Google “fire service pride” and you’ll see real quick how abundant it’s presence is in our industry. There are books, articles, blogs, clothing, you name it, all dedicated to the “P” word. But what happens when none exists? Even more importantly, how do you create it? Walk into any firehouse and you’ll most likely be greeted by a display case, some sort of wall of fame or something dedicated to past accomplishments and moments.
This is where my story starts. I was once new and assigned to an engine house with none of that. There were no display cases, no edgy logos, and not a single photo hanging up. It was a house of empty walls. It felt sterile and lacked character. An institutional white walled, brown trimmed look of a work place, not a firehouse. I didn’t like it, it wasn’t the place I had imagined. The three brass poles stood out like over dressed guests at a house party and the spiral staircase didn’t fit in at all. There was a watch desk, called the joker stand, which is where I would spend my day studying SOGs during probation. I didn’t mind because it allowed me to visualize what the house would look like if I had a choice.
I can’t tell you when it all started, but I can tell you it started outside with the old rusty firehouse bench no one used. I figured I might as well start there and work my way in. My senior man had recommended I always have a project, so taking his advice I got to work. Not to mention it was a great opportunity to make a good impression early on. So that’s what I did. Naturally, the green metal frame was stripped and replaced with fire truck red while the wood was refinished. Two weeks later, the firehouse had a nice new bench out front. It was the first thing anyone saw walking in and silently sent a loud statement of pride. The funny thing about that bench is what happened next. Every morning it seemed to be in a different spot. It turned out the shifts were fighting over where it should be. That’s when I learned a valuable lesson in the byproduct of pride, which is ownership. Before that bench was painted, I don’t think anyone even realized it existed at the firehouse, and now we were fighting over it. The Firefighters had made it their bench and unlike before, cared where it was located.
Prides an amazing thing, it’s extremely powerful in the most silent ways. It’s a subconscious undertone that takes hold of anyone in its influence. The trick is to be the influencer. Be the person who designs a company logo, a station T- shirt or patch. It always starts with one person that ends up coalescing the entire engine house. I learned that in a house of empty walls change starts with one little photo. It was an old 4×6 post card of our engine house showing horses turning out on a call in 1911. I hung it right next to the Tv in the kitchen. It wasn’t long before I added some others here and there, always in the kitchen since that’s where we hung out mostly. Weeks went by, some supporting comments were made but I didn’t think anyone really noticed, then something happened. One morning at shift change an officer on the most tenured crew said he had something for me. He gave me an old Manila envelope with company photos he’d had for decades and asked me to hang them up. That’s when I knew things had turned a corner. Pride and ownership is an incredibly powerful force that you can’t see or touch but is impossible to miss on display. Soon the walls were how they should be in any firehouse. Logos were made, shirts were printed and patches ordered. The influence didn’t stop at the door either, other companies in the battalion took note and started coming up with their own logos and shirts. It was to the point where each shift tried to out do the other with some sort of house project or display. It was an incredible experience over the course of a few years but in the end it all started with a project and a 4×6 photo.
The lessons to take away here are simple. Prides free and very powerful. It’s something that starts so small but can have a big impact. What I learned about pride and ownership in my first years on the job I took with me to later companies I was assigned to and the results were always the same. It’s a recipe for success that anyone can do. Its only ingredients are ambition and a decision to do it. So next time you find yourself in a house of empty walls and low morale, you’ll know what to do.
If you look up the definition of renaissance you’ll find it means “a revival or renewed interest in something, a rebirth of old ways” I’m here to tell you that’s exactly what is happening in today’s fire service. The motivation for this article came from The Journeyman Fire Conference I had just attended. Over a three-day period firefighters from across the country and Canada came to be with like-minded highly motivated individuals whose message was basically that interior firefighting is not dead, that our primary mission is still relevant as ever and we’re tired of sitting idly by while the degradation of true grit in the fire service erodes away one apprehensive article at a time. Make no mistake there is a silent majority rising up in the ranks of the trade. Its more evident with every new fire conference. Its an unbridled ambition never before seen by those who were sold gimmicks, scare rhetoric and who were persecuted for their convictions by those who never had the intestinal fortitude in the first place.
Additionally the science and studies are fantastic and if anything validated those of us in the street.
We were taught aggressive was a bad word. We were wrong to put ourselves first but yet needed better customer service. Roofs were all going to collapse under us and when someones house was on fire that they probably had insurance so don’t go in if nobodies trapped. It was that scare rhetoric which spawned an underground of firemanship. For over a decade many sat quietly gaining experience waiting for the right time. Meanwhile EMS came to the forefront, missions creeped HAZMAT, RIT training and bailout overshadowed the basics while our live fire training became less and less realistic. We were called reckless, dangerous or against change when in reality we were the most ambitious, motivated ones in our agencies. Naturally, many took jobs in busy urban departments doing everything they’ve been previously taught to avoid while seeing first hand the life saving benefits of those “reckless” tactics.
Today’s youngest generation of firefighters don’t have to sit through hours of “Everyone Goes Home” training addressing the 100 firefighters we kill every year being too aggressive. That a culture of safety is the answer and the taxpayers always come second to us. The voices calling for a cultural change aren’t nearly as loud as before. Data has won the day and the street kept us honest. Today’s audiences want intuitive knowledge and facts not rhetoric or opinions. The information at their fingertips is infinite. Millennials don’t want to hear about percentages or numbers they want wisdom, insight and tips they can’t find on a smart phone. Conversely those with the most information are those with the least amount of actual fire experience in a time when experience is at an all time premium. It will be those with it who will have the most influence.
The pendulum swung in the wrong direction far too long and now its our time to set the mission back on track. Those of us who were indoctrinated early in our careers with agendas of change by the apprehensive are now the ones filling the auditoriums. Timid minds are silenced with bold actions and that’s the type of behavior by those out front. You’re going to start seeing more and more classes and conferences focused on getting the strategy back inside the building on fire. Whether it’s the 1st line, 2nd line, search, ladders or overhaul. You can only talk about the “modern fire environment” for so long until you realize we’ve been in it for 30 years. Additionally the science and studies are fantastic and if anything validated those of us in the street. The culture of extinguishment is not only alive and well but gaining momentum. With the shift towards interior tactics comes a need for interior knowledge. In an environment that has become foreign for some it is even more important now than ever to pass on what we’ve learned from those before us. The knowledge skills and abilities honed during the war years are now being reborn and adapted for today’s fire ground.
We were taught aggressive was a bad word. We were wrong to put ourselves first…
With the proliferation of social media connecting 1.2 million firefighters, agendas are being discredited and gimmicks called out. Our youngest members have so much information at their fingertips they’re drowning in it… yet starved for more. For every ludicrous article written from behind a desk… there are twenty more being penned by those actually doing the work. It’s easy to be led astray in today’s fire service by sub par text books and initiatives claiming to be “next new thing”. But fear not. Because when in doubt look to the street, it never lies. It’s that notion fueling whats on the horizon which is a movement by those with the most passionate unrelenting desire to pass on the basics of firemanship.
So, when I first decided to write this article I wanted to make it something different. Any quick Google search of “The Senior Man” will get you multiple well written articles on the subject. I thought to myself how I could make that happen instead of just re-writing about the same subject. Then it hit me, why not just ask them? Instead of me telling you about what it means to be a Senior Man of a company I’d let them tell me in their own words. It would be a unique perspective. You want to know the importance of the Senior Man? Let’s hear what they had to say.
