I’m not who I was in 1985 now. For that matter, I’m not who I was in 1991 either, or 1998, or 2001, or 2018. Why is that? Its because perspectives change through our experiences as we travel through our fire service careers. What’s funny is that I didn’t even have to ponder these years because I can look back and I just know instinctively when my point of view shifted.
We’re all different so your experience may not mirror mine exactly. However, I remember reading an article a few years ago on this subject and being amazed at how closely I was paralleling the author of that piece. See if you don’t see some similarities too.
1. The Kid in the Candy Store 1980 – 1985
I was 15 years old and had just started volunteering with Midfield (Alabama) Fire Department as well as being an Explorer Scout with the City of Birmingham. A kid in candy store is pretty accurate. I was fascinated by the fire service, enamored by the red trucks, the danger, the excitement. I had no idea how to even stretch an 1 ½” yet but I was learning. Putting on my day boots, coat, and helmet were the coolest thing in the world to me and carrying a pager, somehow, made me important, at least in my mind.
This is the courtship. You may not know it, or maybe you do, but you’re falling in love and this is the gooey stage when she or he is all you can think of. They are perfect! You want to be with them all the time and once you’ve given your heart you’ll forsake all others.
2. The New Kid 1985 – 1991
At 19 I got my first career position in the fire department in Guntersville, Alabama. Even though I may have carried myself pretty confidently during these years I was still learning, still becoming acquainted with being a firefighter. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t proficient and getting better at my job. It just means that, although I had learned the basics, I still had a lot to learn. I had a lot of empty slots in my slide tray that needed to be filled with slides. I needed slides of smoke before it lights off. I needed slides of how black it can get interior and slides of flames rolling over your head in that blackness.
This is the phase where you’re learning but, at least for me, the focus was on being aggressive and proving that I could do the job.
3. The Swashbuckler 1991 – 1998
I was 26 when I came to work at the department that I would retire from; Cobb County, Georgia. I had seen some fires as a volunteer. I saw some more in Guntersville and North Shelby Fire District as well and I had spent a few years plying my trade. During this phase of your career you’re young, strong, brave and still a little stupid but you’re about to hit your prime.
This is the age and period where you’re invincible. You’re one bad mama-jamma and you can get it done. You’re not an officer yet so all you have to do is what you’re told, and you’re good at it…really good at it…and you know it.
“Throw a 24’ ladder!”
“Pull a cross lay. You’re Fire Attack 1!”
I’m a little ashamed to admit this now but I can remember myself from about age 25 until around age 30. I didn’t verbalize it, but, inside my heart, I thought I was the best firefighter around. I’d see stories on the news of a fire where maybe a child had perished and I would think to myself that, if I’d been the one searching, I’d have gotten her out.
4. The Lifeguard 1998 – 2016
About age 30 all of this began to change. I was promoted to engineer so, yeah, being responsible for other guys from time to time, doing size-ups, riding the seat, and sometimes being responsible for making fire ground assignments was part of it. The bigger part though, was that I was beginning to mature. I was beginning to grow up to be honest.
By now I had realized that, no, I was NOT the toughest, baddest firefighter on the planet. Not by a longshot. Not on the planet, not in the country, not in the state…probably not even in my battalion.
Something else, and maybe I’m the only one, but when I had been younger I had this sort of unspoken, morbidly romanced notion of how noble it would be to die in the line of duty. That, somehow, falling through a floor into a burning basement just as I tossed the Smith Family twins to safety would immortalize me as the greatest ever, a true hero, the epitome of a firefighter. By 30 I’d realized that, no…it would not.
My interpretation of risk versus benefit had changed as well. I never stopped agreeing that “ we take great risk to save lives” and I never had a problem with “we take no risk to save lives or property that have already been lost”. It was that middle one; “we take moderate risk, in a calculated fashion, to save property” that started giving me pause. As the Swashbuckler we just busted in and took the fire by the throat, choked the life out it. Now I needed to look at taking risks that were calculated and I had to be the guy doing the calculations sometimes!
The reality had set in. Fires are dangerous. We do get killed at fires. Very often, after we gave it all we had, the insurance will pay and they may just push the building over anyway and build a new one.
When you grasp that reality, you stop swinging from the pirate ship deck, saber between your teeth, slashing your way to the booty. Instead of grabbing the fire by the throat you begin grabbing the next generation of swashbucklers by the collar to slow them down.
5. The Caretaker 2016 – 2018
By this time in your career you’re seeing the end and you realize that, no kidding, its almost over. You still maintain the vigilant lifeguard position, but you want to hand off something to the people you work with. You want to leave them better than you were. You want to help them, do something for them. And so, if you hadn’t already, you begin to focus on making sure their positive qualities are known. You help them prepare for the next level. You challenge them. And you let them know, without being too obvious hopefully, that you care about them.
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