Firehouse Humor: The Ultimate Prevention Solution?

Firefighters who do prevention consistently ask how they can get support from those firefighters who are on the rigs. Fire stations abound with hallway echoes of “those prevention people” and “those suppression people!” (I am being nice, G-rated...

After the survey was complete we met outside to discuss what we learned, what we thought and how that would apply if we had a fire at this location. But, of course, you can’t get serious about anything in a firehouse until you get the humor out of the way – and here it came. Right off the bat they started on me and prevention – which in firehouse translation means this was something important to them. To summarize the tongue-in-cheek discussion, they all seemed to be concerned for my cardiac health after seeing this building, and they listed every fire prevention issue that their experienced suppression eyes saw, and wanted to know if I would be ok or if I was now having chest pain, shortness of breath, feeling faint or needed to take a sick day.

So to continue the humor, I changed it up a bit. My intention was just that – humor; but the end result was rather interesting.

Instead of my usual pulpit preaching to the “suppression junkies” on the need for prevention through inspections and education (my usual repertoire to which they were surely prepared to counter with humors challenges that would have both entertained and educated), I simply stated “I don’t care.”

And a hush fell across the crowd…

In as serious as a tone I could muster I asked, “Why?” I pointed to the V-type building construction with the drooping truss roof, filled to capacity with sleeping children and asked, “Why fix it? Let’s just go back to the station and wait for the fire call when these kids are trapped. We could rescue at least 25 percent of them before this match stick goes up. Then we’d be heroes! And that’s why we do this job – to be heroes, right? If there is no fire then how can we be heroes?”

The silence was deafening… so I continued!

“Then we can scream to our taxpayers that we need bigger fire trucks and more people so we can respond to more of these fires with people trapped and save maybe 50 percent next time. With all these fires we can hug each other and call one another brother. You’re not enough of my ‘brother’ now, we have to let each other be put at risk because that is the true ‘brotherhood’ right; allowing risk to happen and then putting each other in the middle so we have stories to tell? ”

The reaction I got was pretty amazing.  

These hardcore suppression firefighters were now arguing with me (very successfully and forcefully I might add) about the need for prevention! The passion in their eyes and conviction in their speech said it all. They argued every point I made with such fervor, especially at my interpretation of what the brotherhood is, that anyone of them could have been the star keynote speaker at any NFPA prevention conference. I actually think some of them may have even read one of my articles at some point.

It was amazing what they knew about (and even believed about) prevention; and that underneath all that soot and char, they were simply people who honestly cared about their jobs and what their responsibility really means when they put that badge on their chest.  That passion was/is there all the time, it just had to be uncovered and brought to the surface.

What started out as simple firehouse humor, resulted in an amazing outcome that did what humor is designed to do – forge our brotherhood; bonding us in the revelation that prevention/suppression is not about “us” against “them.” Our bond is in caring for those we protect and those sitting to the left and right of us on the rig; the debate is only on perspective and application of how that is accomplished. Through humor, progress was made in erasing that imaginary line.

While I believe all parties walked away that day shaking their head in bewilderment asking themselves “what the heck just happened,” through the use of firehouse humor we again made progress in solving the world’s problems and developed an appreciation for different points of view. It was an educational experience where the salty/experienced veterans met the new “prevention first” generation and found a common ground on which our department can build a new solid structure for our future generations of firefighters to grow into.

When one believes that something is “right” and the “way it needs to be done” down to their soul (especially in our business where saved lives are the end result that we all seek), those opinions are not easily swayed over a cup of coffee or a 30-minute presentation during departmental training, nor will any amount of force, insult or argument change anything. More often, the separation deepens, feelings are hurt and the problem worsens.