Before we get to that, let’s take a moment to cover what the Senior Man is all about. For the most part you can go into any firehouse in America where firefighters are working and ask “Who’s the Senior Man?”. Chances are you’ll be greeted by an older, more experienced, jovial individual who, just by their body language, projects some sort of confidence or command presence. Don’t let the term fool you, women are just as likely to fill this role as men. The bottom line is no matter where you go, every Firefighter you ask can without hesitation tell you who the senior man is on their company. That should go to show you the value of these individuals. These are the members with decades of experience or have by far, the most time on amongst the crew. They’ve “been there done that seen everything” but are yet humbled and seek only to pass on what they know, not brag, boast or self-promote. They lack the typical hubris of far too many in the Fire Service. Its these defining qualities that any recognized Senior Man exudes. It’s the epitome of the informal leader, there’s no promotional exam or study material for this position. It’s bestowed upon you by your peers.
This role has many hats but no rank, just respect. It’s the “go to” person for newer members with questions. When conflicts arise, a good Senior Man will quickly step in before the Officer must. This keeping of the balance is also why they’re respected by the officers just as much. It’s a go between role between the crew and officer, a critical bridge of communication. The crew members will go to the Senior Man before the Officer and the Officer will go to the Senior Man to address issues on an informal basis. Another more practical aspect of the senior man is their level of actual firefighting experience. One can say “you follow an Officer’s orders into danger, but it’s the Senior Man who you are actually following into it”. These members provide a safety net of past experiences to the younger, less seasoned of the crew. It’s a built in over watch for when the crew is doing work that involves a high level of risk. Therefore, smart officers will pair senior members with younger ones on the fire ground. It’s a synergistic luxury if you have the means to do so. So that about covers what the senior man is all about, now let’s see what the actual senior men have to say.
Ask any old-timer, the time flies by on this job, how do you want to be remembered?
“There is definitely a thing called leadership from the bottom. It means showing up early every shift, and being able to play whatever position they need you in that day, be it senior man, acting officer, acting engineer, etc. Being a senior man means keeping an eye on newer folks, and mentoring them, not just talking about how much time on you have and what you have done. It also means having your finger on the pulse of the firehouse, and taking care of little problems before they become big ones. This mainly has to do with personnel relations, sometimes it means having sit downs with people before the officer has to, because once they get involved things have to be on paper, and that creates more tension for everyone. And finally, I would say it means setting a good example because you want to. Ask any old-timer, the time flies by on this job, how do you want to be remembered?” Jeremiah Herderich Denver Fire Department Firefighter First Grade. 19 years in the Fire Service
“Never think you know it all, ’cause you don’t. If you get to that point, give the reins to someone else.”
“The senior man is not a “test” position, it’s a position that kinda just happens to the most senior guy on truck. You get the title by being “that guy.” A lot of times you may not want the title but end up with it anyway. If you are “that guy” you need to embrace the title and position. Be the teacher to the other guys, be the go to guy on your rig. The senior man should know the rig as good as, if not better, than the officer. He should be a good station guy, do your share of house duties but be able to delegate out as well. He should be the liaison to the officers, the go between for the other guys. He should be able to weed out non-essential BS that the officer doesn’t need to worry about. But most, the senior man needs to be a “Fireman” not just an employee or pension thief or yard breather or whatever name you give. Be true to the profession and always be a student. Never think you know it all, ‘cause you don’t. If you get to that point give the reins to someone else.” Anonymous Chicago Fire Dept Firefighter 22 years in the Fire Service
“I believe that being a senior fireman on the Memphis Fire Department means setting the example, passing on my experience, and leading from the front.”
“Being the senior man means being the go-to guy, being the one to teach and instill knowledge and skills to the newer firefighters. Personally, I don’t usually tell lesser experienced guys to take task, I take it upon myself to complete the task and set an example in hopes that they follow suit. Whenever possible, I try to include less experienced firefighters and use teachable moments to share my experience and wisdom that I have gained on the job. Rather than watch a new firefighter fail at a new task, I want to assure that they have what it takes to be successful and know that they were given the same opportunities I was given as a probie. In short, I believe that being a senior fireman on the Memphis Fire Department means setting the example, passing on my experience, and leading from the front.” Hugh Doyle Memphis Fire Dept Engine 17 Firefighter 15 years in the Fire Service
“To have the knowledge of knowing when something’s not right on the fireground. You’re the one the newer members look up to and approach with questions.”
“It takes dedication on the job, as well as having a passion for the job. The willingness to share their knowledge that they have acquired over the years. They are willing to take a newer, younger firefighter under their wing and show them the ropes. To have the knowledge of knowing when something’s not right on the fire ground. You’re the one the newer members look up to and approach with questions. The biggest thing when it comes to being a senior man is training and the willingness to learn.” Ron Schroader St Louis Fire Dept Rescue Squad 2 Firefighter 29 years in the Fire Service
“I work to make my platoon to be the strongest in the firehouse. That, through my example, is the platoon that’s full of pride for the company, the department, and the fire service.”
“I strive every shift to be the senior guy that says, “Hey gang, let’s go over this. Let me show you how it’s done and why we do it this way.” and have a strong training experience. I work to make my platoon to be the strongest in the firehouse. That, through my example, is the platoon that’s full of pride; for the company, the department, and the fire service. The “go to” crew when something needs doing, whether in the station or on the fireground. When members transfer out to busier houses, I want them prepared for as much as possible in their new assignment, so their new company says, “Hey, this kid has their stuff together. We’re lucky to have them.” Most of all, I want them to become the senior firefighter in their house and be an example for the younger firefighters that come to them. That’s my take on being the senior firefighter.” Ray Clothier Philadelphia Fire Department Firefighter 21 years in the Fire Service
I’ve often said that the hardest step a fireman takes on the fire ground is a step back. Everything we do is hard charging, lights and sirens, full speed ahead. We don’t like hearing “evacuate the building”. That being said, the hardest step a fireman takes on the training ground is the first one. That proverbial leap of faith every new instructor has ever taken. It can seem like an insurmountable wall of self doubt laid with bricks of insecurity. Simply put, it’s fear of the unknown. You wanna break a fireman’s ego? Put them in front of their peers, it’s sink or swim and there’s no lifeguard on duty.
Ask any instructor in the fire service and they’ll be able to tell you without hesitation the first time they were in front of a classroom or that company drill they ran. I can tell you mine was not by choice and rather improvised. It was in 2006 while in a chiefs meeting on my first day at a new station. He asked what skills were my weak points and I said “ropes and knots without a doubt” and the response I got was completely unexpected. He said…
“Well that’s perfect we have a spot open on the Heavy Rescue and training at 1pm. I want you to do today’s training on basic knots”
I didn’t know what had happened but I knew I had about 3 hours to come up with a PowerPoint presentation and to figure out how I was supposed to convince anyone I was proficient at ropes and knots. I don’t know how many bowlines, clove hitches and figure eights one can tie in three hours but it felt like the world record. In the end the Chiefs idea was brilliant, I threw together a quick presentation and came out with more confidence of knots than I ever had. It not only refreshed a skill for me but also broke the ice with the crew members. Even though I had put on the class it naturally turned into one big informal training with all of us throwing in tips and practicing knots together.
Now looking back on my first company drill was no big deal but at the time I was pretty nervous It was overcoming moments like that which gave me the confidence to step out on the circuit.This seems to be a recurring theme with anyone who wants to get started but isn’t quite sure of themselves to take the leap. They have the drive, the ambition, the passion and knowledge but there’s that little bit of doubt holding them back.
It’s always the same reasons.
