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Not so ‘above and beyond’: Empathy and service are part of a firefighter’s job

A fire career isn’t always about flashovers and extrications; it’s often the little things that make the biggest impact on a community

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Members of the Los Banos (Calif.) Fire Department stayed to look after kids whose mother was transported to the hospital as they waited for a relative to arrive.

Los Banos Fire Department/Facebook

A national news story recently highlighted the work of firefighters who made breakfast for children after their mother was transported by ambulance to the hospital. My first thought? What a nice story.

My second thought? We do this kind of thing all the time. All firefighters do.

It always surprises me when news outlets feature stories about things that, for most firefighters, are just normal practices. For example, I remember seeing a big news story years ago about an employee at some company who had a critical medical problem, and how her coworkers volunteered to work for her so she would not lose her salary when she ran out of sick leave.

In my fire department, that was normal when someone had a real need. I worked for several people in the years I served in the department. When I needed surgery two years into the job, people worked for me, including people I had barely known.

The firefighters I worked with never hesitated to go above and beyond at emergency scenes – wrangling pets, taking care of kids, searching for lost items, making phone calls, shoveling snow from walkways or pretty much anything else that was needed. These acts did not register as “above and beyond” to us. They were just an essential part of doing the job.

What does ‘back to basics’ mean to you?

In the past few decades, there has been much discussion in the fire service about going “back to basics,” and many of the talking points make sense, such as emphasizing training in fundamental skills and focusing on safety in critical response. Valuing tradition and fire service culture is also an important part of being a member of that institution.

But in some cases, “back to basics” has been co-opted by those who want to resist change altogether. For some, this may mean refusing to accommodate any change, whether it be a new kind of tool, a new procedure, new policies or even new training.

When I think of “back to basics,” I prefer to think of what is essentially true about all firefighters I have known – that they serve everyone in the community equally, regardless of whether that person is a millionaire or homeless. That they are the ones who will step up to sit next to an agitated passenger on an airplane or give a bicycle to a child who has had theirs stolen. That they routinely offer to work for another firefighter who has a medical problem or family emergency, expecting nothing in return. That they never stop trying, even when a situation may seem hopeless. That they would die for someone, even if they don’t particularly like that person.

What I loved most about the job was that every day was different, and I never knew at the start of each shift how that day would end. I never knew what would be asked of me and my coworkers and whose unique skills, knowledge or experience might be the critical factor in handling a challenging call. But I felt ready because at our best, we were a diverse group of individuals that had been forged into a team through trust, shared experience, and the commitment to serve a purpose higher than ourselves.

What it means to be a firefighter

Being a good firefighter is about much more than being able to force a door or pull a hoseline. Of course, firefighters must have practical skills and meet standards; their technical skills need to be second nature and they must never lose vigilance in maintaining them. But the job is more than that. It requires the ability to work as a team, to have situational awareness, to show empathy, to be flexible, to communicate well, and to demonstrate grit and myriad other qualities and abilities.

And, sometimes, it includes making breakfast for some scared kids whose mom just went to the hospital. But firefighters already know that.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.