How many times have you seen a T-shirt or patch from the FDNY, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Miami-Dade, Boston, Virginia Beach, Charleston or (fill in your own local area), and thought; “Are they a member, or just someone who bought the shirt?” If they just bought or traded for the shirt, does that make them a wannabe? If they are a member of that FD, does that affiliation somehow by itself make them better than you if you come from a small jurisdiction? Does it make them better than you, or somehow more qualified, simply because they are on a paid job, and you’re a volunteer? How about rivalries or perceptions between companies?
Most of us know the truth. But some still struggle to answer this question honestly. I am not trying to minimize the amount of dedication, or professionalism by being affiliated with any of the previously mentioned departments. Quite to the contrary. They are all well-respected departments that we often look to for experience, leadership, and examples. Most of those examples are good…nah, scratch that. They’re great, sometimes legendary. But sometimes, we learn by poor examples as well. The fact is that I have been blessed to meet firefighters from all walks of life, jurisdictions, and from multiple countries and cultures. I have been impressed by many and disappointed by many as well. The point of this article is to get you to consider something that has been eating at me for years.
I have fallen victim to it. I’ve been seduced by it, mentored by it (at times), and finally I have found my way back to the truth. Ironically, the truth had been spelled out for me back in 2002 but I chose not to consider it as truth until years later. Instead, I passed it off as a polite way of brushing me off. I will share that story with you now and then return to my points about perceived status.
The scene was 220 W. 37th St. in Manhattan, NYC at the quarters of Engine 26, “The Batcave”. My brother and I were on our way back to the hotel after taking in the night-time view of Manhattan from atop The Empire State Building. We had closed down the viewing deck, and were walking west. We spotted 26 returning from a call, and backing into quarters. After the rig was safely tucked in, we stopped and spoke with one of the firemen. After some small talk, asking us what had brought us to NYC and learning that I was also on the job, he welcomed us inside for a cup of coffee. Introductions were made, and soon the place felt like home. Now this guy knewthat I wasn’t from the city, but he encouraged me to apply, as the FDNY was still in full rebuild mode after 9/11. In fact, the Battalion Chief forced an application into both my brother’s and my hands and told us to apply immediately. He would do anything to help us in the process, to help us get on the job. Now, I don’t know too many firefighters who wouldn’t feel their hearts skip a beat just by the thought of gearing up with the legendary letters FDNY on the back of your black turnouts. I was no exception. However, I was on a city department back then, and I was also in the midst of my own rebuild. Recently divorced, single dad, financially strapped…you get it. Making the move to NYC to start over again wasn’t really an option for me at the time.
I felt down on myself for several days and weeks. I wanted to apply so bad, knowing full well that getting the chance to attend the academy at “The Rock” would be a long shot anyway. I phoned up a friend who used to be at Ladder 15 and told him about the story. In his direct NYC way, he told me what I instinctively knew but chose to ignore because I felt he was just brushing me off. He told me that being a firefighter for the FDNY is the greatest thing in the world…for him. He is, and always has been a New Yorker. But what he followed up with is the real meat and potatoes of this thought. Following 9/11 everyone wanted to be a firefighter. Or thought they did. Even more thought that the FDNY was the pinnacle of becoming a firefighter somehow. But the point he was making is that you can still be just as much of an asset…in many cases MORE so, right in your own hometown community.
The FDNY employs over 10,000 uniformed firefighters. Mutual aid is not an issue for them. They have some of the most amazing equipment, training, and experience that can be found in the global firefighting community. But does that make them “better” than any of the rest of us?
The answer is no…it does not. Each and every community has its own limited resources available to it. This includes staffing, apparatus, equipment, etc. The trick is learning how to do more with less.
Chief Frank Viscuso says that with problems, comes opportunity. I couldn’t agree more. But only IF you have the courage to recognize that and then act upon it. I have used this theory in my own career. Stepping up to run the programs that no one else would, or several others failed or gave up because the going got tough. I’ve made mistakes, learned from them, and then had great success with some. This leads to a certain reputation. Hard work and willingness to tackle what needs to be done, can lead to that reputation as a hard charger, or even be looked at favorably when it comes time for promotion. Sometimes, if you’re a guy who can mess up once in a while (like me) it can cushion the blow just a bit if the big bosses know you were trying your best. They’ll still give you your lumps for messing up, but it tends to be easier somehow because you know that they’re giving it to you because you deserved it, but then they mentor you at the same time.
How about perceived status within the same organization? Say, between stations or companies. Many times the guys at the busy houses get to lay claim to that kind of “swagger” because they get more opportunity to see fire, or run more calls. But simply because you’re assigned to an outlying house, or slower company doesn’t mean that you can’t find your own “swagger”. Become the best. The best at anything. Something that you’re either very good at naturally, or make the decision to be the best at something because no one else wants to. Learn everything there is to learn about locks or ropes or auto extrication. Become the “fix-it” guy around your house. Learn every single street, hydrant and FDC in your territory and become the map person. Be the first on the rig to respond and the last to quit working. Become the focal point for your neighborhood community for tours, information, or social events. Ready for me to blow your mind? It doesn’t even need to be that complex. Be the best cook in the house. Conduct research. Be the fitness guru. Become the company historian. Organize company outings. Be the mentor. Be the firefighter who always…always has a pen, a pocket notebook, a multitool and a pair of latex gloves in their pocket. Be ready (without turning into “Ricky Rescue”) for anything. If you’re a driver, don’t just put ice in the water cooler each morning. Be sure to have a bottle of water on everyone’s seat upon returning to the rig after the call. They will appreciate it, and you will be respected for looking out for them. Above all else, when you have ideas to improve your companies image, or to provide a better service to your community don’t hold back. Even if you meet some opposition initially (we all know the fire service is not welcoming of progressive change) don’t let it deter you. Speak up, own your ideas, and learn. Know and prepare how to sell the idea ahead of time.
Coming back to the real purpose of this article – YOU can make a difference right where you are. Today. NOW.
If your aspiration is to make it onto the job for one of these big metro departments, then by all means go after it. But having the local name on your bunkers is not going to make you any less of a hero to your local community when they call you for help. In fact, they may just appreciate you more. I think most of us all want to make it to the “big leagues”, but just like the old adage says, “Home is where you make it.”
I’ve had friends over the years ask which I thought was better to work for, the big city or the small county departments. My answer is always going to be the same. My opinion is not ever going to be truth for everyone. In fact, my opinion is just that. It is never truth. Truth is different for everyone. For me, working in a smaller department seems to be my cup o’ joe. A department where you have to get creative to get the job done despite smaller staff, and often even smaller resources and budgets. But that’s just me. I’ve had the experience of a larger department, in both volunteer and paid departments, so I know where I thrive. Given the opportunity again, I would always choose a smaller department where I can make my mark.
I’d love to hear from some of you with similar experience, from either side. Whether it’s from a volunteer to the “big city”, or from one community to another. Sound off and share it with us if you have your own version of this. Stay safe!