What Matters As A Firefighter
By: Dr. Burton A. Clark EFO
TWENTY‑NINE YEARS and twenty days ago, I had the privilege and honor to be in your seat. Today, being invited by Class 329 to address you is a greater privilege and higher honor. Thank you.
On November 10, 1972, 1 graduated from DCFD Recruit Class 249. Today, I can’t remember what the speakers had to say, and thirty years from now you won’t remember what I had to say. Why? Because the speech doesn’t matter. What will matter to you thirty years from today will be your health, family, pension, and career satisfaction. It will take courage, commitment, and competency to have these blessings.
On the topic of your health, the fire service has always been and always will be dangerous. That is why only an elite few enter the discipline. Early in my career, my lieutenant told me that firefighters have to get killed because it’s part of the job. I have rejected that notion for thirty years. Even after September 11, I still cannot accept that belief.
What are you willing to risk for firefighting?
You must decide today if being injured or killed is part of the job. I pray that none of you are ever faced with a World Trade Center event. Since that infamous day, which we all vicariously experienced, the fire service now has a new understanding of what is possible. Your job over the next thirty years is to act on the probable to ensure your safety, health, and survival.
And you can “do the right thing.” Maintain you physical fitness to reduce your risk of a heart attack, which is our number-one killer. Wear your seatbelt going to and returning from alarms to reduce your risk of vehicle crashes, which is our number two killer. Use all your PPE and BSI to protect yourself from long‑term illness. Follow the department’s SOPs and your training doctrine. Because in every NIOSH Firefighter Line‑of-Duty Death Report, the victims and others at the incident did not follow the SOPs and training doctrine. It is simple, but not always easy to “do the right thing” when others around you are not. It will take courage.
Your firefighting family
From today on, you will have two families, the one you live with and the one you work with. Few disciplines share the unique camaraderie of the fire service. As a D.C. firefighter, you have passport and open invitation to any fire station in the world. Along with this is instant friendship and professional credibility. But the fire service cannot take the place of a loving spouse, children, and grandchildren who always want you to come home to them. Your challenge over the next thirty years will be to keep two lovers. Not an easy task, but firefighters are trained to do the impossible.
You will know if the two passions have been satisfied at your retirement party if an equal number of your fire-service colleagues attend out of respect for the contributions you have made to the discipline, and family members attend out of appreciation of your love. You will have cared for your two families well. It will take commitment.
On the topic of your pension, I will defer to your capable union leadership, benevolent government, and grateful community.
Are you a happy firefighter?
Now is the difficult topic: your career satisfaction. Each one of you will have to develop your own yardstick over the next thirty years to measure satisfaction. What will give you fulfillment and gratification? What will meet your needs, desires, and appetite? How will that change over time?
The DCFD and the fire-service discipline are truly a calling that offers unlimited opportunity to test you mentally, physically, and emotionally. I cannot give you a measuring device, but I will share with you four ideals that have helped guide me over the past thirty years.
Science of firefighting
First, the art and science of being a firefighter is a life and- death vocation that requires you to perform every task one hundred percent correctly, one hundred percent of the time. Because over the next thirty years, you do not know which task, at what time, could be the failure that changes a mistake into an accident that results in a tragedy.
Second, society trusts firefighters. It is your duty to act professionally, follow a code of ethics, and deliver the highest standard of care. What will help you reach this goal is to treat all people as your family, friends, or neighbors.
Third, do your best all the time. Then determine how you can do better the next time. This will require life‑long education, training, practice, and research.
Fourth, honor the past. A lot of people and events got you to where you are today. Celebrate the precious present. You have accomplished much, and tomorrow belongs to no one. Believe in the future. You are responsible for creating it, and the future is where you will spend the rest of your life. It will take competence.
Focusing on the future
What will matter thirty years from now? I hope you have your health, a loving family, and career satisfaction. The price for these blessings will be thirty years of courage, commitment, and competence.
In conclusion, I have a favor to ask. I want to be added to your retirement party list. I want to see how you turned out, and I want to ask you if I was right about “what matters.”
Dr. Burton A. Clark has been in the fire service for 50 years he was a firefighter in Washington, DC; Prince Georges County, MD; Assistant Fire Chief in Laurel, MD; and Operations Chief for DHS/FEMA. He was the Management Science Program Chair at the National Fire Academy and a Visiting Scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Injury Research and Policy. Burt has a BS is in Business Administration from Strayer University, MA in Curriculum & Instruction from Catholic University, and Ed.D. in Adult Education from Nova Southeastern University. He studied fire science at Montgomery College with Professor Frank Brannigan, Emergency Management at the Emergency Management Institute, National Security at the National Defense University, and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. He is a nationally certified Fire Officer Four, Chief Fire Officer Designee for nine years, and Eagle Scout Mentor. Burt writes, lectures, and teaches fire service research, safety, and professional development worldwide.
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