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In Search of the Real Fire Department

In Search of the Real Fire Department

Do you work for a "real" fire department?

Michael West, FiredUp Training Services

How often have you heard the term, “real fire department”? It seems to be a common phrase, usually indicating that someone is unhappy with something about the fire department they work or volunteer for. You know the comments I am talking about, "I wish we were a real fire department, “My cousin works for a real fire department”, “when I get hired on there I’ll finally be with a real fire department”.

When I teach outside of my department I sometimes hear, “well its easy for you, you work for a real department”. When I am around members of my own fire department I occasionally hear, "why can’t we be a real fire department, we’re playing the same game but in a different league?

Does this sound familiar to you? Where is this real fire department anyway? Is it in the east, the west, maybe in the desert? Do they wear plastic helmets, or leather? Do they have red engines, or yellow? Does it even exist in the first place? Well I am here to tell you that you can stop looking. The real fire department is closer then you think. It is the one you are with, no matter where that is located. Real is defined by you. It is what you do, how you react, and how you plan on operating within the system. Nothing else.

A couple of years ago I was at a conference. During one of the question and answer sessions a brother stood up and told of his terrible plight in the fire service, how none of his firefighters would perform as required, the place was falling down around his ears. The speaker looked at him and immediately proclaimed, it’s not their fault, it’s yours. If it is wrong, it’s your job to fix it.

So how do we do this? I believe there are a few key areas that each of us can contribute to that will make our own fire department the real one we are in search of.

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Be responsible. Take the words, ‘that’s not my job’ out of your vocabulary. If something is broke, fix it. If something is lost, find it. Firefighters must take responsibility for their assigned tools. Company officers must take responsibility for the performance of their companies; Chief officers must take responsibility for their battalions or divisions. Too often we blame it on “B-shift” or the other company, or the Chief of the department. It becomes easy to look around you and say, “that guy doesn’t care, why should I?” You should care because you are a professional, no matter who pays your salary.

Responsibility leads to one of the key fireground success factors I believe in – expectation. It is the person who doesn’t expect to have a fire that is struggles when they get one. The brother or sister who expects and prepares for the call will have their ducks in a row. They have checked out their equipment. They know what streets are closed. They now the capabilities of themselves, the other members, and the apparatus they are on. The person who comes to the firehouse and expects to wash their car or to catch up on a nap is the member who can’t find their SCBA mask as the rest of the company presses through the front door of the apartment fire. Be in the door first, expect a job and prepare for it.

Accountability. I am not speaking about the passport system or ICS. It has nothing to do with T-cards or Velcro. I mean the commitment you have to watch out for each other. Accountability is noting what team or company is working in the adjacent room and making sure your actions don’t hurt them. It’s checking behind you as you climb the stairs to see who the person is behind you so that if something catastrophic happens in the next few minutes you’ll know whom and where that person is so they can be found. Accountability is the contract you make with your partner as you enter a smoky bedroom. “I’m going left” “I’m going right” means that you are looking out for them and they for you if something happens. Velcro is great stuff, but it is not what holds brothers together.

Maybe the largest area that defines realness is your attitude. You choose how you react to matters inside the department. Like it or not, if you’re not happy it is how you have chosen to react. It is up to you to choose a good attitude. Understand what things you can change and understand what is outside your scope. In many cases when you handle your piece of the organization you will find others around you looking to do the same. Get involved with the work groups or committees making a difference. Sitting around the lunch table and complaining doesn’t make it better. It rarely helps anyone involved in the conversation feel any better and it definitely doesn’t improve yourself or your fire department. So don’t waste your time.

So where is the real fire department? It is right where you are standing. Can one person, following the above prescription make a difference? I believe the answer is yes. Look at the departments that you regard as real. Many of your opinions about their excellence are based on your experience with one or two individual members of that department. Maybe it was fostered by an article we read written one of their members. Their firehouses, their problems, and their members are no different then yours. Stop looking elsewhere for the real fire department, just look in the mirror.


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