Tradition, TRADITION!

By Glenn P. Corbett

As a fire service instructor teaching new recruits, you’re concerned with many issues: ensuring that you have the proper equipment to conduct a training session, double-checking the safety procedures that will be used, verifying that the techniques you will be teaching can be understood and replicated by the students. You know the NFPA 1001 standards inside out, backward and forward. Your lesson plan is ready to go—or is it?

One of the most important things left out of the syllabus of many basic fire service training programs is fire service history and traditions. While knowing how to properly pull a ceiling can instill confidence in a probie, it is the knowledge and acceptance of fire service traditions and history that inspire pride in this newly minted firefighter.

We call the fire service a brotherhood. This means that we are a family—a family with many generations who have gone before. (Besides the military, how many other organizations have multiple generations of single families involved?) A collective legacy of good and bad, triumph and tragedy. We have a long and important history with a compelling set of traditions.

There are very few avocations in America that have such a varied and colorful history. Although we aren’t the oldest profession (although some would argue differently), we have built up a public persona of readiness and bravery. It is the pride within the fire service that gave the public this confidence.

In the fire service family, communicating history and traditions ensures the passing of the torch. For instructors, this means taking the time and making the effort to provide new firefighters with the information and direction they need to become one of the long, red line.

When preparing for your next recruit class, think about putting history and tradition into your lesson plans. Perhaps this means devoting an entire session, or maybe it means sprinkling history and tradition throughout the entire course.

Consider the following:

Tell our fire service story. The American fire service is older than our country. Tell the story of its beginnings with the bucket brigades all the way to today’s fire departments. Talk about the clothing firefighters have used over the years. Tell them about the earliest ladder trucks and hand pumpers. Throw in some trivia. For example, why are truck company helmet fronts colored red in many departments (do you know the answer to that one?).

Tell your fire service history. If your department is 10 years old or 100 years old, you have a history. How did your department begin? How were your early firefighters equipped? How many companies did your department have, and where were they located? Do any of the early fire stations still exist?

Talk tradition. Leave the classroom windows and doors open during this session—this is where you’ll see the collective pride of the new firefighters swell to fill up the room. Talk about the unique bond that creates the fire service brotherhood. Talk about the expectations placed on a new probie. Talk about what it means to get “first water” on the fire. Talk about the trumpets on the chief’s helmet (no, they’re not bugles!). Talk about packing another company’s hose or stealing its nozzle. Talk the slang of the fire service such as runs, workers, bunking (do you know that each of these words goes back at least 150 years in the fire service?). Throw in your own local verbiage such as the phrase “in full bloom” that is used to describe a working fire in San Antonio, Texas.

Point out the less-desirable traditions, such as alcohol, in the fire station and the rules that apply to them. Obviously, not all traditions of the fire service meet today’s public expectations.

Use artifacts. Tangible objects have a way of evoking interest and telling a story. Dust off the items in the display case in your chief’s office. Who wore that old helmet? How was that funny nozzle used? Where in the World Trade Center did that piece of steel come from?

War stories. One of the most useful and engaging topics an instructor can use is the war story. Tell the story of your department’s most important fires: the ones in which firefighters were lost, the ones in which many buildings burned, the ones that may have received national attention. In most cases, unless the fires were recent, this will involve some research on your part. Use microfilms of old newspapers to help you get the facts.

War stories of local fires allow students to place themselves at the fire and to learn the specific details. Who knows? Maybe you will create the department historian in the process!

History and tradition in the fire service are critical to the pride exhibited by a firefighter and the confidence felt by the public. It’s up to you—the instructor—to teach about these foundation pillars of the fire service and to pass the torch to the next firefighter on the long, red line.

GLENN P. CORBETT is a professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York City, a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a captain with the Waldwick (NJ) Fire Department. He previously held the position of administrator of engineering services with the San Antonio (TX) Fire Department. Corbett has a master of engineering degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. He authored two chapters on fire prevention/protection in The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). Corbett has been in the fire service since 1978.


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  • GLENN P. CORBETT , PE, is the former assistant chief of the Waldwick (NJ) Fire Department, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York City, and a technical editor for  Fire Engineering . He is the coauthor of  Brannigan’s Building Construction for the Fire Service, 5th Edition ; the editor of  Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II ; and an FDIC International executive advisory board member.

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