“I don’t have enough experience” “ I’m not a good speaker” “I’m not on a big Department” “I don’t have anything to offer”
In reality none of those are the real issue. The main reason is the simple fact we don’t know how our peers will perceive us. With every action comes reaction and everything you say will be critiqued by your audience. Every instructor out there knows criticism comes with the territory and if you can’t handle it then find something else, you won’t last. Not everyone will agree with your material and they don’t have to. What fun would that be?
All that aside the bottom line remains. There’s 1.2 million American Firefighters and they all need training. Every firefighter has 3 obligations once they raise their right hand. To serve, to learn and to pass on. 2/3rds of that philosophy goes back into the job the other third goes to those we serve. That’s how the fire service continuously stays ahead in our mission to save lives and property. The truth is we’re all instructors one way or another. Even the newest members of a Dept have something to offer on a company level.
So I challenge you with this question. What knowledge or skill have you passed on recently? If you can’t readily answer that then you’re doing the job a great disservice. There is no excuse to sit idly by while a new generation of firefighters seek knowledge. We are in the age of declining fire, now more than ever experience of our trade is at the highest premium. Now is your time to get out there and share what you know. Whether it’s a social media post, an FDIC presentation or anything in between today is your day.
In the skydiving world, there’s one thing that can literally make or break your jump: is your parachute packed correctly? Back in the day, parachutes were round, so it didn’t really matter how they were packed. As long as the lines weren’t tangled, you were pretty much good to go. Today’s jumpers use a more sophisticated style of parachute that is “wing shaped” to allow for optimum flying. Because of this, the importance of a properly packed, or “rigged” chute as they call it in the skydiving world, is now extremely important. The chute must be packed just right so that it will fill with air in the correct orientation immediately upon opening, as well as ensuring the lines don’t get tangled.
Like every vocation, there is a debate in the jumping world as to whether it’s better to pack your own chute, or pay to have someone pack it for you. The consensus appears to be: if you want something done right, do it yourself. Then there’s the big question: what happens if your original chute malfunctions, or catastrophically fails? Well, that’s what your reserve is for. Reserves must be packed by certified “FAA Riggers.” To become a certified FAA Rigger one must successfully pass a written, oral, and practical exam.
I’m sure by this time you’re wondering, what’s your point? Well, in the firefighting world, there’s one thing that can literally make or break your day: is your SCBA functioning correctly? Back in the day, firemen didn’t wear respiratory protection, many grew beards as a form of primitive protection, so the only thing they had to worry about was if it was long enough to “filter” the air. This eventually transitioned to some firemen using various forms of particulate masks, or a hood. As we all know, today we use a much more sophisticated style of respiratory protection, the SCBA. Because of this, a properly checked SCBA is now extremely important. The SCBA must be checked that the pack is free of debris and damage, the bottle is full, the hoses are connected and not leaking, straps are fully extended, and the pass device and low air alarms are in working order. Not to mention checking your face piece to be sure it is clean and free of damage, your heads up device is working properly, coms are clear, and finally that all of your equipment is set up for optimal masking up time.
Unlike the skydiving world, there is no backup. What happens if your SCBA fails? Well, I guess you better hope you’re not in an IDLH environment. We also don’t have a “certified SCBA inspector” to check our pack everyday. That’s you. Knowing all of this, why would you trust your equipment to the off going shift? Not to say they’re bad firemen, but things happen. And, let’s be honest. “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”
You would think by now we wouldn’t have to have this conversation, but the number of people that for whatever reason don’t fully check their equipment everyday would surprise you. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people where this is the expectation, but not everyone is. It’s one of the best feelings to walk in the firehouse at the beginning of a shift and hear saws running, pass alarms going off, and seeing guys inspecting their gear. If you’re not this lucky, be the person to influence that change. 30 year guy, or new kid, doesn’t matter. Walk in the firehouse and make it the first thing you do when you make relief, then you can get your coffee.
We are in an age of declining fire. In direct correlation to this, is the disappearance of the fire department mission and the art of firemanship. Meanwhile, resentment is rapidly on the rise. True firemen are like starving artists. Their sole focus is to be a part of an organization with passion and drive to be good at the job. They are consistently striving to find ways to perfect the craft. These are the firemen who consistently think they will never be good enough, and for once that thought is a good thing. These firemen will do work every day to be one percent better. So why do we punish them by telling them what they’re doing doesn’t matter? Fireman want to be held accountable to high standards, to train, and to serve their communities. Consistently, these firemen are being told that the thing they love, the thing they signed up to do, is less important than all of the other tasks departments have acquired. As a result, bitter firemen full of resent towards their departments take their place.
Fires have become a high risk, low frequency event. We all know that on average, less than 25% of runs are fire related, and most of those are some kind of auto alarm. In what world is that a reason to prioritize fireground skills less? Unfortunately, that’s the case for many departments across the country. Firefighters beg for education; whether it’s walkthroughs, drills, or just tips from the senior guy, but are told other tasks take priority. Declining fire should not be a reason for less fire training, it’s a reason for more. Nobody gives a shit what you are on the fireground as long as you’re capable, and that will always be true. But you better be sure they do give a shit that you are capable.
“Jack of all trades, master of none” is a very real problem for today’s fire service. Fire departments have to balance an ever growing list of duties. EMS, to prevention, fire safety, hazmat, technical rescue, and finally fire. As budgets are cut and departments reorganized, departments are forced to become all inclusive service providers. The community expects us to be able to handle any and all problems they experience. The old quote by Chief John Eversole from Chicago Fire rings true more than ever,
“Our department takes 1,120 calls every day. Do you know how many of the calls the public expects perfection on? 1,120. Nobody calls the fire department and says, ‘Send me two dumb-ass firemen in a pickup truck.’ In three minutes they want five brain-surgeon decathlon champions to come and solve all their problems.”
It is in this struggle for mastering versatility that the mission has creeped away, and with it, the morale of the crew. Resentment quickly takes its place.
Hiring pools are getting smaller every year, and EMS runs steadily increasing. As a result, departments are desperately searching for EMS providers. Some have even gone so far as to hire paramedics with no fire training, and will send them to a local academy. On the other hand, they won’t hire someone with fire training and no medic card. We all know paramedic school is significantly more expensive than a fire academy, and that administration often makes the final decisions. But it still speaks to the fact that priorities have shifted.
I firmly believe in highly skilled, professional, and passionate EMS providers. No one can reasonably argue against the need for that. How that looks for your organization: first responders, cross-staffed dual role fire-medics, or separately staffed departments is up to you. Regardless of what you’ve chosen, it must not be to the detriment of fire protection. Departments must determine a way to balance all of the tasks they’ve taken on the responsibility for managing. Without this balance, we are slowly becoming fire departments that have shiny fire trucks parked in the bays with dusty tool compartments- and that’s dangerous.
Fireground skills are an art, and are definitely “use them or lose them.” Meaning if you’re not using them at a working fire and/or training consistently, you will become less capable of performing them effectively. This is at the detriment of the property you’re tasked with protecting and the lives you’re required to save. Think of your last fire- how many things went right vs. went wrong? Did you hear the iconic phrases, “we put the fire out” or “at least no one got hurt?”
“Fireground Tactics” by Emmanuel Fried is probably one of the most tactically relevant texts written. In the intro Fried states,
“Decisions on proper technique in fighting any fire will depend on many variables. Probably the most important is experience, which helps one to make the right judgement. However, because of the relative infrequency of large fires, many fireman- even officers and fire chiefs – sometimes lack such experience. That is the principle objective of this book – to provide specific, detailed information on the most effective firefighting techniques.”
