7 habits of successful firefighters: A humorist's view

Self-help gurus telling you to wash behind your ears are on every corner, but none offer the clarity of wit


That headline sounds like it could pass for a book title. Nah, no one would ever go for it.

Naming rights aside, I've come up with a list of seven habits to emulate for those hoping to be successful firefighters, even if my list is from a slightly skewed angle.

7. Be a part of the team
Be there when the chow bell rings and not only when the chow bell rings. Confusing? I'll elaborate.

Even if you are eating something other than what the group is, you can still eat with everybody else. I've worked with lots of people who go through diet phases, but they still eat their caveman, African Serengeti grazing or moon rock meal with us.

And if you are eating an ancient grain and squid ink soup or slopping seconds from the group lasagna dish, clean up after yourself and help with the clean up tasks. Nobody has any use for the "Oh I didn't know we were cleaning up" guy. This guy can always magically show up just as we put up the truck washing brushes and wet towels.

A lot of places clean up at 9 p.m., you know, the kitchen and dayroom. Our hero will mysteriously show up as we finish and ask, "Are we cleaning up early tonight?"

No, we clean up at 21:00 every night. Are you on Rocky Mountain time or something? Did we set the clocks back this weekend?

6. Know the job
I will be the first to admit we use a lot of gizmos. Know how they work, if nothing else for peace of mind. A car rolled over with people hanging out the windows is not the time to ask how the struts go together.

If you have a question about how a drip set works on different rates, ask somebody. I have never met a firefighter who wouldn't take the time to show somebody how something works.

It is especially important for new people not to be afraid to ask for help. It is easier to do it in the station before the alarm than to come back and have to explain why you couldn't do something.

Another aspect of this is know where the equipment is. Nobody wants to watch somebody play "Let's Make a Deal" with the fire truck compartments. You remember, it was that game show where you had to wager on if the grand prize was behind door numbers one, two or three? No? Ask the guy who misses clean up because he was watching reruns on Game Show TV.

5. Take all alarms serious
Yes, I know that is easier written than done. I am the first one to utter expletives when a fire alarm comes in at an address that we go to all the time.

Sure it's usually dust in a detector, a power surge, somebody cooking or a 20-year-old detector's death-throes chirp. But on rare occasions, just maybe, they go off from fire smoke. Yes, I know the ratio of alarms to actual fire is low, but it happens.

My first call as an engineer was a residential alarm on a Christmas morning. There was no smoke, no smells, nobody home, no key holder and the alarm had reset. We were about to leave when somebody noticed smoke had finally found its way to the eaves.

4. Physical fitness
I know this is a cheap one, but worth mentioning. Do I even need to expand on this one? There is a lot of physical activity in this line of work. Everything we have is heavy, and trust me, the older you get the heavier the stuff gets — it may be a change in Earth's gravity; I'm looking into that.

And yes, being the four-year reigning champion at the county's no-hands pie-eating contest is a great honor. But you owe it to yourself and your coworkers to be able to do what needs to be done on the fireground.

I try to do something physical every day, whether it's walking or weights — yes, my running in races days are over; see previous theory on gravity.

3. Know where you are going
Yes, I'm old school as has been well documented here before. At least know your first-in area.

The argument will inevitably be made that we now have computers comparable to the Strategic Air Command and they show us where to go. Just sit back and let Hal take care of everything, they say.

When the big event happens there are a lot of stresses at work — time of day, are there people trapped, where to park and where is the water supply going to from are a few.

Not having to worry about getting there is just one less thing on your mind. It can also be a confidence builder. There is nothing worse than sitting in the back and hearing things from the front like, "Does this street go through?" or "Did they say north or south?"

2. Take pride in the job
I drove for a number of years. The last thing I did every morning after the check out was to wash the wheel wells. The wheel wells were painted red and I would take a car wash brush to them every morning.

I wanted it to look nice. It is physically impossible for me, or anyone, to not look at a fire truck. We're genetically hardwired to crane our heads at the sight or sound of one.

Make sure the pre-connects look uniform and the supply hose doesn't look like blindfolded firefighters packed it as part of a new-fangled confidence exercise. Of course, this goes for your appearance also.

I heard a story the other day of a captain telling a new member to tuck in his shirttail. The captain said, "When you go through those doors you represent all of us." Truer words have never been spoken.

Yes, here it is, number one.

1. Act accordingly
We are the keepers of an honored tradition dating back to Ben Franklin. What you do reflects on all of us.

The majority of the taxpaying public doesn't know the difference between one fire department or another. When a firefighter gets caught setting a fire, the public assumes all firefighters set fires.

When a firefighter is arrested, the news media always reports the story as a firefighter or ex-firefighter. It doesn't even matter if that person hasn't been a firefighter in 15 years and only lasted three months because he hated cleaning dishes.

We are held to a higher standard. Nobody cares if a roofer, car mechanic or a new-age healer gets arrested for theft. But when it's a firefighter or police officer, it will be front-page news.

Most people (frequent flyers aside) don't have regular contact with the fire department. We have usually one chance to make a decent impression, but that one impression will last a lifetime.

Being helpful, courteous and sympathetic will go a long way. You don't want Martha going to the beauty salon and telling her other retired friends not to call the fire department no matter what because they kicked three of her 17 cats.

There you have it, now you too can be a successful firefighter. Enjoy this month's holiday and let me hear from you.

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