Telling the other story: Why our successes often go unshared

Agreement with vaccine mandates is one example of the many stories we don’t hear about – because it’s not as gripping as the protests

When I was in my early 20s, I worked one winter as a lifeguard at an indoor pool in a resort hotel. It wasn’t exactly exciting work. In four months, I never had a single incident that required emergency intervention.

My friends liked to tease me about my job and would ask sarcastically, “How many lives did you save today?”

I had a response ready. “All of them,” I would reply. “I didn’t lose a single one.”

Firefighters display their COVID-19 vaccination cards.
Firefighters display their COVID-19 vaccination cards. (Photo/SFFD)

This line came back to me many times when I was a firefighter.

“If you do this right, there is no story to tell”

When I joined the fire service, like all young firefighters, I wanted to go on emergency calls all day long. Being at a busy station was heaven, but even at these assignments, there were slow shifts. It was torture being at the quieter stations.

I did not realize then how much more challenging it is to maintain professional readiness at those quiet stations versus the busier ones.

Preparedness can be a hard thing to quantify. Likewise with prevention, which is why prevention often gets a bad rap, not only with firefighters themselves but among community members, who may see proactive measures or requirements as a nuisance. “I’ve never had a fire here,” a business owner might tell you. “Why do I have to bother with that?”

The ABLE program (Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement) has a catchphrase they use often: “If you do this right, there is no story to tell.” The same is true for emergency response.

Stories come from singular events, disasters, exceptions or screw-ups. Respond to a fully involved building and protect exposures while it burns to the ground, and that will be headlines in the next day’s paper. Spend four hours of grunt work fighting a room-and-contents fire and saving the rest of the building, no one even notices.

It’s notable that for many fire agencies, a marker of productivity is annual fire loss. More fire loss means more fires, which means firefighters are working hard. But reduce fire loss through good prevention efforts, and some oversight officials see that as a sign the fire department isn’t as necessary. It’s ironic, when police departments report a drop in crime, they are lauded for doing a good job, but when fire departments report a drop in fire loss, they are sometimes seen as extraneous.

It is challenging for officers to lead when it feels like nothing is happening. One of my more literary coworkers at our slowest station would often say, “Those also serve who only stand and wait.” He was making a joke, but it was also true. At that particular station in the early days, we could sometimes go several shifts without having a single call. It was easy for people to get restless and distracted. But I also knew when I was the officer there, that when (not if) we got the really bad call, it would be that much worse if we were not fully prepared and ready.

So we trained, we talked through scenarios, and we learned our district inside out. We did fire inspections and explained why this was important to the business owners. We did this not to fill time, but because we knew that preparedness was the essence of our value to the organization and the community.

In that context, we tried to tell a different story. That story was that firefighters were important, not just because they were willing to run into flames when everyone else was running out, but because they worked hard to ensure that the vast majority of people in the community never had to experience fire at all.

News tends to focus on the exception rather than the rule. One emergency responder takes inappropriate photographs and shares them – that becomes the story, not the dozens of others who were there behaving professionally. Firefighters protest in the streets over vaccine mandates and it makes national news, but there is little mention of the majority of agencies who are managing vaccine requirements without similar pushback.

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People who are cooperating, and working out their differences on a low level, and preventing and mitigating damage, and just quietly doing their jobs – that’s not a story, but it should be. Firefighters need to know that preparedness in all areas of their work has real value, and organizations must invest in that through training, support and good leadership.

Within their community, firefighters need to explain how smoke detectors and sprinkler systems allowed the fire to be contained to one room, and enabled firefighters to safely evacuate everyone from the building. They need to talk about how scenario-based training allows firefighters to simulate a disaster they will work to prevent under any circumstances. They need data and narratives to tell community members not only what they should do, but why it is important.

The fire service also needs to tell a different story among themselves. It’s hard to take credit for things that didn’t happen, but sometimes firefighters need to do exactly that. Firefighters identify as emergency responders, and when you’re not responding, it may feel that you’re not doing anything. In the absence of active intervention, it can be hard to find a sense of fulfillment in the job.

Unshared success is still success

It is important to value and communicate just how much work goes into being vigilant, being prepared, keeping watch. It’s good to periodically stop and remember the real reason for being an emergency responder and the true mark of success. Then at the end of the year, the end of the month, the end of every shift, you can ask yourself, “How many lives did we save today?” and feel good about answering, “Just about all of them.”

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