You can infer that his point isn’t if you don’t see a lot of fire you can never be a good fireman, but that you must study and learn from those around you with more experience. If you can’t gain experience from fires on your own, you must get it from those who do. This includes everything from conferences and HOT classes, ride alongs with urban departments, and most importantly, your senior firemen. So why is it, that we whine about how many questions the new kid asks, and then complain about how bad their skills are in the next sentence? If you’re both complaining about someone being a bad fireman and refusing to help them improve; it’s not them that’s the problem, it’s you.
Lack of preparation is unacceptable. We’ve all heard the risks associated with this laxness, the very worst being the loss of a citizen or a LODD. We all say we’re “here for them,” and yet actions speak louder than words. Our citizens are expecting us to be fully prepared, trained, and ready to work. But it’s become far too easy to bad at the job, and if we’re unable to do what’s required on the fireground, we’ve failed. The list of reasons why departments don’t train is endless: “We run too many calls,” “I have a report to write,” “The floors still need mopped,” “The truck is dirty,” “We don’t have enough staffing and/or we can’t take a truck out of service.” These are no longer acceptable answers, they’re excuses for laziness. Departments that do this struggle to keep people on staff and to keep the remaining members engaged. They wonder why morale is at an all time low, and resentment at an all time high. Yet, when members beg for training or support, they’re consistently told in one form or another, “not today.” Don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to morale? Pay attention to the mood around the firehouse after a fire, or a good day of training.
This all being said, you can not worry about the others on your department. You need only concern yourself with your own level of education and training. Someone threw a ladder wrong? Didn’t know to open the wet wall and the fire spread to the second floor? Unless you’re the officer that isn’t your problem. You need only worry about what you can control, and that is your own skills, time spent in the books, and attitude. Use it as a mental note for what you can personally do differently in the future and move on. Like many other things the fire service likes to complain about, worrying about whether your fellow fireman is swinging a tool right is just a distraction from the task at hand.
So what do we do? How do we provide all of these services, bring back the mission and perfect the art of firemanship? New kid, you’re excited about the job, keep a hold of that passion, and try not to let the naysayers get to you. Understand that there is fine line of reigning in your passion and getting along with your crew and stifling it. Find mentors, and never stop asking questions. Remember, your place is to learn everything you can about the job. Be excited, but know that sometimes passion can come across as arrogance. Don’t let your excitement make you overly confident. Ask questions, not to see what everyone else knows, but to learn everything you can. Make sure you’re studying the job from the inside out, rather making the mistake of studying it from the outside in. Meaning, start with your department’s SOG’s and learn your officer’s and crew’s expectations. Then seek guidance and tips from your senior men, and finally outside resources.
Senior guys, take the time to teach your crews. You know the intimate details of your city like no one else. Try to remember what it was like to be the new kid, and pass on what you wish someone would have taught you. Also, have the guts to learn from your new firefighters. Sometimes, a fresh pair of eyes or a new question is exactly what you need. There’s something to be learned from everyone, even if it’s what not to do. And finally, aim to be a “Jack of all trades, master of one.” Short staffed members will argue that on their departments, you have to be able to do everything, and that’s true. However, it is also an excuse. What better excuse for being “okay” at everything, and “great” at nothing than to say it is required? Frankly, it’s a reason to settle. The fireground doesn’t settle for anyone, you can’t either. Find what you’re passionate in and become “that guy” for your crew.
Departments must find a way to prioritize the members, and the mission again. Simple changes will make all the difference, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Leave the medic in the station and roll the ladder on fire runs rather than letting it collect dust in the bay. Empower your people to take on projects to make the department better: paint tools, clean off the work bench, pre-plan new buildings. Make the rookie pick a subject and teach the crew for 30 minutes. Take 10 minutes on an auto alarm to talk through truck placement and line deployment. Quiz your guys on building construction as you drive through the city. Little things create buy-in and in turn increase morale among the crews. Feed the artists. The most dangerous phrase in the fire service isn’t, “this is how we’ve always done it.” It’s, “we should, but don’t.”
There is a quote that we believe represents the vast majority of the fire service concerning buildings, it reads;
“Many an object is not seen, though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray.”
Simply put, we all see buildings but few understand what they’re actually looking at. That’s a problem, a really big problem and for two important reasons; which are a building is the one thing that directly or indirectly effects everything we do on the fireground, and the only thing we can do about a compromised building is avoid it entirely. We show up with no solution to sagging roofs, crumbling walls, or missing floors other than staying away. We can mitigate smoke, fire, and rescue trapped victims but we can do nothing about the leaning wall. It’s this stark reality that many forget and have paid the price. You can know all there is about fire behavior, your tools and strategies, none of which hold any value if you’re unfamiliar with the space in which they are relied upon. Some may say all fires are the same, which is true until you put one in a building. Behind every door are an infinite amount of variables, some known, some unknown, and some unexpected. This is why nothing’s routine till it’s over and why knowing your buildings on a visceral level is paramount. If you want to be able to forward think you must understand the data you’re receiving.
This will be a five part series exclusively examining five different types of legacy construction, each with its own article as it pertains to firefighting. The types of buildings were selected based on their prominence in today’s main streets and historic districts. These specific types of buildings exist in small towns from coast to coast but more commonly found East of the Mississippi River where our national building stock originated before moving Westward.
The five buildings are the old house, the taxpayer, the old mill, the vacant theater, and the bowling alley. Each of these will be examined along with inherent hazards and a play book for handling fires specific to each occupancy. Additionally since many of these buildings are found in small towns with departments that may not have the adequate resources, there will be a section based on short staffed responses for each. The objective of this series is to present the most useful amount of information in the least amount of space. Each of these buildings are worthy of their own book in themselves, this series is meant to be concise and simple information for any level of firefighter. As with any article on architecture, regional vernacular and Departmental jargon may vary. Nothing in this piece is the final say, only the individual reader and their streets can make that claim.
The Bowling Alley:
Bowling has a long history, and is still one of the most popular sports today. Some say the origin of bowling dates all the way back to Egypt, as early as 3200 BC. In the United States, its history can be traced back to the mid 1800’s, but it didn’t really gain popularity until the early 1900’s. During prohibition, bowling alleys separated themselves from saloons, turning themselves into family friendly gathering places. Prior to this, bowling alleys were found in basements and known to attract undesirable elements. Some older buildings may still have the remnants and inherent hazards in the basements of what is today a modern business, storefront or dining establishment. Interestingly enough, many private schools still have smaller bowling alleys in basements. These were installed as legal loophole so alcohol could be served on Sundays. After prohibition was over, beer companies started sponsoring teams, and with the rise of television, bowling continued to gain popularity. This culture gave rise to the 2nd floor bowling alley which was intended to offer a more family friendly feel as opposed to basements. Many of these still exist, and are in older buildings which pose their own set of challenges that differ from a more modern single story establishment. Between 1950-1960, bowling alleys became automated, and rapidly spread across the country.
The various construction styles, bowstring roofs, exposure buildings, wooden floors covered in wax and oil, and endless hidden voids make bowling alley fires a recipe for incendiary disaster. These fires are notoriously difficult battle spaces for even the most skilled fireman. Knowledge of the layout, roof features, and general construction can determine whether or not you lose the building, and your firemen with it.
A Peculiar Thing
What’s interesting, and what makes these fires even more hazardous than their inherent construction features and fire loads, is the fact they’re obscurely documented. This seems to be one type of fire that we’ve beat around the bush for over a century. In all of the fire service lexicon that exists, one can not easily find a single book nor comprehensive document specifically addressing bowling alley fires. Why is that? Is it because these fires are unwinnable? Will most we encounter will be lost? No victims are found, and no property saved? It’s very ironic that every news story or interview shows a Chief explicitly describing the dangers of bowling alley fires, yet there’s nothing to cite in fire academia other than one’s experience. What are those dangers? Why does it matter? What do we do about them? These are the questions this article tries to answer.
