Stepping Up: Preserving History by Learning from the Past

By Ron Hiraki

When I was the chief of training for the Seattle (WA) Fire Department (SFD), I was on my day off, shopping with one of my daughters. A lieutenant greeted me and asked me nicely if he could tell about a great training idea that he had. This was a frequent occurrence; my daughters were used to waiting while I talked to someone. Besides, I believed this was a great opportunity to talk with one of “my customers.” He told me how a well-liked firefighter with nearly 30 years of service would be retiring in a few months. He said it was sad that when the firefighter retired, all of his knowledge, experience, stories, and history would go out the door with him.

The lieutenant suggested that the training division issue a directive for company officers to identify tenured members and hold “a drill” during which members could ask them various questions about the fire service before they retired. I told the lieutenant that he and other members did not need a directive from the training division to do that. He could just do it!  He said, “Chief, you’re right.”  I asked the lieutenant to tell me how his session went so I could share his idea and experience with other people.

Tapping into the knowledge, experience, stories, and history of tenured members can be done a little bit every shift, over the years, or at a retirement. Nonetheless, the lieutenant had a good idea. I own a book titled My Dad: His Story, His Words compiled by Dan Zadra and Kristel Wills, which poses a number of questions to a father. The father is supposed to write answers in the book and give the book to his children. I’ve been writing in my book to my daughters for almost two years. Many dads—and many firefighters—might resist writing answers to questions about their life and career. It’s a lot easier to just talk and tell stories than it is to write it all down. That way, you don’t have to worry about writing, spelling, and punctuation.

Whether you are a career or volunteer firefighter, you can ask a tenured member about their knowledge, experience, stories, and history with the fire department. You may do this individually in a one-on-one setting or as a small group of company, station, or shift members. This may be done on duty, but there will undoubtedly be interruptions. It might be better if the tenured member were invited to breakfast after shift or to another informal gathering off duty. The organizer could ask questions of the tenured member. You probably wouldn’t want to record the responses of the tenured member because it might stifle his responses and the interactions.

Following are a number of questions that you may want to ask a tenured member. Questions 1-14 are inspired by Zadra’s and Wills’s book. Some of the questions are similar to each other, so use the format of the question that fits you and the tenured member best. You can think of your own questions based on your fire department.

  1. What were your favorite subjects for training or drills, and why?
  2. Looking back, what are some of your proudest moments as a firefighter?
  3. What is the best advice you ever received once you became a firefighter, and from whom?
  4. What’s the best thing your company officer taught you?
  5. Where is the most interesting place you’ve visited as a firefighter, and why?
  6. What rules did the fire department have that drove you nuts?
  7. What was the worst trouble you got into in the fire department?
  8. What was your toughest lesson learned in the fire department?
  9. What are some ways—good and bad—that the fire department has changed since you joined?
  10. What was it like to become a _____ (driver, engineer, officer, chief)?
  11. What are some of the favorite things you’ve done with firefighters, on or off shift?
  12. What’s the best thing about being a firefighter? What’s the hardest thing?
  13. What’s your favorite memory of being a firefighter?
  14. What work have you done in the fire department that you are most proud of, and why?
  15. Who are the firefighters that you most admire, and why?
  16. How has firefighting equipment (hose, nozzles, ladders, saws, and so on) changed since you joined the fire department?
  17. How do you want firefighters to remember you?
  18. What advice would you pass along about being a firefighter?
  19. How has fire apparatus changed since you joined the fire department?
  20. How has the design of fire stations changed since you joined the fire department?
  21. How have firefighting tactics changed since you joined the fire department?
  22. What was the toughest time for your family because you were a firefighter?
  23. If you could “re-do” you career as a firefighter, what would you do differently?
  24. What assignment, company, or station did you like working at the best, and why?
  25. How has the personal protective equipment changed since you joined the fire department?

 

In the human resources profession, asking a departing member a variety of questions is called an exit interview. There are several good reasons for conducting an exit interview. Hopefully, the departing member will be more candid with their responses since they are leaving. When the interview is conducted properly and the information from the departing member is used appropriately, other people and the organization can benefit.

Asking a tenured member to answer some or all of these questions is a great way to learn from the past and to preserve the history of your fire department and the fire service. Don’t let all of that knowledge, experience, stories, and history go out the door and dissipate like steam.

I recently heard that the lieutenant who stopped me in the store that day is planning to retire from the SFD in 2014. I hope someone will honor him by asking him these questions. More importantly, I hope people will step up and learn from his knowledge, experience, and stories. I hope they in turn will pass that on when they retire.

 

REFERENCE

Zadra D and K Wills. My Dad: His Story, His Words. Seattle, WA: Compendium, Inc., 2008

 

Ron Hiraki began his career as a Firefighter in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, working in a variety of operational and administrative positions leading to his final assignment as Assistant Chief of Employee Development. Completing his career as an assistant chief for a small combination fire department, Hiraki has nearly 30 years of fire service experience in urban and suburban settings. Ron Hiraki has a Master of Science in Human Resources Development and is a consultant to number of public safety agencies for their selection and performance evaluation programs.

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