What does a Firefighter actually do?

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Before you make the commitment to put countless hours of preparation, energy, money and effort into becoming a firefighter, I sure hope you realize what you are getting yourself into. Whether you are just getting started or far along in the process you may still have a few things to learn about the career you are pursuing.

What a firefighter does in one fire department may slightly (or drastically) differ from what a firefighter does in another fire department in the nearby vicinity or across the country. If you watch television it is not uncommon to see firefighters sitting around the kitchen table, joking and having fun, and maybe even watching television or sleeping, during the day time. Rarely do you see firefighters portrayed as doing "busy work," or actually doing productive work such as actual pre-fire planning (and that does not mean going shopping; it means actually walking through existing occupancies or buildings under construction to learn how they are constructed and analyze how they would mitigate an emergency), performing company fire prevention inspections, creating and updating pre-fire plans, fire/rescue training, physical fitness training, or just maintaining their fire station, apparatus and/or tools and equipment.

So, if you watch a television show, news story, or even a movie relating to, or depicting firefighters, how do you usually see us portrayed? In my experience, one of two ways: we are either on the job at a working incident of some form or fashion, or we are back at the station either preparing a meal or killing time waiting to get toned out for the next run. I'm not saying this is bad, as much as I'm saying it is an unrealistic portrayal of what a firefighter does in many departments. In some departments, that is the routine; go on a call or wait for the next call to come. Yes, there may be a little housework completed, and a rig check out here or there, but is the crew spending a couple of hours a day training, and doing what it takes to be the best they can be? I'll let you make that call.

I think it would open a lot of people's eyes, including the eyes of future firefighters, if they realized that a firefighter may do more things than just run calls and sit around the kitchen table waiting for the next run. I find it amazing when fire departments hire firefighters, who suddenly hate running medical calls, or hate going out on Band-Aid calls, or hate doing public education details or company inspections, or whatever. We have all heard some form of complaint (after someone got off probation of course), where a firefighter is not fond of doing a certain task, or even worse, pleads ignorant or states "I didn't sign up to do ________," or "that is not in my job description." As great of a career as we have, I still hear things like that (luckily rarely in my department).

Before any future firefighter determines this is the career for them, I hope they realize they may be called upon on any given shift, to do a number of different things, and even possess the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities to accomplish the following things at some point during their fire department career, depending on the department they end up working for. Some of these things the department will formally teach you how to accomplish. However, many of these things the department will expect you to bring with you in the form of life experience or learn on-the-job from other firefighters.

I once heard from someone that a firefighter needs to know about 26 different trades and careers, to be a good firefighter. At first, that sounded unrealistic, but when you think about it, it is highly possible a firefighter can be called upon at a moment's notice to do any of the following trades, professions, jobs, or careers as part of their daily routine on duty (and I don't mean as part of a side job off-duty):

  1. Plumber
  2. Electrician
  3. Carpenter
  4. Social worker
  5. Psychologist
  6. Auto detailer
  7. Auto repair person
  8. Maid
  9. Mechanic
  10. Teacher
  11. Chef/Cook
  12. Administrative Assistant (Secretary)
  13. Dishwasher
  14. Janitor/Custodian
  15. Landscaper
  16. Painter
  17. Police Officer
  18. Service station attendant
  19. Accountant
  20. Financial advisor
  21. Truck driver
  22. Facilities manager
  23. Food server
  24. Waiter/waitress
  25. Recreational coordinator
  26. Career planner/advisor
  27. Maintenance person (handyman)
  28. Dietician
  29. Appliance repairperson
  30. Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning (HVAC) repairperson
  31. Tow truck driver
  32. Customer service representative
  33. Public educator
  34. Public information provider
  35. Computer technician
  36. Television repair person / troubleshooter
  37. Fire prevention inspector
  38. Fire investigator
  39. Medical professional (first responder, EMT, paramedic)
  40. Hazardous materials first responder
  41. Rescue technician (basic or advanced)
  42. Firefighter (oh, yes, on occasion, we are still asked to put out fires!)

I have probably missed a few professions or trades, so feel free to add your own to the list to educate others about what a firefighter really does. Take a deep look at what a firefighter does from the time they arrive at the firehouse to the time they leave the firehouse. Whether or not they respond to a single call, they may still do many of the above items while on duty at the firehouse. Talk to most senior firefighters, and I bet they can provide examples of having to do a good majority (If not more) of those above mentioned items at some point in their career, obviously some more than others.

Some people forget that we are the folk’s people call when they cannot figure out what to do, or more commonly, cannot afford to call a repair person for, especially at three o'clock in the morning, on a holiday. While they may not want to pay triple time for a plumber to come to their house to stop the water flowing from a burst pipe, they have no problem calling 9-1-1 knowing we will come and at least stop the problem, with some thinking we may solve the problem. If nothing else, we will probably stop the immediate problem, and then direct them to who they need to contact to fully solve the problem.

If you haven't figured it out by now, I hope are beginning to realize we don't just "save lives and property anymore," and that we are truly jacks of all trades. I won't go as far as adding, "masters of none," because I hope if nothing else, we are masters at our profession and the core expectations of what we are here for: serving our community, protecting lives and property and making a positive difference every day we are on duty.

If you do not embrace the challenges a firefighter faces every day (and I don't mean life-threatening or life-saving challenges, those are usually far and few), you will be frustrated and unhappy. Instead of getting angry with the folks who call 9-1-1 for our assistance, do your best to have patience, tolerance, and most of all compassion for their current situation. To you, it may be a B.S. call; to them, it may be the emergency of a lifetime. More importantly though, we need to educate our future firefighters and let them know we don't just save lives and property (that is less than 5% of our job), instead, we are here to help the people who pay our salaries, solve the problems they are faced with in a courteous and professional way, to ensure we leave them with the impression that they cannot live without us!

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