The most recent publication found was over 50 years ago by the National Board of Fire Underwriters, titled “The Fire Hazard of Bowling Establishments” due to a prevalence of these fires at the time. Aside from that, everything we know about these fires as trade exists as undocumented first person knowledge and news stories. Given that fact alone, articles such as this provide at least a starting point for others to critique and expand on for future learning.
Bowling alleys are unique in that they have a wide range of occupancy purposes. Where else do you find a single building with the potential to house a bar or restaurant, arcade games, machinery, hollow floors, and high fire loads such as storage rooms full of oil and cleaning supplies? Knowledge of building codes, and routine fire inspections can help you keep control of these buildings. If the first time you step in your bowling alley is when it’s on fire, you’re already behind.
A common hazard in bowling alley fires is the presence of Bowstring Truss Roofs. When it isn’t hidden, it is the most easily recognizable roof type, due to its arched top. However, these are commonly hidden by parapet walls or rain roofs, so getting out and examining these buildings ahead of time is essential. There are endless examples of fires in bowstring buildings. And many of the most memorable fires that have resulted in deaths of firemen are a direct result of the collapse of a bowstring roof. A prime example is the Cardinal Lanes Bowling Alley Fire in October of 1967. The explosion, and subsequent roof collapse, caused a concrete wall to trap 10 firemen, 5 of which did not survive. The most notable example of bowstring failure is the 1988 Hackensack Ford Dealership Fire. As a result, these roofs are overemphasized for the potential of sudden collapse earlier than expected. The reality is, the same can be said for any roof. When it comes to bowstring or arched roofs just understand what you’re looking at, specifically the fact they push walls outwards onto far more firemen than have been buried under the roof of one.
The design of bowstring truss roofs is very similar to other truss types; triangles transfer the tension from the bottom chord, and the weight from the top chord onto the load bearing walls. The significant difference, and hazard, with these is that due to the shape of the structure, the compression forces the walls outward, and not just down, significantly increasing collapse potential. Some arched roofs contained a steel tie rod to help with stability, but as temperatures increase these rods will fail, ultimately resulting in collapse. Bowstring truss roofs were commonly used in industrial or commercial settings prior to 1960, as they required no supporting columns and allowed for large open floor plans.
Failure of first arriving firefighters and officers to recognize and relay a bowstring truss roof can result in catastrophic loss. Common reports from these fires are heavy smoke conditions from the outside, while firefighters on the inside report little to no signs of smoke. If you have these signs as you’re entering, use your hook to pop a ceiling tile, preferably from a protected spot such as a doorway, and take a look at what you have overhead. Heavy smoke and fire conditions need to be communicated to command, so they can weigh the risks of continued interior operations under a bowstring roof.
Bowling alleys also contain the potential for endless void spaces, in some cases caused by the aforementioned bowstring roof construction. Where exposure buildings are concerned, bowstring truss’ were sometimes anchored into the dividing party wall, creating a void that fire could pass through from one store to the next. Knowing how to protect these exposure buildings is important. The heat and flame produced by these fires have the potential to be volatile. Foreseeability is key, without it your bowling alley fire can quickly spread to the adjacent buildings.
The floors themselves are also full of void spaces; in between each lane is a track for the ball return, that runs the length of the lane from the pins to the player’s seating area. These are separated from the lanes themselves; however they can allow undetected fire to run the length of the lane. Many of the lanes and flooring themselves can have voids that also run the length of the building, and are several feet deep. There is no fire wall between the pin machines and lanes, so fire in the mechanics can quickly spread to the rest of the bowling alley. If there is a fire in the mechanics of a ball return or the pin placers, you will need to open up multiple sections of flooring to check for extension.
Due to the layout of these buildings, mechanical rooms can sometimes be difficult to access in the rear or may be below grade. Between arcade games, ball returns, pin placers, and restaurants, there is the potential for a lot of power to be running through these buildings. Because of this, getting control of the power early on these scenes is more important than normal, you’ll want to readily know where the access to these controls is located. For small fires, each machine will have its own emergency shutoff, and there is typically at least one power source that controls all of the lanes as well. One often overlooked hazard is interior furnishings. These buildings are old and usually not updated so you’ll have things like wood panelling, heavy varnished wood work, curtains and carpeting. Again, don’t wait until the building is on fire to go looking for the first time.
The MSDS sheets of various oils used to treat the lanes advise that fires involving these chemicals should be treated as an oil, or Class B Fire. They advise that the “oil will float on water, and could spread the fire”. The oils may splatter once they reach their boiling point, and the polymer film will burn rapidly. Many alleys store cases in the back for routine cleaning and maintenance of the lanes. This means the oils will be both in large quantities in a storage room, and across the alley floors. Universal-type foam is highly suggested.
Keep in mind, if the floor is burning, you will need to check the void space below for fire spread. Doing so requires lifting a floor panel, typically you would do this away from the fire, but the lanes are divided by the ball returns. In this case, you would need to check in the area of fire, and lifting floor panels may break the foam layer. Also remember, you most likely have a limited amount of foam available. If you can’t sustain applying foam until the fire is extinguished, you’ll be washing it away as soon as you use water. In our research we were unable to find a bowling alley fire that used foam, would this have made a difference?
When understanding an Incident Action Plan (IAP) for bowling alleys, there needs to be a clear distinction between the three types of buildings you’ll encounter. This should be known, preplanned information, well before it’s transmitted in any size up. These are; legacy sub grade/basement, legacy 2nd floor, and single story modern. Depending on which of these three you have, the orientation and location of the lanes within the building will dictate a wide variance in tactics. This article doesn’t describe specific tactics; but instead highlights general points on which an agency can use their SOGs and capabilities they feel best suits them.
The Sub-grade/Basement bowling alley
Due to the difficulty of sub grade fires in general, any bowling alley fire in a basement progressing past the point of incipient stage should be approached with great caution. Perhaps an option here for a well off fire condition would be flooding the basement with foam. The lane conditioners are of a highly combustible oil and other chemicals that would be made worse with water, same as any Class B fire.
The play here is a strategy of life safety oriented confinement as the main objective in your IAP. The point being to address any life safety hazards such as unaccounted workers or trapped patrons. Fire and smoke behavior in bowling alleys is so volatile in nature that the common methodology of locate, confine, extinguish may not be suitable in a basement even in favorable conditions. Instead emphasis is placed on securing egress routes with the most amount of GMP in the least amount of time as opposed to complete extinguishment. Traditionally smoke isn’t something a stream would be particularly focused on aside from impending backdraft conditions but this is that time. A free burning fire in a basement bowling alley will likely be inaccessible due to the aforementioned conditions. If conditions permit or there’s a report of persons trapped, a large diameter line or two, quickly stretched to the bottom of the stairs will give you the best vantage point for a few reasons.
1. It’s typically a straight run stair so large diameter lines will not have to make turns.
2. It gives you a vantage point to play water on a large area from one location since bowling alleys are wide open spaces.
3.You can scan a large area with a TIC for reported victims while securing your egress and theirs simultaneously.
Any lines stretched to a sub grade fire in a bowling alley need to have at minimum the same diameter hose line as a backup holding the first floor. The first floor back up line must maintain discipline by not needlessly deploying elsewhere into the building leaving the entrance and basement stairs vulnerable for being cut off.
