We come into the world naked, bloody, and afraid as a newborn infant. When we enter the fire service as a recruit, we are mentally in the same state. Luckily for us, there are people there who have the responsibility to take care of our needs. Infants need to be fed and bathed and have their diapers changed regularly. As infants, we don’t know much and are reliant on others to care for us. If we are left alone or abandoned, we will not survive. As recruits, we rely on the academy instructors to feed us information, clean up our technique when we are not doing things quite right, and swap our gear out when it’s soiled with smoke and toxins. During these short few months, we miraculously grow from total dependency to crawling around (literally), and we even learn to break stuff!
Once we have graduated from recruit school, we get our assignments and head out to the station. We have now entered the toddler stage of our career. As toddlers, we have experienced crawling and we are now stepping out ever so wobbly with our hands up, a smile, and a gate similar to that of a drunk stumbling toward a wall or rail to keep from falling. As toddlers, once again we have someone to watch out for us. Our parents or caregivers make sure that the fireplace hearth is padded with blankets and pillows and the electrical sockets are capped with safety plugs so we can’t jam our little fingers in the slots. As we make that stumble across the room, there is someone in front to catch us as we reach our objective, and there is someone behind us to catch us if we fall. We are officially rookies at life.
In the station, our officers are tasked with those duties of protecting us. Our first fire is much like our first walk across the floor. The captain says, “Stick with me; do not go anywhere I don’t go.” The crew is much like our older siblings. They knock us down when the officers aren’t looking, make fun of us, and teach us the ropes. They are allowed to pick on us to make us tough, but they are the only ones. If a member of another station starts to pick on us, our siblings step up and put a stop to it because blood is thicker than water.
Adolescence and Teenagerhood
We work hard to get off probation and move into our career early adolescence. We know enough to be dangerous, and we are starting to add value and be of some use to our crew. Our reputation is pretty much set in this short three-year journey based on our level of interest, our physical ability to perform, and our mental capacity to endure the pokes and jabs - and we even throw a jab back now and then. We still devour knowledge, sign up for outside classes, help with some teaching with the “new guys” who are coming in as rookies, and gladly take up our role as the middle sibling - all the while gaining our confidence and the confidence of others.
At the five-year mark, we move into our late adolescence career teenage years - “the five-year wonder.” We have seen a few fires and have the station routine down, and there are a lot of newer members coming up - thankfully, we no longer carry the title of rookie. A very significant change happens to us during this time. Our confidence is at a career high, we have made mistakes without consequences, and we struggle with doing what we know is right while trying to resist the normalization of deviance and that little voice that says, “Nothing happened the last time you did it, so it’s okay.” You have now started to notice that the organization is not perfect. Things you don’t agree with bother you, and you are very vocal about it. This is a dangerous time, as you are no longer required to stay right with the officer, and you have to make some decisions on your own. You don’t always make the best choice, you may risk a little more than you should, and when you are called on it you are very defensive.
By this time, you have moved stations and you probably aren’t with your initial officers. Most advice you get from your current officer or chief is brushed off as a formality and, in your mind, you think all officers and chiefs are stupid. You will never be like them when you make officer. You will never pull out of a fire that you could have extinguished with just one more minute in the fight, even though command can see the roof failing and has ordered you out. “Stupid,” you say under your breath. “How did they ever become officers?!” During this time, if you haven’t already, you may have the urge to paint yourself with tattoos. This is part rebellion and part camouflage. (Author’s note: I have nothing against tattoos on anyone other than my daughters and myself. I am old school and I believe that any visible tattoos should be badges of experience for those who have served in the military, are active or formerly bikers, or have done time in prison. I have very good friends who have at least two out of the three, and not all of them have the same two!) During this time, you know everything and can’t be told very much.
You survived the teenage years with a few scars, but you’re still here. You’ve learned how to drive and pump, and now it’s time to strike out on your own. You have entered the young-adult stage of your career, and you study and take the promotional exam. Just as metaphorical human development reaches the end of college age, you now get your first real job with some real responsibility. You are the lieutenant or captain. You have kids of your own, and you are now responsible for all the things the new teenagers are doing in the station. These things aren’t quite as funny as they were when you were doing them, and you have your first feeling of being liable. You struggle to walk the line between being one of the gang and being in charge. For some, this is no big deal and comes naturally - usually for those who are highly competent and respected and have a reputation for treating people well. For those who maybe didn’t take the job that seriously and aren’t considered trade professionals, the road gets tough.
