it? Remember, what you say in 30 seconds of passion can hang around for three years or better. And try not to fall into the trap where you think the shift before you has the slobs and the shift after you has the nitpickers. You may find when you switch shifts that really your guys were the slobs and the nitpickers!
As a rookie, remember that you’re starting your legacy when you walk through that door for the first time. It all has to start somewhere, so why not with you? Great firefighters have to come from somewhere. It really doesn’t take much, if you live by those core values that we discussed. Nobody’s perfect. I’ve said for years that “perfect people” and “know-it-alls” in the fire service can get you hurt and killed. You don’t have to be perfect to be a great firefighter. You just need good heart!
There are three things you need to do to be successful, though:
- Do what is right.
- Do your best.
- Treat others as you would like to be treated.
And then watch those relationships grow!
Get involved with your department. Study it. Understand its heritage, where it all started, and who got it there; and be concerned with where it is going. Soak up as much as you can. Get as much training as you can. Go to classes, and attend seminars. Ask questions, and read something about this job every day. Become as informed as you possibly can about the job, because when you get down to the point in your career where you know it all, you’re a step away from disaster.
Be the best you can be, and stay positive. It’s easy to sit around the kitchen table and find things wrong or complain. It’s harder to think about and talk about the good things.
Consider becoming one of the “Go-To Guys.” Someone people can depend on to get the job done—the person the boss can go to because he knows you’ll do it and do it well and usually without complaint.
YOUR OWN SIZE-UP
Here are some final points to ponder:
- Show up on time for your shift or your weekly meeting or drill.
- Wear your uniform, take care of it, and be proud of it.
- Take care of the firehouse. It is your home!
- Take care of your apparatus. It’s not just an image thing. (Think about it!)
- Check the shape your tools are in. Are they rusted and stuck to the side of the rig?
- Learn your trade before you learn the tricks.
- Train as if your life depends on it, because it does!
- Train on firefighter survival.
- Control the gossip, rumor, and character assassination mill—don’t contribute to it.
- Remember that you are creating your own legacy. It starts on your first day.
- Market your department, and defend our profession.
- Remember what you owe the public.
- Be as proud of the job off-duty as you are on-duty, and vice versa.
- Be passionate about our profession and willing to leave it better for the next guy.
- Take care of each other—for real.
- Ask yourself honestly, DO YOU HAVE A LOVE FOR THE JOB?
You can make a difference if you want to. It is the best job in the world. It’s up to you!
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.