Exterior access points such as basement windows will be key for two reasons; opening a window closest to the fire in a vent limited condition will relieve to a degree the pressure pushing out the entry point and give you access for direct application of hose streams. Both tactics should be utilized as conditions present opportunities to do so. Due to the intensity and limited access challenges, exterior streams through windows on or near the seat of the fire should be your primary tactic for a well involved fire. Even if there’s a report of victims trapped, getting water on what you can early will be the best chance for entry for both us and them. If water can’t be applied immediately using large caliber hose lines, then a defensive posture is the only play. Exposure protection should be accounted for early, before the fire has extended upward from the basement.
Many basement bowling alleys were located in connected rows of buildings or the bottoms of private schools. This sets up a unique challenge for exposures not only for the exterior, but also below grade where buildings may have been connected. In the case for basement bowling alleys in old private schools the exposure concern is the main building above. These bowling alleys were commonly found under the cafeteria or gymnasium for their required large footprint. Keeping these fires contained in the building of origin will require similar tactics used in warehouses where crews hold the protected portions at choke points and corridors with manned or unmanned large diameter hose streams.
The Second Floor Bowling Alley
These fires will almost always be found in buildings of legacy construction consisting of Masonry Type 2 or 3 with a reinforced steel frame and concrete floors for the inherent heavy loads. Having a top floor fire offers some opportunity for roof ops, but historically these fires are so advanced upon arrival that anything other than a confined storeroom or kitchen fire will render vertical ventilation impractical. Knowing this allows a roof crew to triage certain opportunities if presented such as opening skylights and scuttles before attempting saw work.
Another tactical advantage of a top floor fire is the opportunity to deploy a deck gun at an effective angle of attack on arrival. This can’t be done in basement or single story bowling alleys. If on arrival you have fire showing from the front of the building of a second floor bowling alley, now’s the perfect time to deploy your deck gun.
When arriving on scene of a second floor bowling alley, tactics will depend on whether or not the buildings connected or separated by gangways. If the buildings connected in a row then you have to evaluate two additional aspects. How many sides is it connected on and are the adjacent buildings taller or the same height as the fire building. The following scenarios can present themselves:
1. Connected exposures on both sides
2. Connected exposure on one side
3. Connected exposures on both sides of equal height
4. Connected exposures on both sides of greater height
5. Connected exposures on both sides, one equal and one greater height
6. Connected single story exposures.
Out of these possibilities, exposure severity from highest to lowest are
Exposure of greater height
Exposure of equal height
Single story exposure
The severity is based on the fact that if an exposure building is higher than a top floor fire building than any fire through the roof will pose a serious threat, especially if the exposure building is downwind and has windows on the windward side. This also limits roof operations for ventilation since any roof openings made above the fire can affect the adjacent downwind exposure.
If the exposure buildings are of equal height, then your primary concern is the common cockloft void and cornice work on the building’s facade. These two avenues of extension, combined with expectation of poke through construction in fire walls and partitions over time will allow you a certain degree of strategic foreseeability in where to best utilize resources. The play here is confining the fire to the top floor of the main building while additional lines are to be stretched into downwind exposures as soon as possible along with monitoring roof conditions.
Access for second floor bowling alleys is typically a single straight run stair right off the street. This allows for a relatively simple advancement of a large diameter hose line or multiple lines without advancing around corners. There should be a side or rear entrance also, if these are used just be cognizant they most likely access utility, kitchens or back rooms making advancing a large diameter hose line less advantageous in those circumstances.
Top floor bowling alley fires that go defensive, and most do, will be easier to utilize aerial master streams due to the obvious access you’ll have when the fire burns through. Any well off second floor bowling alley should by default, position aerial apparatus for master stream operations before the situation even calls for it. This will save you valuable time on the back end when securing water supplies, when exposures become threatened, or in the event of an unexpected collapse.
One Story Modern Bowling Alley.
These are the quintessential bowling alleys most know to exist across the country. As with any large building, light smoke showing is really a lot of smoke anywhere else. Meaning don’t let the lack of heavy smoke conditions you’d see in a house fire trip you up. These buildings are large so any smoke showing from the front door on arrival had a lot of energy to get it there. As stated before, the presence of highly combustible oil based lane conditioners stored in bulk form and applied to the lanes will create a unique fire hazard that water will make worse, such as any Class B fire. If the alleys or the store room is what’s burning then foam should be utilized as necessary.
The play for these like all heavy fire load occupancies is putting large diameter hose lines in service as quickly as possible, supported by vertical ventilation where feasible. The one tactical advantage these buildings give you is their wide open space lacking turns and obstructions for line advancement and stream access. Bowling alley fires typically start in one of two places: kitchens or the pin setting machines. Knowing this, you can make the best choice of entry on such a large building instead of needlessly advancing through the front all the way to the back where a rear door was to begin with. The rear access from the inside is almost always along a side wall in a depressed walk way. This is important to know if you find yourself lost or disoriented so you can radio to the RIT or follow this exterior wall to safety.
If you’re afforded the conditions to make entry, a TIC snd inspection above the drop ceiling must be made and continue as long as crews are inside. Drop ceilings are notorious for concealing large amounts of advanced fire conditions. This can give crews a false sense of security as they get themselves deeper into a building. Any well off fire conditions located above the drop ceiling warrants immediate evacuation as the structural members have been compromised for an unknown amount of time.
If your town’s hydrants are sparse, or your flows must be augmented by tanker shuttled drop tanks then these fires will be defensive by default. There’s nothing wrong with that unless you show up not realizing it and waste valuable time “pissing in the wind” instead of spotting rig placement for master streams outside the collapse zone. When operating in a defensive posture, as most will be at these fires, remember to position aerials on corners and expect bowstrings to push walls outward. Set up collapse zones early on and maintain the discipline post fire as well. The collapse hazards still exist even after the fires out, a lesson too many have learned the hard way.
If you have a report of workers trapped, think about where most workers are in bowling alleys. Ask what their job is, the cashier will work upfront near the entrance. Are they the bartender, cook, or manager? How about the maintenance worker? Perhaps with that information your best place to start would be the rear by the pin setting machines. Knowing that roof scuttles typically open up in rear storage rooms, this may be a life saving vent choice for those trapped in proximity. The point here is to understand these fires are so volatile and your window of opportunity is so narrow that you have to consider only limited precise searches based on the best information provided.
The stark reality of bowling alley fires is that very few if any fire department shows up with the adequate amount of resources in the amount of time needed to successfully extinguish a well involved fire from the interior.
The Short Staffed Response
The tactics discussed above apply to short staffed departments as well – just use your heads and know your limitations. Get in and preplan the building, you most likely only have one, so there is no excuse not to know it intimately. Prior knowledge of the basics such as the location of the lanes, mechanical room access, utilities, etc. will make the first few minutes of your scene run smoother.
Understand with bowling alleys you may have a high GPM demand early on and continued throughout the scene, so you must consider the need for more engines for maximum pumping capacity. The main challenge smaller, less resourceful agencies will have isn’t manpower but instead water supply. When deploying two or three large diameter lines such as a 2.0 or 2.5”, tank water is not going to get you in the door like a normal one line off fire would. Forward lays are ideal in these situations with the next in company making the connection unless they are a ways out, then your engine driver may have to obtain their own supply.
