Are You Just Taking Up Space?

I have sure been a lucky camper during my time in the fire service. Many of the folks with whom I have worked over the past four decades have been incredibly interesting, talented and productive people. No matter what the situation, they would always show up, stand up, and play their "A" game. They were tough, thoughtful, resourceful, and, above all, team players. They made a difference.

When faced with a problem they worked hard to create a solution. When asked to put their shoulder to the wheel, they did just that. A number of these fine people are no longer with us. Fortunately it was my privilege to meet them as their careers were winding down and mine was just spooling up. I was the fortunate one, in that I was able to learn from people who had been in the business for a number of decades.

Unfortunately there were a number of other people who just seemed to be there. They specialized in attendance rather than productive labor. They were neither fish nor fowl. You could never count on them. They never wanted to contribute anything of substance. They did not even want to participate. Sometimes they acted like they never even wanted to be where they were. They were firefighters who did not want to fight fires. Why did they bother to show up?

The career people wanted their money, but they did not want to work for it. Many felt that the mere occupancy of space entitled them to their remuneration. A number of these folks specialized in channel surfing. What more could we expect when fire department spokesmen were advertising the job to the public as a sinecure position: Three hots and a cot, as we said in the military.

Heck, I saw a recent recruiting article for my old fire department where the departmental spokesman made a real great impression. He spoke of how a new firefighter would make a great deal of money and only have to work eight days per month. About the only thing he left out was the color TV and the comfortable beds. I know he impressed the daylights out of me. Are we recruiting firefighters or are we searching for wear-testers for a mattress factory. By golly, I think that sometimes we truly are our own worst enemies.

The behavior of these sorts of foppish folks was even more puzzling in the world of the volunteer fire service. Many people did the absolute minimum to stay on the roster. I could never figure out what made these people tick. Why did they bother to join us? Was there some obscure reason rattling within their brains that caused them to become volunteer firefighters? Heck, they did not even bowl or play softball.

There is a lesson to be learned here. It is my suggestion that each of you take a moment to assess the reasons for your continued membership in the fire service. I want you to take time to pause and ponder the depth and range of your commitment to the people with whom you serve. If you cannot come up with at least one good reason for staying the course in your fire department, it may be time to move along.

Perhaps one of the reasons we are having trouble recruiting into the fire service is that we have all lost our own focus and have no good things to share with the people we seek to recruit. How can we ask others to join with us if we fail to provide an explanation what it is that drives us to continue our membership through the years?

Let me share an important thought with you. Over the past decade or so, I have asked a number of people in a wide variety of fire departments what they loved about their labors. As I work to conduct fire department studies, I continually need to get a handle on the organization and the people who make up the critical human element. The answers revealed a great deal to me. Further, they have been consistent over the years.

Far and away the most prevalent answer was the camaraderie among the members of the fire department. That's right my friends; people told me that they liked being around other people who were working within an environment of shared love for the fire service. The people with whom I spoke showed an overwhelming solidarity.

Regardless of what they felt about the leaders of their organization, they kept coming back because they did not want to disappoint their buddies. It is this aura of brotherhood that I have witnessed in every instance. While they level of brotherhood varied, it was always there. Let me urge you to remember one thing my friends. I want to state unequivocally that I have found brotherhood is a sex-neutral term. My daughter Katie is a part of the brotherhood of firefighters.

I strongly believe that the concept of brotherhood describes the satisfaction people receive from laboring with other people who share their fears, joys, loves, disappointments, and hatreds. It describes the pride that people feel in being part of an important and valuable community service. More than that, it allows people to feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

Billy Goldfeder and I only get together on a few occasions to share our wit, wisdom, and love for the fire service and they people who labor along with us. Nonetheless we are brothers. The same is true for Harvey Eisner and Jeff Barrington at Firehouse magazine and Bobby Halton at Fire Engineering.

I believe that not a day goes by when Billy, Jeff, Harvey, and Bobby are left out of my thoughts. The same holds true for Jack Peltier in Massachusetts, Steve Austin and Ken McMahon in Delaware, Roger Melchoir in Florida, and Chip Comstock in Ohio. That is just the way it is in the brotherhood.

Perhaps it is because we share emails frequently. However I would prefer to think that it is because I know that they are there for me. I want them to know that I am there for them. Let me assure you that each of us is laboring every day to make the fire service a better place to be. Whether our labors are being undertaken at the local, regional, state, or national levels the outcome is the same. The fire service is a better place and wherever it is we do our good works does not matter. We are all members of the brotherhood.

Let me now describe a member of the fire service who is not on the same team with you or me. No names, but you will recognize this person. Sadly, I want to assure you that this person is not alone. This is the person who rarely attends a meeting of the organization.

They have no good reason for their lack of attendance. They are not at work or volunteering somewhere else. They simply do not come. This same person rarely attends any form of training session. It is their claim that they learned it all at the fire academy and have no need to waste time going over the same things.

When it comes to emergencies this person is the man (or woman) who is never there. You can never count on them in the tight spots. They specialize in making a last-minute appearance to get their credit at the post-incident roll call ceremony. Be aware that these are the people upon whom you can never rely.

I do not want you to get the wrong idea here. There is a distinct difference between what you should expect of a younger member and what you can hope expect from a veteran who still takes a glove and heads out onto the field each day. Let me pause for a moment to mention something to you younger folks out there.

There are those of us out here in the world that have been in the business for many decades and are slowly beginning to wear out. We are getting tired. Many of us were rolling out to fires before you were born. The very fact that we are still here amazes most of us. If I had ever known that I would live this long, I would have taken better care of my body. If we seem to be a step or two slower than the rest of you young pups, it is because it might be time for you to take over our duties.

I want you to know that as long as we can contribute, each of us will. As long as we can share our knowledge and experience, we will. Let me assure you that the one thing I am most sure of after forty years in the business is that I do no know it all. The more I learn, the more I realize I do not know. However, what I do bring to the table is a willingness to admit my limits as well as a willingness to reach out to my network for the answer to your problem.

My concern in this article is for the person who never was, nor ever will be a boil on the butt of a real firefighter. It is just a crying shame that you cannot go after some of these people for violating the fraud statutes for impersonating a firefighter. I do not want to think about how many phonies we were forced to carry for a career in my old department because they had political protectors.

This is a problem that straddles the border between career and volunteer fire departments. It is a universal problem that is basically being ignored because of the powerful players involved at the local, county, state, and national levels. It sort of reminds me of an old movie entitled, The Man Who Never Was; the story of a plot to create a person who never lived.

Heck, I have seen that phenomenon time and again over the decades since I graduated from the U.S. Air Force Firefighting School in 1966. The worst cases are given a special, insulting nickname. These are the people we remembers as being "Legends in the Own Minds."

You cannot accomplish anything positive in this life unless you are firmly rooted in the rich fire service soil of believing, loving, sharing, and participating. You need to actively believe in the rightness of our mission. We are an arena wherein our relative value is assessed according to some strict criteria. An unwillingness to participate to the level expected by your fellow travelers is grounds for failure.

The treatise for this visit with you is quite simple. If you are to be a productive fire department member you must come to the table with something. You cannot keep returning to the table and mooching off of your buddies. If you have a true faith and belief in what you do, it will show itself in how you play your part as a member of the team. If not, that too will show itself in time.