Civilians Ask Firefighters: Why Do You Do That?

Firefighters at scene of house fire

Article by Tom Warren

Photo above courtesy of Bruce Garner

During the last holiday season, I attended many holiday gatherings with family and friends. This is always a happy time of the year when we get to reconnect with the people in our lives. My family knows of my love for the fire service and when I am introduced to people, my family is sure to note in the introduction that I was a firefighter for many years. Conversations usually turn to my experiences in the fire service and how the fire service “really” operates.

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It seems that many people harbor a curiosity and sense of mystery about what happens behind those overhead doors of the firehouse. People usually start out asking if it is really like what we see in the popular firefighter TV shows and movies. I usually sense a genuine and healthy curiosity about the lives of firefighters and seldom do I sense that they are critical of what we do or even how the fire service affects local taxes. I breathe a sigh of relief when the curiosity is focused on what happens during our work and not on how much it costs to have trained firefighters available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  Happily, I find that many people have had some encounter with firefighters, usually through our EMS work, and are impressed with the scope of our knowledge and skills. I always focus on the positives of our work, such as the personal fulfillment, continual training, the camaraderie, the excitement, helping those experiencing the worst day of their lives, and of course getting to work with big, noisy toys (fire trucks and equipment).

These discussions usually have some common areas that people are curious about, and usually the curiosity manifests itself as why we do some of the things we do. I will list some of the common questions here and how I usually respond to them, and perhaps you will find you have also been asked some of these questions.

Why are there so many firefighters standing around looking at the building on fire?

Often people ask why there are so many firefighters standing outside a burning building, seemingly doing nothing while the building is burning. Surely the firefighters working inside the burning building could use their help? This is really a great question and one that indicates that the person asking is concerned about the firefighters working hard at the fire.  I usually start by explaining how fireground management has evolved a great deal in recent years, focusing on the personal safety of the firefighters operating inside the building and thank them for recognizing our common concern for firefighter safety. Staging firefighters and equipment just outside the burning building with the sole focus on rescuing a firefighter who is disoriented or injured meets that concern. I usually explain how the air in our air tanks usually only lasts for 30 minutes or so and must be changed at that point means more firefighters appear to be simply milling around the fireground socializing. The third aspect is the need to provide rehab for the firefighters, again meeting our common concern for firefighter safety. The response I get is usually one of approval that we are operating efficiently and as safely as possible.

Why do fire trucks show up when I called for an EMS unit?

This question is often asked by someone who is experiencing a medical emergency or who called on behalf of someone else who is experiencing a medical emergency. On the surface it does appear that the fire department does not know what it is doing and simply sending a fire truck in error. The person asking this question simply understands the obvious–a fire truck is for fires and the EMS unit is for medical emergencies. The general public is usually not aware that most fire departments across the country have adopted a first responder program. They are not aware of the high level of medical training fire departments across the country have achieved in recent years. The fire truck is equipped with the same lifesaving equipment and drugs as an EMS unit and also has highly medically trained firefighters ready to start emergency medical care. In most cities and towns, a fully equipped fire truck and medically trained firefighters will arrive much quicker than an EMS unit and can begin lifesaving treatment immediately. The first responder program is not a sign of incompetence but an effective, efficient use of resources. People generally realize that the fire department is addressing the medical emergency in the best interest of the patient and acknowledge that getting help quickly means a fire truck may show up before an EMS unit.

Why do you use the sirens and air horns even when no one else is on the road?

The person asking this question simply does not understand how dangerous responding to an emergency can be for responding firefighters. As firefighters, we respond to all types of emergencies at all times of the day, in every condition imaginable. Sometimes the traffic is light and sometimes heavy. Responding fire apparatus have even caused some drivers to freeze and stop right in front of the responding apparatus. The simple answer is that every state grants responding fire apparatus and emergency vehicles privileges so we can reach the scene of an emergency as quickly as possible. These privileges are codified in local laws and ordinances, and some privileges that responding emergency fire apparatus are granted include:

  • parking the fire apparatus irrespective of laws or posted restrictions;
  • proceeding through red lights and stop signs;
  • and exceeding speed limits and direction of movement exemptions (one way streets against traffic).

Most everyone will agree that these privileges are necessary during emergency responses, but the aspect they often miss is how other drivers know we may exercise these privileges if we do not use our emergency lights, sirens, and air horns. People quickly realize that the warning devices are not only used to clear a path for the responding emergency vehicles, but they are also how we communicate our intentions to other drivers on the road.

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Why do firefighters take the fire trucks to the grocery store?

This question often suggests that the firefighters are wasting diesel fuel and adding unnecessary wear and tear on the fire truck. On the surface, this looks like a logical question and an easy way to reduce the cost of operating a modern-day fire department. Carefully explaining the work schedule of firefighters and the need to have lunch/dinner like any other working person clearly illustrates the problem firefighters have.  Keeping the fire crew intact as a unit is important for its effectiveness; it is simply not right to send one firefighter to do the shopping, leaving the fire company short staffed. Explaining that there are some restrictions associated with this policy is also important. Firefighters must park the fire apparatus in a position where it is ready to respond yet removed for other shoppers. Firefighters undertake grocery shopping only in the fire company’s first due district, spend as little time as possible in the grocery store, leaving the driver of the fire apparatus with the truck. They also remain in radio contact at all times, keeping all members in the grocery store together. This issue came up in my fire department following a citizen’s complaint. The issue was resolved when the amount of money the firefighters were spending for food in the city each day was calculated. The department had 100 firefighters on duty every day and a shift change every night with another 100 firefighters. That’s 200 firefighters working each 24-hour period spending approximately five dollars each. The amount that the firefighters were contributing to the local economy was nearly $1,000 each day. It turns out that we were our own economic engine for the city. Firefighters are also required as part of their training to be out in their districts every day to maintain a situational awareness of their districts. With this thought in mind, the concept of wasting fuel and additional wear and tear on the fire apparatus is not appreciable.

Do you have a Dalmatian in the firehouse?

I love this question because it tells me that this person who is curious about the firehouse mascot has an understanding of the history and traditions of the fire service. I usually answer by quickly listing all the firehouse dogs that were part of my many years in the fire service. I can easily remember each of their names and what fire companies had dogs. I never tire of telling the story of Penny, who lived at Engine 12 on Admiral Street. Penny would walk around the firehouse while the loud speaker would announce fire companies being dispatched around the city. Penny would simply continue her normal routine in the firehouse until she heard “Attention Engine 12.” She knew when she heard that dispatch she was going for a ride on the fire truck and easily beat all the firefighters to the truck. There are still Dalmatians in many firehouses across the country and I suspect there always will be. These dogs provide the firefighters with companionship and, as we have come to learn, they also help reduce some of the stress that can follow some of the more troublesome responses we make.

I know my experiences in the fire service are not unique, and many firefighters field questions like this as well. For the most part, people admire firefighters and are sincerely interested in our work, our professional lives, and what drives us to do the work we do. When people ask questions like this it is important to remember it is our opportunity to share with them this precious gift we have been given, that of being a firefighter.


Tom WarrenThomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.


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