There is a not-so-great saying in the fire service along the lines of “150 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress.” I have seen instances where this has been painfully true. My question to you is; can we create progress BECAUSE of tradition? Put simply, yes, and it can be a lot easier than you think. This is because one tradition that will never fade away is the tradition of firefighters talking. We love to talk.
When I was first starting out in the fire service, a man who I have always looked up to said to me “you can learn a lot if you just listen.” He wasn’t just talking about listening during training, that’s the easy part. What he was talking about was listening to the more experienced firefighters around me every day. As I have advanced along in my career, I think that I have learned more from that advice than any other single piece of advice I have ever gotten.
Think about your first few months in the firehouse. How well did you know your job? Your apparatus? Your first due area? I remember being in awe of the guys that knew every nook and cranny of their first due area. I know that I CERTAINLY struggled to learn where I was even going when the bells rang. However, as time went on and as
I listened to more and more firehouse chatter; I learned that area pretty damn well. I know the streets that don’t connect where you think they should, the one ways and what direction to best enter our biggest target hazards. That is just one example, if you bring up any aspect of my job as a firefighter, I would be willing to wager that I learned, at least a little something, from just listening to other, more experienced firefighters discussing it.
Another example of this comes from my very first call as a firefighter. It was a vehicle fire and I was the hydrant man. I looked on in admiration as two firefighters extinguished a well-involved work van. I remember thinking right then and there that I was going to be a firefighter for the rest of my life. I learned shortly afterwards that even firefighters are not infallible. The next morning in the firehouse, two firefighters were discussing that call. Being the new guy, neither of them seemed to even notice that I was there. They discussed how they had pulled the wrong line off of the engine. The line they pulled did not have the capability to use foam. I didn’t know at the time how big of a difference it can make to have foam capabilities at a fire involving flammable liquids. It was after this first call that a senior firefighter turned to me and gave me that advice that has helped me out so much in my career, “you can learn a lot if you just listen.”
What does this mean for the more experienced firefighters reading this? First of all, you can never stop learning. You should still be listening to those more experienced than you, as well as the new guys. I learned more about fire alarm systems from a Probie than I could ever hope to learn while sitting in a classroom. That was because he came from years of experience working for an alarm company and we learned something new on each job we went on. Just because that firefighter is new in the fire service, doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t have knowledge in some other area that directly applies to our job.
The second thing that firefighters should be thinking while reading this is to KEEP TALKING. Those kitchen table discussions are invaluable. Maybe it feels like you’re just shooting the breeze and passing time but there is a new firefighter in the room (hopefully) soaking up every piece of knowledge you’re willing to pass on. It’s a good idea to discuss each and every call that you go on. Talk about old jobs you had in your career. It’s always fun to brag a little bit about things that you did well but don’t ever be afraid to discuss the things that you’ve done wrong. We’ve all made mistakes and should be happy to help somebody else avoid making the same mistakes we did.
Remember that learning does not end when training does. Every shift, every call, every conversation is a chance to improve yourself and your team. To the new firefighters reading this, listen up; you never know when your senior man is going to drop a knowledge bomb that may change your career. To the more experienced among us, remember that it is your responsibility to pass on the knowledge that you have learned over your career. Keep training, keep learning and stay safe.
Andy Young is a Career Firefighter and Municipal Fire Instructor with a Combination Department in Upstate, NY. In addition he is a Nationally Certified Fire Service Instructor and works for Vigilant Fire Service Training, LLC.