You start developing a modified reputation based on your new role: great to work with; hard to work with; pushover; hardliner; company man; indecisive; out for himself; awesome; or, maybe worse, “He has no clue what he is doing, but he’s a nice guy.” During this time, you either build a team or become an office recluse. You still hate much of the nonsense side of the job, you’re still vocal about ridiculous policies and the lack of department focus on real training, and you have a hardline disdain for needless emergency medical services runs.
Time moves quickly, and soon you have reached middle age. You are either very comfortable and will finish out your career as a company officer or maybe you have decided to have more influence and change the things you know are wrong and have found your way into a battalion chief’s position. The kids don’t really talk to you much, and you don’t like their music. You constantly tell them to turn it down, come down off the roof, wash their gear, and tuck in their shirts. You have now become who you said you never would. The pressures are immense. The organization has changed; the problems are the same, but new ones are surfacing. Your character is now the critical piece to guide you because you are at a big fork in the road. Now you must make a whole bunch of choices.
To quote from Robert Corman’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, “One day you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go that way you can be somebody. You must make compromises, and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments. Or you can go that way and you can do something - something for your community and for your Department and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted again and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life, there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”1
You are the jerk for insisting on compliance with policy and often pressured from above to let somethings go (depending on who it is), even though you are following the department’s directives. The teenagers argue with you over “why.” You are trapped. If you cave in to the top and something happens to one of these kids, you will be held responsible for allowing noncompliance. If you maintain your stance or cave to the kids, you are still a jerk, and if something happens to them you are still responsible. Hopefully you have instilled discipline early in these kids’ careers, had tremendous influence, have developed policy, have contributed to training, and have built a group of stations and officers who can execute when the time comes and they take care of business back at the station even when you aren’t looking - not because you told them to do it but because they realize it’s the right thing to do. Good people flock to your station, battalion, or area of responsibility. There is still a mortgage and college to pay for. The kids need this or that. Sometimes you have to rob a little from this account to cover that other one. Everything is not as easy as you thought, and you are learning that adversity is life. You are balancing and juggling life with near precision, somehow making it all work for everybody.
The years continue to fly by, and you are growing old. Maybe you’re grumpy and say what you’re thinking out loud. You can’t rush to the truck in the middle of the night or to the refrigerator for a snack without stopping by the bathroom. People love to hear your stories, but you have told them over and over because you don’t have any new ones. You stop caring about the rules or what the members are wearing and most everything aggravates you. Everyone you ever respected and worked for is retired. You are lonely and you don’t fit in anymore … or … maybe you have even more influence than you think because of your knowledge, skills, abilities, and the fact you actually care. Maybe you’ve coasted on and up in the organization just by chance or politics. Either way, entire generations are counting on you for guidance. You’re not only a caregiver but you are the main advisor to the majority of caregivers (you’re really the grandparent). Maybe you have shaped the station, battalion, or department and enriched the lives of those in your organization. Maybe you became a version of Anakin Skywalker and caved to the dark side. Maybe you wasted your opportunity and became self-serving. Did you take pleasure in others’ destruction or set people up to fail, or did you inspire and nurture your children and grandchildren so they could grow and make things better than you could ever imagine? Now it’s no longer about you, but it’s about those who are going to take your place. Did you prepare them for these challenges? Are you willing to let them take your place, or is it still about you? You are fulfilled and have prepared the next generation, and though you might be about to leave, you will never stop working to make other lives better, including your own.
Complete Life Span
Wow, you’ve had a complete career filled with excitement, accomplishment, depression, missed opportunities, unbelievable service to the community and the members of the organization, and just plain survival. If you are not getting any younger in this business, I hope you got a good laugh out of this comparison and identified with the multitude of craziness we have experienced. If you are in the infant, toddler, early or late adolescence, or young adult stage of your career, I hope you are thinking about which references you want to identify with when you have reached that 30-year mark. Whichever of the written lines describes you or your experience or future experiences, they most likely mimic your human development.
The journey that you took or will take is certainly guided or misguided by those responsible for your upbringing and your own choices and character. You have been or will be loved, abused, trusted, and deceived by a host of characters along the way. However, the way you turn(ed) out, the lines that describe(ed) you, and the path you took were ultimately defined by your choices and character. Everything else is just the nature of life.
1. Coram, Robert, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Back Bay Books, 2002.