IC’s are going to have to consider many different variables to call for, so pre-plan as much as you can. As discussed above, know your hydrant limitations and have tanker shuttles going early if necessary. Consider calling for additional officers as well as manpower, if for nothing more than to help control the scene and have an extra set of eyes on the building. Early application of foam on lanes and storage rooms is an asset on these fires. You must know how much you have on board your rig, and call for more early on. If the building is heavily involved, this won’t be worth your time; but if you can catch it early, it may make the difference in getting a good stop. Multiple aerials may also be needed, so rural operations will want to get those in route as soon as possible. Like every other fire we’ve discussed, preplanned mutual aid will make your life a lot easier.
Don’t let auto alarms make you complacent. “Nothing showing” on arrival doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no fire. Depending on the design of your bowling alley, there can be a massive void space above the drop ceiling that will hold a lot of smoke and fire, until it doesn’t. Regardless of staffing; if you suspect, or know, that a building has bowstring construction, focus needs to be on opening the ceiling and checking for fire above. If there is visible fire in the trusses upon opening the ceiling, serious consideration needs to be given to going defensive. There is no way to tell how long the fire has been burning, or how close you are to collapse. Same can be said for a basement fire, if you’re going to try to make an attack, you must protect the stairs.
The most common answer to the question of “what was unique about your bowling alley fire?” is consistently how quickly the fire seemed to spread. These fire scenes are described as “fast.” This is an important fact for short staffed or rural departments to remember as their response times may be longer. Later arrival times and fast moving scenes make for a dangerous combination if command isn’t thinking clearly or paying attention. These buildings have a high fire load, and if backdraft mitigation isn’t possible, exterior operations may very well be your only option.
There is a lot of debate on 2.5” vs. 1.75” for big fire attack. You can put out a lot of fire with a 2.5”, that is, if you can maneuver it. These fires don’t give you a lot of time to mess around before you lose them. Luckily these buildings are wide open and lack a lot of small rooms which is ideal for large diameter hose lines. This allows a minimal amount of manpower to get a 2.5” in place from a decent vantage point of relative safety. If you choose a 2.5” but either have to park it in the yard, or flow for a few seconds, shut it down to move and it takes you twice as long to advance, the 1.75” may be the better choice. Simply put, you know your staffing limitations, so pick which line(s) you’re most efficient with and get to work. If the fires reported in the machine room or the rear a 1.75” may be your best bet since maneuvering will be key.
Due to the construction and design layout of these buildings, sometimes by the time detection systems and sprinklers are activated, the fire is too powerful to be suppressed. If interior operations are unable to be completed for whatever reason, utilize what you have; 2.5” lines, deck gun, aerial waterways. Just remember, don’t park your rigs, or your firemen, inside the collapse zone.
Remember, like we discussed with the old mill; a small fire in a big building is a large fire anywhere else. Don’t let the size of the building distort your view of these fires. Know the specific hazards of your building: is it below grade, second story, does it have a bowstring roof? Do they store chemicals for treating the floors? Where are victims likely to be found? Know the hazards that accompany these unique features, but don’t let them cloud your vision for the rest of the scene. Have a general idea of how you would approach a fire in these structures, but be flexible enough to change tactics as the situation dictates. Our hope is that this article opens a dialogue on these unique fires, and that more knowledge can be passed on for further learning.
Many individuals were consulted in the writing of this article, their knowledge and experience greatly influenced the hazards and tactics discussed above. Due to the nature of how common trade knowledge, jargon, terminology and methods are passed down amongst the fire service much of the articles information can not be cited as a proprietary source to one particular piece of work, individual, group or otherwise.
Dunn V. Collapse of Burning Buildings: a Guide to Fireground Safety: 2nd Ed. 2nd. Ed. Tulsa, OK: Pennwell; 2010.
Dunn, V. (2007). The strategy of firefighting. Tulsa, OK: PenWell.
Fried, E. (1972). Fireground Tactics. Chicago, IL: H. Marvin Ginn Corp.
Hill HJ. Failure Point: How to Determine Burning Building Stability. PennWell Publishing Company; 2012.
Mitchell, U. S. D. of L. J., & Connolly, B. of L. S. W. (1953). The Boy Behind the Pins: A Report on Pinsetters in Bowling Alleys, Bulletin (170), 1–47. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books
NFPA 220: Standard on Types of Building Construction. (06.2018).
Pindelski, J. (2007, September 12). Truss Roofs: Do You Know Where the Firefighter Killer Hides? Retrieved March 15, 2020
I am the problem. Other women like me, who want to put a stop to all the noise and just do the job, are the problem. Sometimes, the problem is the solution.
Some of you will not like what I’m about to say, and that’s okay. I’ll make this clear, I don’t care. You don’t agree with me? You’re entitled to your opinion, but remember, I am too. What’s not acceptable is attacking someone for having opinions that differ from yours. We fight for rights for women and call ourselves “feminists” but attack the nearest one who dares to differ from our opinion. Well, I’m done with that conversation. So here we go: it’s 2020 and you’re a woman in the fire service, you’re the first for your department, or you just ran your first all girl crew? Congrats, I don’t care. What I do care about is what you did to earn that spot, and what you will continue to do to make yourself and the job better.
The constant back and forth battle of what women should call themselves is frustrating, exhausting, and frankly has no place in today’s fire service. I’m angry that it takes priority in conversations. Why, when I share an article on building construction, is the primary feedback the fact that the title says “Fireman” instead of “Firefighter”? Why are we not focused on the real problem, that the majority of us don’t fully understand the buildings we’re crawling in to? Are we really that insecure of our place in the industry that we are defined by a word? They say spite is just motivated anger, so trigger warning: I am a female, and I am a fireman. Merriam Webster defines fireman as “a member of a fire department.” I love the tradition of the word. Don’t lecture me on how the “traditional” fire service doesn’t include women. At the time you are referring to where there were few to no women on the job, there were hardly any women in the work force. It’s not a fair comparison, and frankly taking it out of context. Some say we could choose to use the word firefighter to be more “inclusive.” If you choose to, good for you, as a fellow fireman says, “there’s no right or wrong in the fire service: just best, better, and different.”
Before you attack me, understand that I have the right to have this opinion. I was the first female on both my volunteer and paid departments. The guys had to get used to having a “girl” around. We have an open bunk and locker room, they had to adjust where they change and sleep. I didn’t ask for it, but they hung curtains at the ends of the beds for privacy- for everyone. We have one bathroom which is used to shower. There’s now a flip sign hung that we can change from men to women. They had to order smaller everything, from turnout gear to EMS gloves. I in turn had to prove myself to my guys, that I had what it takes; both mentally and physically to do the job. But here’s the thing, every new hire does. That’s not some sexist “prove your worth” thing because I am a woman. There is unfortunately a stereotype about women in the industry. I firmly believe this discussion fuels that problem. I like to think I proved that definition didn’t fit me, and that I’m just another member of the crew.
I have one question: we’re not supposed to call ourselves firemen, are we not allowed to use the word “woman” anymore either? God forbid it has the word “man” in it. Must I refer to myself simply as “female” instead? If you can’t see that there are more important things for us to be worried about than what we call ourselves, then you and I are not going to get along. It’s been proven to me more times that I can count that the people who focus on telling you who they are, more than what they know, don’t really know anything. So I’m taking the advice of others before me and trying not to let my emotions be the messenger. But let’s be real; being triggered by a simple word tells me a lot of what I need to know about you. Keyboard warriors who sit behind a screen and belittle those who are trying to do the work. Well ladies, it’s really no surprise to me: soft hands equal soft feelings.
