Do We Know How To Be A Fire Family?
Steven S. Greene, FF/EMT (ret)
Being a part of a fire service means a lot of different things to different people. There are the “adrenaline junkies,” who love to hear the bells hit, the sirens scream and watch the lights start flashing. There are the “probies,” new to the job or department, who are excited to be a part of the fire service, but as of yet, do not have a great deal of knowledge. There are those with their five-to-ten-year-careers, who are used to the calls and the firehouse routines. And finally, there are the veterans, with anywhere from ten-to-thirty years of service. Yet no matter which of these levels you find yourself in, there is no denying that the firehouse is collectively one big family.
No matter the type of department you belong to, career, volunteer, part-pay or WUI, there is no doubt that you have not only heard the word “family” used many times in the firehouse, but that you have used it yourself. In some ways, the word holds true; some of us spend almost every shift as 24-on/48-off. Others spend a volunteer shift a couple of times a week. And some, camp in the wilderness as they fight the wildland “red devil” early the next morning.
The question is, in our hearts, on an everyday basis, do we see our own fellow firefighters, truly as family or only when we believe they have risen to a predetermined level? There is an old idiom in the fire service; the two things that firefighters detest most are change and status quo. Thus, a new probie, a rookie, a new volunteer or a WUI, often are forced to prove him/herself before being accepted by existing members. Yet didn’t each and every one of us take a similar oath, “To protect lives and property?”
Nevertheless, many of these fresh, new members and even temporary transfers are welcomed to the station or crew as “ghosts;” treated either as non-existent or as outsiders until they prove themselves. And ask yourself this, “Who do they have to prove themselves to?” You? Because you have more years on the job? Or you, because you do not believe that a woman is capable of being a terrific firefighter? Or because you are the senior member of the “house” and every rookie must “prove” themselves to you?
Let’s revisit the word family. If you have an older sibling, did your parents ask that sibling if he/she would “allow” them to bring another child into the family? If you are an older sibling, did your parents ask your permission to have another child? Get my point?
While we will all agree that every able-bodied, man or woman will need to learn a great deal, above and beyond what was learned in rookie school, in his/her newly assigned station, department, etc., I posit that this additional knowledge should have nothing to do with whether they are considered family or not. If they took the oath and received their badge, they are indeed family.
Unfortunately, far too many firefighters, of every rank, all too often want to test the rookies, not about true fire duties, responsibilities and/or tactics, but by denigrating them, forcing them to perform all the menial tasks of a firehouse, over and over again; perhaps to the point where he/she might quit. And when they do, those in that firehouse continue to besmirch them, with negative comments, e.g., “He couldn’t even wash the floor,” “She always complained when we made her do ‘toilet duty,” etc.
When I used to travel overnight for my former profession, I would always find some time to make my way and visit a local firehouse. I would knock on the door, ring the bell, or walk up to an open bay door. I would show them my ID and badge. And from that moment on, in over fifty visits, I was always treated as a “brother” firefighter. Oftentimes, I would even be able to run a call with them. However, while I would always offer to buy-in to a firehouse meal, I was never required to clean the bays, toilets, kitchen, etc., to “qualify” as a member of the fire service family. Moreover, I would always volunteer to help with meals, even offered and cooked a few, helped clean-up after the meal, even helped clean a rig that returned after a call.
Why? For me, the answer was simple. Before I joined my first combo department as a volunteer, I was a young man from suburban Boston, who lived a comfortable middle-class life and had worked, one way or another, since age twelve. I had not even planned on being a firefighter.
In this combo department, I was welcomed with open arms. For some of the members, we were the first Jewish people that they had ever met! Nevertheless, we were welcomed warmly, accepted by all, and immediately included. The three of us became fast friends, as did our families. Truly, it was the fire department’s Women’s Auxiliary that truly brought the word, “family” to have a stronger meaning in our department. Frequently, family celebrations were held at the firehouse and every paid and volunteer family was invited.
Ask yourself: do you have that same family atmosphere with your crew, station and/or department? Does your department have this atmosphere where a new arrival receives a warm greeting from all on his/her first day? Or do you maintain a fraternity/sorority mindset that the “newbie” has to prove his/her worth? Would you condone the abuse of probies, just because they are new to the fire culture?
In its earliest days, from the bucket-brigades to Ben Franklin’s first volunteer fire department and beyond, the word “family” was used because sons often followed their fathers’ examples. If the father was on the bucket brigade or a volunteer firefighter, the oldest son did the same, when he came of age. And the next one and one after that. As we progressed into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the number of both volunteer and career departments grew, we saw similar traditions. Multiple members of the same family, working for or with the same department as other family members, brought out the concept of the firefighting family. And while we can probably be assured that there was often good-hearted joking around, the sense of family was never lost.
What about today? Who are you? How do you welcome and approach new recruits? How do you interact with them? If we are going to use the word “family” then we damn well better live a “family” life, both inside and outside the fire service.
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