As the fire service takes on more and more responsibility, it should come as no surprise that the firehouse has evolved into a white collar American office space more than a home. Today, I rove around the city and see a growing number of firehouses with private rooms, private offices, and even individual bathrooms. Morning chores have come to be more of a personal accounting of your private space rather than a team exercise, and day rooms/kitchens are becoming less and less inviting and comfortable. The firehouse that I grew up in is slowly fading to black as white collar America sinks its teeth into the home I have grown to know and love.
As the physical construction of the firehouse becomes more and more private and segregated so too does the behavior of the crews within that house. I have spent entire 24-hour shifts without seeing the entire crew in the same room at the same time, and the complacency of privacy poses a very real and immediate threat to all firefighters.
The term “house” is being gradually replaced with “office,” and as such, the “brotherhood” runs the risk of being replaced with “co-worker.” We are allowing this change at the allure of privacy and convenance. However, the firehouse is a sacred place worth fighting for, and to see it die in the modern era would mean accepting the inevitable death of the family and support systems so many of us rely upon.
The increase in expectations and responsibilities for firefighters in recent years has not only brought with it physical change, but it has also manifested a substantially higher propensity for stress, anxiety, and even suicide within the profession. It is now more important than ever that we have a sanctuary to process and cope with the very nature of our job.
What has always defined the fire service as unique from all other professions is the familial nature of the job. Contrary to nearly any other profession, we will spend a third of our lives as firefighters with our brothers. We eat together, sleep together, exercise together, and most importantly, together we will experience every aspect of the emergency service, both tremendous, and tremendously frightful. We rely on one another day-in and day-out for protection, and more importantly, our families depend on us to deliver their loved ones home safe at the end of watch.
So why is the firehouse such an important aspect of this equation?
Why would it be worth mentioning the manner in which our homes are being reconstructed into offices? It is because the firehouse, when it functions as a home, facilitates relationships that are the very foundation of each and every firefighter’s mental health and wellness. According to a Queensland University study on teams and social identification, “In many work groups, due to a mutual history, shared goals, and the high importance of the group, a shared social identity is established, which acts as a stress buffer.” (Haslam, Jetten, & Waghorn, 2009) The study goes on to note that, “groups can provide more tangible support to help deal with stress.” They found that workers who strongly identify with their organization tend to receive and give more support to their colleagues than workers less identified. (Haslam, Jetten, & Waghorn, 2009) We have made tremendous strides in our industry to reach out; peer support and counseling to name a few. However, we must continue to use the environment of the firehouse as a tool to strengthen interpersonal relationships as support systems. The sense of home created within the firehouse allows a crew to bond as a family, and there is no bond more reflective of strength and trust than that of a family. This trust is quintessential to our performance as firemen.
The elimination of the sense of home within the station threatens the social identity that promotes interpersonal support. Many people in our industry feel more comfortable and supported at home amongst their brothers than in a structured mental health environment.
Administrations around the country are beginning to deconstruct our environment, and consequently, have begun the process of deconstructing our bond. As bunk rooms are replaced with private pods, dayrooms with offices, and dart boards with bulletin boards, our dynamic will soon follow. Over time, we will trade honest communication for scripted pleasantries, humor for cautious professionalisms, and care for productivity. Ultimately, our brothers will be replaced with co-workers.
Leaders in our industry have an obligation now, more than ever, to fight for and protect the traditions and values that make us a family. We all have a duty and a responsibility to defend our homes from the white collar institutionalization that threatens to destroy them. It is imperative, for it is here, between these walls, amongst our brothers, we are permitted to let our guard down and find solace from the dark corners of the world we are sworn to protect.
Of course, as firefighters on the streets, it goes without saying that we have very little say in how our new firehouses are designed and erected. However, there are effortless changes that can be made around the firehouse to make you and your crew feel at home.
Turn off the TV:
Remove televisions from bedrooms or limit firehouse televisions to only one. A tv in every room of the firehouse inadvertently encourages the crew to separate and watch shows on their own. This can dramatically cut down on time spent together. One central TV invites the crew to gather in one designated area, and in turn, they will spend the majority of their time together in this room. At my firehouse, the only TV is found in the kitchen, and consequently, this has become the epicenter of all firehouse activity.
Get out of bed:
Encourage members to stay out of the bedrooms during the day. Of course, we all value our private time, and the bedroom can serve as a chance to step away and reset. As Dawn Olsen put it in her firehouse column Sleep On It; “gender-neutral spaces have become a necessity…they allow firefighters to receive higher-quality sleep, [and] they also offer a sense of respite and a place to relax.” (Olsen, 2017) However, as firehouse bedrooms become more and more private, crews can quickly fall into a routine of isolating themselves from one another. Instead of defaulting to the bedrooms for downtime, encourage crew activities such as card games or tabletop exercises. It is up to all of us to create a culture that promotes time spent together, even if that means going back to the dorms and encouraging members to come out.
Leadership in the firehouse can be observed in two forms, formal and informal. There is a tremendous benefit that comes from valuing informal leadership in the senior firefighters. It is these members that have been around the longest and they have witnessed the successes and failures of the house over time. Officers will inevitably have an implied respect in the firehouse, but as a mucker, it is the senior leadership with which we must identify. Therefore, they are the ones most likely to set the tone for the entire house. According to Captain Paul Rotella of the Denver Fire Department, at times it is more effective to give over the reigns to the firefighters around the house. This can remove the implicit authority of the formal leadership and allow the firefighters to find their own station pride and accountability when it comes to forming crew cohesion.
Train and exercise as a team, not just at the same time, but in pursuit of a common and collaborative objective. Intense physical activity as a team not only promotes operational readiness, but it forges a sense of unified accomplishment that carries over into all other aspects of firehouse life. As Lieutenant Daniel P. Toomey of the Aurora Fire Department puts it, “a team that suffers together, thrives together.”
Embrace traditions (or start your own):
Traditions can give a unique mark to your firehouse, and often these will come with a sense of firehouse pride. Some traditions include playing cards to determine who cleans the dishes, rolling dice to decide on the cook, or simply gathering as a crew at the bay doors after chow. There are many traditions that fuel our organization, and we can always breed more. A personal favorite at my firehouse is an evening cigar with my crew where we discuss the day, the calls, life, and anything else you can think of….this is firefighter therapy at its finest.
This list, of course, is not all-inclusive. Within each and every department across the globe, there are traditions and values that prop up the foundation of the firehouse. The challenge for the new generations of firefighters is to take the time to not only accept such traditions but to learn from your senior muckers and leaders why and how they came to exist in the first place.
Take pride in your home, not just physically, but in its history, and moreover, take the time to truly grasp where your house came from. Within each tradition lies the memory of every member who came before you, paving the way for the future of the brotherhood.
Haslam, S. Alexander, et al. “Social Identification, Stress and Citezenship in Teams: A Five Phase Longitudal Study.” Stress and Health, vol. 25, no. 1, Feb. 2009, pp.1-20., doi:10.1002/smi.1221
Rotella, Paul, Captain, Denver Fire Department. “Firehouse Leadership.” Dec. 2017
Toomey, Daniel, Lieutenant, Aurora Fire Rescue. “Firehouse Culture.” Dec. 2017