We’ve spent decades trying to earn our place as “equal to men,” yet for some women, when they enter the fire service they suddenly want to be treated as different. With the exception of properly fitting gear, which I’ll admit is sometimes hard to find, you should have zero expectations as far as the department making changes for you. I hear complaining on physical fitness standards, how they’re aimed at failing women. How expectations and standards should be lowered because “a woman couldn’t possibly pass that.” No lady, just put in the extra effort. Firefighting is hard, the standards should be hard to meet too. Plaster and lathe isn’t going to suddenly overhaul itself when you swing the axe and it realizes you’re not a man. I have failed more physical agility tests than I want to admit. But did I go back to the department and demand they change them? No. I trained harder until I was able to pass.
We demand private sleeping arrangements and bathrooms like we think every male we work with is going to attack us or violate our privacy. Don’t get me wrong, I know that stuff happens, but it’s not the majority, and it has the potential to happen in any job. It’s not unreasonable to want a bathroom door with a lock to shower or change, but you shouldn’t expect your department to give you your own space just because you’re a woman. How many restaurants or stores have you gone too that had single stall restrooms that were gender neutral? God forbid you have a hazmat fire run, or biohazard EMS call and you have to strip down in the bay- if you can’t trust your guys to be respectful of you in a sports bra and underwear, why in the world are we trusting them on a fire run in people’s homes, or in the back of a medic alone with a patient?
I fully respect and understand those of you who came before us and paved the way. I look up to you and appreciate the struggles you went through to join a male dominated industry. I’m honored to have met some of you, and call a special few my friends and mentors. Some of you had vastly different experiences than most are today. I’m not going to discount that. I understand that 20+ years ago being a female in the fire service was an uphill battle that probably felt like you were climbing Mount Everest. I also understand that everyone’s experiences are different, but focusing on the problem doesn’t make it go away. It’s all about perception. So instead of continuing to focus on gender as some obstacle we must overcome (as if you can control it) focus on being better at the job. Today there are still some uphill battles, I myself have had to explain that “no sir, I’m not just an EMT.” And “yes ma’am they do let girls drive the trucks now.” I once even had to explain to a guest in our station that I wasn’t “in my place in the kitchen,” I was the driver that day, which meant I was in charge of cooking. But do I dwell on this and let it warp my opinion of the industry and those we serve? No, I laugh it off and move on.
Honestly, I’ve been torn down more by other women in the industry than men. Why is it that as “powerful women” we claim to support each other and want equality, yet the dogs attack if opinions differ. I’ve had tenured woman tell me that I’m too new to understand, as if I haven’t had some of my own hills to climb. I’ve been told to “come back and talk too me after 25 years,” as if after all that time I’ll be a hardened man-hater. I don’t need to be on the job for 25 years to know that if men had a group called “Masculine Male Firemen” there would be an uproar of hatred. I respect the point of groups where there are only women, it’s a place to allow individuals to ask personal questions and get support. However, lately most of what I’ve seen has included mostly bashing on men or ranting about how “poorly” women are treated. I think they’ve lost sight of their purpose. I also don’t need to be at retirement to tell you that the most important thing to know about someone isn’t their title, but their experience and what they did for others. Principles have no tenure.
Let’s have a history lesson. Women have been in the fire service in the U.S. for over 200 years. The first known was Molly Williams in 1815. Molly was an African American slave who became a member of Oceanus Engine Company #11 in New York City. The first documented all-women’s fire brigade was at Girton Ladies’ College in Great Britain from 1878-1932. From 1910-1920 there were all women volunteer fire companies in Maryland and California, and another formed in Texas in the 1960s. With the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the first career women firefighters were hired in the1960s.This being said, I will never understand why in 2020 is it still such a huge deal when a woman is hired on a department, or when a truck is run by women. Why we scream for inclusivity and equality, but then purposefully say “look at me I’m a girl.” In the thickness of smoke and sweat your only identity is your ability.
I go to work everyday with the intention of setting myself apart, not to be better than the guys I work with, but to be better than I was my last shift. Your goal should be to set yourself apart by your work ethic, not your gender. So instead of focusing on what we are, let’s focus on things we can change. The public doesn’t care if you’re a man or a woman. What they do care about is if you can do the job when the time comes. So instead of focusing on trivial issues, lets take our attention to the thing that matters most: quality, realistic, and relevant training. Let’s focus on on the community we serve, and remember “nobody gives a shit what you are on the fireground as long as you’re capable.”
There is a quote that says, “a truly great mentor is hard to find, difficult to part with, and impossible to forget.”
One of those men is LT. Tony McLain.
From day one of my fire academy, I was blessed with great instructors. Each in their own way, representing what I want to be as a fireman. They worked hard, had a sense of humor, cared a lot about the guy standing next to them, and most importantly the public they served. They didn’t care about recognition and didn’t think they were anything special. They are just a group of firemen that love the job, and want to pass on as much as they know to the next generation. A handful of them became more than just instructors, but mentors, and Tony was one of them. From his constant repeat of “and things like that” while giving a lecture, to walking around yelling “gasket” every time we reloaded hose, to jokes about me showing up the guys; working with and learning from him was a never-ending source of education and entertainment. He had a way of giving you crap one minute, and teaching you an important lesson the next. He took the job seriously, and expected you to do the same. Work hard, but have fun when you were done.
Honestly, I credit a huge part of why I’m on the job today to him. I was at the tail end of my fire academy, and had the opportunity to apply to my department. I knew I wanted to be on the job, but I wasn’t convinced I was ready. I voiced these and other concerns to him one night after class. I don’t remember the exact words he said, but it was something along the lines of quit doubting yourself, you’re ready. Hearing someone I respected as much as him tell me they had faith in my abilities as a fireman gave me the courage I needed to apply. A year later when the offer finally came, I needed a little nudge from another mentor to take the plunge and accept the offer…but I wouldn’t have even tried if it wasn’t for Tony.
On the fireground you would frequently hear Tony say, “move with a purpose.” And you knew that meant you better get your ass in gear. He didn’t meant run around like an idiot, but to move quickly and efficiently. Do the job you were trained to do, the right way, no shortcuts. You knew if he was saying it, he expected more from you. I’m a big fan of quotes and I came to love what he said. I have no idea if he meant it as more than just a motivator to get moving on the fireground, but I began to model my life after that quote. I still try to live by that saying every single day, in all that I do.
“Move with a purpose” became a life motto, a reminder of a good fireman, and a way to stay focused. Is what you’re doing right now helping you to accomplish your goals? Are you doing something everyday to make yourself a better fireman, a better person? Are you putting the citizens you serve before yourself? Are you focusing on making things better, or wrapped up in the things you can’t control? Are you eating healthy and staying physically fit so you’re stronger on the fireground tomorrow? Is what you’re doing right now helping you continue to earn the title of “firefighter for the city of xxx”? Are you regularly doing relevant and realistic training? Tony’s mantra became more than just something to yell at the guys standing around on the fireground, but a central part of my everyday life.
On November 21st, 2018 the world lost a great fireman, mentor, brother, and more importantly husband and father. It’s still hard to believe that I can’t walk into his office and get some joke about my relatives or showing up the guys. I do know for certain that the world lost an entertaining, knowledgeable, caring, and passionate individual. He was a great fireman and an excellent teacher. I am extremely grateful to his family for sharing him with the fire service, and in supporting him spending his free time teaching the next generation of firemen like myself. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the opportunity to tell him this when I had the chance. So if you do nothing else today, tell your mentors thank you, and how much you appreciate all that they’ve done for you.
I had hoped to be able to work with and learn more from him in the future, however I am forever thankful for the time I had learning from him. We are all better for having known him.
If one day I am half the instructor and mentor to future firemen as he was to me, I will call it a success.