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‘How it used to be’: Glamorizing our past sends mixed messages to new members

We can honor our past and maintain our traditions without dismissing new, better and safer ways of doing the job


“We must stop regaling today’s firefighters with ‘how it used to be’ from one side of our mouth while we tell them how they should be doing it differently from the other side,” writes Avsec.


I’m done reading blog posts that start with something like, “Firefighting has been and always will be a dangerous job and we accept the risks when we take the job ….” Done.

Until we stop glamorizing the job of a firefighter with stories of “how it used to be,” we will never get the newest and future generations of firefighters to understand – really understand and take it to heart – that when you look at the facts, most risks in this industry should be extinct. After all, we have the knowledge, skills, equipment and technology to make it so.

What we continue to lack is the willingness to let go of the past in order to lead today’s firefighters into a new era where:

  • Every firefighter is seated and belted whenever they’re on a vehicle in motion.
  • Every firefighter’s PPE is kept free of fire-related contaminants proper cleaning after every call.
  • Every firefighter wears their breathing apparatus and breathes cylinder air whenever they are in the hazard area, from initial fire attack through the completion of overhaul.
  • Every incident commander conducts a thorough size-up of the structure, risk assessment, and develops an incident action plan before they commit personnel to an interior fire attack.
  • Firefighter deaths and injuries are not accepted as “the cost of doing business.”

I could go on and on with additional items for the list, but I trust you get the picture.

Mixed messages

We must stop regaling today’s firefighters with “how it used to be” from one side of our mouth while we tell them how they should be doing it differently from the other side. And we must make it unacceptable for any officer to say to a new firefighter, “You may have learned that in the academy, but here’s how we do it in the real world.”

How’s a new firefighter supposed to accept the science that’s telling us that wearing turnout gear that’s constantly contaminated has a very real potential for causing cancer later in their life when their instructors wear turnout gear that’s severely discolored and their helmet face shield has been disfigured by heat and smoke?

How’s a new fire apparatus driver/operator supposed to accept the department’s policies on safe, effective and efficient driving during response to emergencies when their officer and fellow firefighters are constantly encouraging them to disobey safety procedures in order to beat the other engine to the scene? And for what, “company pride” at being first in and getting first water on the fire is at stake with every call?

Making “new” the “norm”

We will never get to a new era of firefighting until we make the “new ways” the new normal. Meaningful change does not take place because we tell people to do things differently and their inherent good nature will cause them to change their behavior. Rather, meaningful change occurs because the “new” becomes the socially acceptable “norm.” And it does work.

Since the release of the U.S. Surgeon General’s 1964 report on the dangers of cigarette smoking, the American public has been increasingly aware of the dangers of smoking to public health and the financial impact on our healthcare costs from treating smoking-related illnesses. Did people suddenly quit smoking because they did not want to get sick and die? No. Smoking rates in the U.S. did not start to decline at a meaningful rate until it started to become socially unacceptable to smoke in public setting. Smoking was no longer the norm.

If we want to make unsafe firefighting practices and operations a thing of the past, we must start taking steps to make them similarly socially unacceptable to the members of the American fire service.

Where do we begin?

First, we must stop glamorizing our firefighting past. Second, we must accept nothing less than total commitment to moving forward to embrace the use of new information, equipment and technologies that make the job safer, more effective and more efficient.

Don’t believe that we can do this? I look no further than the brave men and women of our military forces, particularly the U.S. Marine Corps. Probably no organization takes more pride in its past and celebrates the sacrifices and successes of its members than the Marine Corps.

But look at photos and video of today’s Marines in combat operations in faraway places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and compare them to Marines in combat operations during World War II in places like Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. When I look at the upgrades to the PPE worn by today’s Marines, I clearly see an organization that’s committed to doing everything it can to protect its personnel when they’re exposed to the hazards of combat.

Further, do you think for one minute that a drill instructor at Paris Island would tell a group of Marine “boots” how they wished the Marine Corps hadn’t become so “soft”? Do you think that a commander in Afghanistan would tolerate any of their personnel going on a combat patrol without ALL their personal protective gear on and in good working order? Do you think that commander would tolerate any of their subordinate squad leaders not following their mission guidance for the combat patrol? I don’t think so, not with the potential negative consequences for that commander. “We must be unyielding when it comes to the safety of our people.” That snippet of wisdom comes courtesy of one of my former deputy chiefs, F. Wesley Dolezal.

We can change our fire service culture for the better. The only question is, do we really want to?

Note: If you want to learn more about the issue of fire service culture, I encourage you to watch Dr. Burt Clark’s video on the subject, American Fire Culture: Needs Gene Therapy.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.