Letter to the editor: Dwindling Fire Service Part 2

By Tom Carlin, Miami Valley Area Firefighter

 

In regard to the last article I have wrote, I feel obligated to us all to write a second response to the first. Whilst in the first its easy to pick out problems and to table this and that as a negative cause or impact. I am sure we all can have our own list of points and issues of the negative weather you share some of mine or not. I venture to say at least one or two of my observations is shared among yours, the reader. However on a much more constructive note I wish to provide my listed issues in the previous article with solutions, remedies, improvements and or suggestions as it may be seen applicable. So lets start then.
The first issue I stated was high turn over rates due to the process, time and expense of training. Often many start the journey to never finish. Lets tackle that. Easier said than done right? Well you be the judge. I suggest that if one truly is serious about entering the fire service with career intentions, the ought to research what it really takes in regard to getting to the finish line. With that thought in mind one might consider working a bit more in their current occupation to have more money to start school. There is no shame in doing what you have to, to get where you need to be. Maybe take that extra year and an extra job or two. Next would be look into financial aid programs that some colleges offer. There are grants and student loans available. The end results are worth the struggle. Some departments will even pay for education if you meet their requirements and agree to stay with them for a time. That’s a great way to get the experience the career departments look for. I recommend doing some ride time before school find out if its really for you. Don’t ride at just one department, sample them, each is its own take on the fire service. TALK to the current firefighters about the job, many times have I seen riders come in just to be wall flowers. As a rider you must seek knowledge. Ask questions, the answers don’t fall out of the fire house ceiling into your brain. As current firefighters we should instill the appetite for the job to all who ride with us. Perhaps we ourselves could do more to give these youngsters a nudge toward making a big decision in their life. Someone or something pushed us toward this. They need help and support like we do, and perhaps even a bit more so considering they are in the process of making a big life choice. Its not just a job, its a culture, a family and a way of life. On the subject of injuries ending and deterring many from staying we ought to encourage those entering and new to maintain physical fitness and do it ourselves. We lead by example. We also need to teach the youngsters ways to cope with the reality of it. We need to provide a good support network for those who get hurt or are having trouble coping. Most youngsters do not seem to realize their own mortality. We need to help them realize that they and we are far from bullet proof. When the newbies truly listen, and you as and experienced firefighter tell them of some of your close calls, the should realized that if you came that close to being no more that they would fair no better if not worse thus realizing mortality. As for the issue of time involved they should realized by a certain point in research and ride alongs what they are in for. There is no way around the time involved, its a great sacrifice for some. However with the use of financial alleviation that I outlined prior, the time sacrifice may be much more bearable to potential candidates and young firefighters.
As for the issue of pay there is very little we can do to immediately. However there are things we can do that will impact how we are received and valued by those we serve. With positive impact the next time we ask for a raise in a levy we may get it from grateful citizens who value us highly. We can achieve this by giving top notch service, not just in skill but in interpersonal interaction. Skill is not enough alone. How we treat people we interact with on job impacts our relations with community. One person with a poor interaction tells their families, friends and many others they know. They may even file a compliant against the department itself. Leave the unnecessary tenseness until it is needed. Don’t go out to be a jerk. Treat people as people not just as a run number. Build relationships with those you interact. They will remember it and see that they have an ally there with them and watching over them, their family, and home. Another outstanding way to build public relations is to be proactive in our communities that we serve. Show that we are with them not just when things go bad but back them and their community. When all comes together our residents will be willing to back us when we ask them for more so we can do what we do.

 

Now the topic of poor fire service culture. There is no quick about this and we still must be selective of those we add to our fire family but we must do this in a way that grabs the good people and does not drive everyone away. One big lesson I noticed, in poor culture, that was often forgotten was never forget where we came from. We all at one point were the new guy or young buck making a big life choice diving head first into something school can never prepare you for. We all started with the basic cert.s at one point before we got what we have. Encourage the new guys to drive for more knowledge, more experience and instill a passion for the job. Reward their success do not ignore it. If our culture only focus on their screw ups and being the first to rip their head off we will eventually drive all away. Of course we need thick skin and to own our screw ups, but constant barrages of negativity will eventually chase of those folks too. They get tired of always being jumped and treated like crap. Same applies to the poor treatment of part timers and volunteers. They eventually get sick of the overly macho crap, constant ridicule, ass chewings etc. and will glad to leave it all up to you regardless of when or where. Leave the BS up to the soap operas on the tele. Get yourself straight if you need to. Be inclusive and encouraging to the newbies when they do right and even when they do wrong. Take time to explain to them the whys and hows. Relate to them, sharing your screw ups, as a new guy or as an experienced guy, shows them you too are human and made the same mistakes once. It builds trust in you and they will see you as a go to person, and a mentor and eventually a friend and brother/sister. Remember we want to bring people in and keep them for a long time. Be inclusive share in the grunt work, don’t dump it all on them and crap all over them when its not done in 5 minutes. We must rely on our selves and lead by example. Our officers should strive in providing a positive environment for success and employee retention. Officers don’t be afraid to thump your regular guys when they get too hard on our newbies. Remember they will be the future of the fire service and learn how to act from senior guys and officers. And to the new guys its not always a warm and fuzzy deal. You have to truly earn your place. There will be an amount of crap you must take. Just be able to differentiate between crap and toxic culture. You will not fit into every fire department either. There’s a time to just suck it up buttercup.

What about the surplus of certified personnel in the area? Quite frankly that’s a dynamic we must deal with. However there are things that don’t require certs to make a valuable employee. Such as work ethic. Work hard and long and excel in everything you take on. Ask for the next project and do it too. To help retain the newer guys tech them these values and be a model of success yourself. Then to new and old guys alike go get those extra certs and trainings. Anything to get a head of the curve. Then as an experienced firefighter teach those young guys some of the advanced trainings. Bits and pieces help and instill confidence thus bettering those new guys. It may make them feel a sense of belonging too. And above all they are better for it. Share your advanced knowledge with all in the department. Keep instilling a thirsty for more in all in your department. When folks get stagnant they get complacent etc., but worse they may lose passion for the job and plateau. Hitting that point may make this feel like just another job, don’t let it happen  to your folks. Overall be the guy new or old even in between seeking more certs and trainings than you have.
Thanks for sticking with me here, to new and old alike I leave you with this practice what you preach, and stay safe out there. Remember I’m pulling for you, we’re all in this together.