Even in the time you'll take to read this, you'll be a little older. My question is, who's got your back?
Over the last year or so I've come to the realization that although I'm not over the hill in any way, shape or form, I'm not young, either. As the song goes, "I'm as good once as I ever was."
And as that happens to us we need to plan.
Fade to gray
But in the fire service, volunteer and career, we're not necessarily seeing an increase in youth. Experience is great and necessary both in the front and back seats.
But at the same time its nice to look in the back of the rig and see some youthful, enthusiastic faces who will be more than pleased to roll some hose. Those same youthful faces will allow you to take them by the hand, explain to them what they're seeing and learn from your experiences — they'll learn to safe firefighters and good firefighter.
In too many communities career staff are retiring later in life. In even more communities, the volunteers getting on the rigs are senior members without newer members there to provide additional muscle power. This is a situation that can't be ignored and most certainly will lead to trouble in the not too distant future.
We need new blood in our ranks in a fairly constant flow. At the same time, our elected officials need to understand the impact of not helping fill the ranks.
We would secretly roll our eyes at the incident commander who did not recognize that he was "loosing the block" to a fire, but still kept fighting the fire in the building of origin. At the same time we seem to be more than willing to say we can do more with less staff and an aging staff at that. Just as with every passing moment the fire grows, so ages our department.
I recently spoke to a chief in our state who had to work through some aggressive cuts within the department. When the inevitable commercial fire arrived, the business owner kept asking where the other engines were. The chief looked at him and told him they were coming, but that this was what a cut in staffing costs.
In the volunteer ranks, much the same occurs. We look at the roster and see it age; we look at drill night and see and increasing number of gray hairs. We promise we'll do the same job, but can we do it safely?
A lot of effort is going into recruitment and retention across this country. There are similar efforts going into finding funding for career staffing.
But the problem is that we look in the mirror and see the same kid we were 20-plus years ago. For most, but certainly not all, departments in this country, the firehouse is a microcosm of the community.
As our populations in many parts of the country decrease and age, so does the local fire agency. But we still have the same property to protect, and life-safety issues increase with our aging population.
Not to recognize and communicate this impact is clearly short sighted. We must all plan for the day we walk out the door. Part of the planning means training the next generation of firefighters to do the job safely.
Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at Tom.Labelle@FireRescue1.com.
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