Are You Contagious?

"I don't want to go to work today!" How many times have you started your day with that statement? We all have. Although it may be true at some points in our lives, we must be careful that we don't make it "contagious." Some days it is really hard to keep a positive attitude and stay "on task," but it doesn't have to be if we can find ways to keep away the negative attitudes and all the negativity that results from it.

Once upon a time in your fire service career, you were probably the most energetic, excited and motivated person in your company. The trick is finding out how to stay that way. We must always strive to find the "good side" of our job and continually work on our relationships with our colleagues. A negative attitude will not only affect you, but will trickle down to those around you. One person complaining seems to lead to another and soon it has consumed your entire station or possibly even your department. It's simply "contagious."

So, are you "contagious"? When you look up the definition, you find that "contagious" means spreading from one person to another. Are you the positive or the negative difference in your department? In today's times of decreased staffing, layoffs, brownouts or blackouts, and increasing run numbers, it is easy to find ourselves being pulled into a cycle of constant negativity. It's time to stop the cycle of complaining, stop it right here and now, stop it with you! Have a good attitude and show it in your words and actions. Always look for the good things, not the bad.

Our fire departments are unique in that we have many advantages; just open your eyes and ears to them. Most of us work far fewer days per year than the average person does. That's one advantage. We get to spend time between calls with people who have a lot of the same interests as we do. That's another advantage.

By now, you may be asking yourself, who is this guy and why should I take advice from him? My only answer is I am where you were earlier in your career, the guy riding in the backseat of the fire truck and ambulance! Sometimes, the voice from the backward-facing seat is not as easily heard as we progress through our fire service career. The choices that we make early in our fire career will affect every day for the rest of our lives, personally and professionally. We need to focus in on the things we can control, as you have a choice on how you will react to every situation you are presented with.

Our attitude affects our behavior up front with all of our customers. A bad attitude may be alienating our colleagues as well as keeping us from that next step or new position. Find what is good about your job and stay focused on it as you go through the day. Begin each tour by finding something that needs to get done, and do it with a smile. You will be amazed at the response you will receive from your coworkers. They will notice your change immediately. Have you ever stopped to think that maybe taking the extra time to do something the right way with a smile could make that big of difference? It can and will!

When you experience working with someone who doesn't complain, but goes the extra mile with a smile, you find just exactly how refreshing a positive attitude can be. This person can also infect your whole station, not with words, but with actions. A positive attitude is "contagious." I have had the pleasure of working with many different types of firefighters and leaders and I always find it amazing to watch the station change with just the introduction of one member. It is our job to realize that only we can control our attitudes, to say "he makes me so angry" is a bad choice and no one can "make you" do anything. You make the choices and this time you must suppress your feelings and express a positive attitude so that you don't give power to those who frustrate you.

Our attitudes are influenced by many things and people and can be traced all the way back to our parents. What was their attitude when they would come home from work? Was it "I had the best day at work today" or "Today was such a terrible day at work"? How often as children did we hear these types of comments from adults? They can leave a lasting impression on us. The same is true at your fire station. Remember the shift when everyone was sitting in the kitchen as you came in and you heard, "We were up all night last night, but we sure did make a good save"? This can have a lasting effect on the next shift. This is all part of the cycle of "contagiousness."

OK, it's decision time. How are you going to be "contagious" — positively or negatively? With a small amount of effort and a lot of concentration, we can become more positive employees. As firefighters, we all know that our job isn't just fighting fires; there are many not-so-exciting aspects as well. Start with your next shift, grab the toilet brush and smile while you're doing your chores. Why? Because you have been chosen to serve your community as a firefighter. We are a proud profession full of noble and courageous people. Take pride in everything you do. I promise that when you do, the whole station and beyond will notice and the vicious cycle of complaining will stop because you are contagious!

RYAN PENNINGTON is a firefighter/paramedic for the Charleston, WV, Fire Department and a member of West Virginia USAR Task Force 1. He has over 15 years of combined fire, rescue and EMS experience, starting with a local volunteer department and continuing through EMS for five years as a critical care paramedic. Pennington transferred to the career fire service in 2003 and has worked for the City of Charleston since 2007. He is a West Virginia State Instructor 2, Hazmat Technician and Certified Fire Officer 2. He blogs at and may be contacted at