Find a mirror and look at it: Do you see a professional firefighter? Regardless of whether you’re paid or not, the criteria are the same. The chance of dying in the line of duty (2001 being a horrendous exception) is the same. Still, I contend that there is a much higher degree of professionalism in the career service than in the volunteer service. I make that statement even though I’ve been a volunteer firefighter for 20 years, am educated way beyond my usefulness, and teach firefighting for my home state. I’ve been in a lot of fire stations, career and volunteer, and, with precious few exceptions, the story is the same: The vollies don’t get it.

I don’t pretend that this is true in all cases. I have been to career stations where the captain was egotistical and dictatorial. However, in those stations, you typically have the same breakdown of the chain of command accompanied by the petty insecurities that run rampant any place where the boss is an idiot. Just as in the business world, that “leader” finds it impossible to retain good people and subsequently difficult to do his job properly. Except in the rare case where incompetence goes up the line, this situation does not last long.

Some volunteer departments also defy this conclusion with training requirements and officer standards that prevent “placeholders” from having an effect on operations. Uniformly, the leadership of these teams is dedicated to excellence and sets an example from the top down of how to do the job right. New people get a consistent message from Day One, and would-be applicants figure out long before they’re permanent that there is no room for people who are not committed to the team.

Look around the room at your next meeting. Do you see a group of fit, dedicated people with focus? Is there camaraderie and mutual respect? Or is there an undercurrent of petty issues and jealousy that lies just below the surface of every discussion? Is there an honest discourse of what works and what doesn’t, or is the prevailing rule, “We’ve never done it that way”?

My observation is that the career service avoids a lot of this trivial-mindedness. Officers are chosen for the most part because of ability and knowledge, and they are smart enough to realize that they don’t know it all. The best officers surround themselves with other competent professionals they can depend on to do the job properly. Different opinions are weighed; validated; and, if they work, incorporated. Each member of the team is valued for what he brings to the table.

Contrast that with some volunteer departments in which officer selection is based on seniority or nepotism; lack of firefighting tactics is not an issue. Two years of experience 10 times is not 20 years of experience! Since these officers don’t care much for training, the message gets passed down the line fairly quickly. Newbies recognize early on that there is no penalty for not training and randomly scheduled training sessions are routinely postponed or poorly attended. This mode of operation is a recipe for disaster: Sooner or later, a clueless captain will condemn to death a clueless firefighter by assigning him a task that neither individual had the knowledge to know was stupid or irrelevant.

And then there’s the brotherhood/respect/ honor thing. Did any of your retirees die recently? Did your department post an honor guard at visitation? If so, did the members grouse and complain about the duty or just not show up? Did you put an engine in the procession, or was it “too much hassle, and if we do it for him, we’d have to do it for everybody”? Where is the respect for the years of service? Where is the brotherhood?

Take another look around that room. If you go down in a fire, how many of your team members have the strength, skill, knowledge, and dedication to make a competent rescue effort? Do you have the strength, skill, knowledge, and dedication to save one of your own? Does your department have enough trained and competent people to make a well-planned attack? Some departments have gone to an unofficial “department within the department,” a core of serious and committed individuals who depend on each other, embrace the brotherhood concept, and train/work together seamlessly. Interestingly, this “team” always seems to be on the attack line, is always doing the extrications, is always part of the solution. The secret is they know what they’re doing! They know how to get dressed quickly, how to find the problem quickly, how to solve it quickly. While the other people are taking their SCBA masks off to put their hoods on (“Hey, it’s been awhile—anybody could have forgotten that!”), the ventilation is done, the line is in, and the fire is out. If one of “the team” goes down, his teammates will know, regardless of the fact that the “captain” outside is still trying to figure out onto which side of the clipboard those funny little brass tags snap.

Are you a professional? Do you have what it takes to step into the void when a brother or sister or child or invalid needs you to survive? If you do, are you willing to get the training and develop the teamwork so that your sacrifice won’t be in vain? Or are you a halfhearted “redneck with a red light” who joined the department with the goal of doing as little as possible just to stay in?

Take another look at that mirror: Are you part of the solution or part of the problem? If it’s the latter, you need to seriously examine your motives for being there and whether you’re up to the task of straightening it out. If you’re an officer, you need to face the cold hard fact that you’re in command. Others will examine decisions you make with the benefit of hindsight and without stress. If your command decision results in the death or injury of one of your people, can you justify it? Can you live with it?

Regardless of whether you’re career or volunteer, this job requires a professional. If you can’t be one, then you are putting the lives of your brothers and sisters, as well as your own, at risk. The old attitude “You can’t expect too much, we’re only volunteers” doesn’t work in court, and it doesn’t work in life. Volunteer fires burn just as hot as career ones and kill people the same way. Firefighting is not a hobby; if you’re treating it that way, you need to look for a new one.

LUKE STEELE, a volunteer firefighter since 1982, is a certified Firefighter II, an EMT, an emergency rescue technician (ERT), and a North Carolina certified instructor for Firefighter I and II.

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