The Fire Scene: The Reality of Life in the Fire Service

Chief John Salka looks at some new concepts and trends that are swirling around the fire service that don't contribute to our goal of serving others.

John Salkav3

I believe that the fire service is continuously evolving, and sometimes the new norms are great, and sometimes they’re not. I am thrilled with many of the new concepts and ideas that are swirling around the fire service, but I also am noticing some trends that I believe don’t contribute to our goal of serving others. 

Many of the fire service articles and presentations that I have seen lately are overly concerned with the condition, treatment, comfort and, yes, pampering of the American firefighter. This isn’t a career or volunteer issue or a large or small department issue, but I do believe that it’s an important issue for us all to consider.

I have talked about some of these ideas before now, but I will group several of them together here to create a more complete concept. Additionally, if every firefighter (yes, chiefs and company officers are firefighters) understands and agrees with the following ideas and puts them into practice, I believe that we can take the fire service to a new, higher level of service to our customers.


Protect and serve

Let’s separate our mission from our comfort. In case you missed that class, our mission is to protect and serve the public. That comes first! We exist first and foremost to provide life-saving and community-preserving service to our communities. Sometimes this service will interrupt the “down time” activity that we are engaged in, such as watching TV, playing handball, washing our private vehicles or studying for promotion. The rule here should be to stop what you’re doing for you and get moving on the mission. We often talk about which company is first-due or second, which unit can stretch a handline quickly and which company makes the best and most successful searches. Think about those ideas, and remember, they are waiting for you.


Increase your awareness

Let’s separate awareness from familiarity. This, too, is a rather simple idea. Let’s start with the familiar. That’s the world that we all exist in every day. When you’re at the firehouse working a shift or attending a meeting or other activity, you’re in a familiar environment. Many of us like to stay right there and not choose to become aware of what else is present around us. For example, you are sitting around the kitchen table in the firehouse after finishing lunch. The noon news is on the TV and a fresh pot of coffee is brewing. You’re at a fork in the road. Some firefighters will fall into the familiarity mode and pour a cup of coffee, watch the news and linger there until another alarm comes in or the next show starts on the TV. However, other firefighters will jump up, grab that cup of coffee and head out to the apparatus floor to take another look at the new tool that was placed into service that morning, increasing their awareness of the world around them—the fire service world!


Exert yourself

Let’s separate exertion from rest. Rest is a great pastime that just about everyone enjoys, and there’s no problem with rest, unless it’s what you’re doing most of the day. If you’re going to the firehouse to rest, you didn’t read the job application. Rest is wonderful after a job, after a long, busy shift, even after a difficult training event. But firefighters in the firehouse should be working, exerting themselves continually. We all talk about how difficult the work that we do is and how challenging it is to be a firefighter. Well, I’m not a personal trainer, but I don’t believe that sitting around on the couch waiting for a run is proper preparation for the work that we’re expected to perform. Add to that the fact that lives—other people’s lives!—often hang in the balance. The next time that you find yourself watching TV or resting for more than a little while, hop up and head out to the engine and get some exertion.


Need a “prep” talk?

Let’s separate preparation from routine. Whether you’re at the firehouse for an evening drill or a 24-hour shift, your time is limited. Don’t fall into the habit of following the daily routine, day after day and shift after shift. The primary use of time in the firehouse should be to prepare for service. The down time in the firehouse isn’t yours! Drill, train and practice the skills that you need to master to serve the people who depend on you. 


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