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Institutional fire knowledge: Sharing what you know

Whether you’ve been out of the fire service for five months or 15 years, your lived experiences remain valuable to the firefighters of today


These are some things that you can’t learn in a classroom or from a book, only from lived experience.

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My friend “Bill” had a nearly 30-year career in the fire service, rising to the rank of assistant chief. He’s been happily retired now for almost 15 years, mostly occupied by the game of golf.

It was during a golf outing that one of his partners proposed an idea to Bill. This man works for a nonprofit organization that offers classes and presentations of general interest in the community. Would Bill be interested in doing a presentation on what it takes to be a firefighter?

Bill laughed. “What do I know about being a firefighter?” he said. “I’ve been out of it for 15 years.”

His golf friend persisted, continuing to ask Bill about doing such a presentation whenever he saw him – and he was justified in his insistence.

The value of those who have “been there, done that”

Bill – and anyone who has spent time in the fire service – knows things that are worth passing along, even long after their active careers are over. While Bill is likely not the best person to teach a class on the latest innovations in equipment or computer modeling, what Bill and all former firefighters can share are the experiences they gained from doing the job and being the job.

What specifically do former firefighters and officers know that is worth passing along to anyone interested in the job? Here are just a few things former members can share.

1. How to navigate station dynamics. Firefighters know how to live with others in close quarters under stressful circumstances. Station design may have changed a bit over the decades, but the core principles of cooperation, tolerance and good humor among those you live and work with has changed very little since the beginning of the fire service.

2. How to harness the power of effective communication. Good fire officers know how to communicate clearly – a skill that is valuable in any context. They know how to give succinct directions and useful feedback. They know how to cut through noise and distraction to get quickly to the essential point of any verbal interaction. This is a critical skill on the fire scene but is equally important in any aspect of life.

3. How to set goals and achieve progress. Experienced firefighters know how to set and achieve goals even against all odds. This may have been learned by organizing teams to complete projects around the station or it may have been manifested through personal professional development – studying for promotion or attaining a degree, even when work schedules, family obligations and off-duty commitments conspire to make those achievements difficult.

4. How to navigate a successful work-life balance. The challenge of balancing work and family life is something that has not changed much for firefighters in the past 40 years. Firefighters have always worked unusual schedules, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Firefighters miss a lot when they are on duty for long hours – the school play, the important anniversary. But they can also learn how to compensate for these absences by increased engagement when they are home.

5. How to decompress from the stress of the job. To make it through a long career, firefighters must learn how to destress from the job both on duty and off. The best fire service leaders understand the importance of inclusive humor and shared down time, as well as respecting others’ privacy. The most successful firefighters have strong outside interests that may or may not cross over into work life – playing golf with friends both on and off the job was one of these interests for Bill. Others may find personal restoration in community work, hobbies, spiritual communities, or artistic ventures.

6. How to forge ahead in the face of trauma and devastation. Perhaps most importantly, firefighters know what it means to put their lives on the line for others. They know the feeling of being dead tired and chilled to the bone, and continuing to work and move ahead, because they must. They know tragedy and loss in a way that others who read about it the paper will never understand. If they choose to do so, they can express empathy and compassion in ways others do not have available.

Share your knowledge

These are some things that you can’t learn in a classroom or from a book, only from lived experience. That lack of knowledge is what often trips up newer firefighters. New members may go to school to prepare for the technical aspect of the job – and nowadays, new firefighters are far better educated in this area than those joining 40 years ago. But they may not know much about what the job is really like or how to stay in the job for an entire career. That knowledge and insight comes from experience and perspective, which former firefighters have in abundance. They just need to be asked to share it in a way that is useful for the next generation of firefighters.

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.