Tear Down That Wall

It is time for another inflammatory article, boys and girls. Put on your grown-up pants, sit down, and (as always) read the whole post…then comment away. I was recently struck by a random fit of inspiration. I believe it may have started as I recalled the video of Brian Brush’s motivational speech to a group of recruits. I was mulling over what I would say to motivate the new group of recruits on my volunteer department. I couldn’t be as tough with them, after all…they’re just volunteers. I stopped myself short. My mind had begun to wander, as it often does, and an unfortunately common phrase had slipped past my mental firewall, “Just a volunteer.” That brought about some reflection on two terms which are typically used with conflicting meanings. Career and volunteer. The fire service enjoys separating everything into these groups. Career, volunteer, or sometimes a combination. Both sides have their reasons for supporting this practice. I’m here to tell you that it’s wrong. It’s time to tear down that wall.

Let’s first discuss the term volunteer. True “volunteer” departments are completely unpaid. They receive no compensation for the work that they do. Some departments take pride in being “100% volunteer”, and why shouldn’t they? It takes a lot of time and dedication to do this job while still holding down one which pays the bills. Does that make them better than paid members? Nope. It’s simply a neat tradition…a device to raise morale. There are also departments who claim to be volunteer, but they provide small, compensatory payment per call, or man-hour, or class. So in reality, they are paid departments and their members may call themselves paid firefighters. Yet, they are still volunteers. As a matter of fact, I can’t find any historical data depicting a mandatory draft by an American fire department in the last 150 years. Even during the great conflagrations in Chicago and San Francisco, nobody was dragging young men down the street and forcing them to pass buckets of water. Therefore, every fire department in the United States is a volunteer department. It doesn’t matter if you make $0/year or $50,000/year. You voluntarily submitted an application to your department. You are a volunteer…and you should take pride in that. End of story.

Now, what about the “career” folks. That term is often used synonymously with “professional”. Some volunteers dislike this practice because not all “career” firefighters act like professionals, and most “volunteers” do. This may be true, but the rules of English overrule. By definition, a professional is someone who earns a living by doing a specialized trade. Even though most volunteers act professionally, they are not, by definition, professionals…unless they can earn a living making $5/call. The term “career” is a different story entirely.

Full-timers also tend to call themselves “career” firefighters. They use it as a term reserved for those who are “professionals”, as defined above. This immediately brings to mind two officers on my volunteer department. Neither of them has ever held a full-time position as a firefighter. One has put in around 30 years of service, the other around 20 years. They are at every training event possible, and are usually the first to jump into a drill, bringing the new guys with them and teaching as they go. They are officers, and no matter how long those classes take, I’ve never heard them complain in front of their subordinates. They run more calls than many of the younger members. I’ve seen them outwork the 20 year-olds, over and over. I’ve witnessed them run 7 calls between midnight and 4am, only to show up at the local diner at 5am for a cup of coffee and plate of breakfast before heading to their day job. I’d like to see someone look those men in the eyes and tell them that they aren’t career firemen. They’ve skipped countless anniversary dinners, missed many a birthday party, and left far too early on many Christmas mornings. Tell their wives and kids that they aren’t career firemen. They are dedicated to a career in the fire service, regardless of how much money they make while working it…and that sums it up. Being a career firefighter isn’t about the amount of your wages, it’s about the level of your commitment.

There are full-time firefighters who forget about the job when they leave the firehouse. They aren’t dedicated, they aren’t career firemen. There are volunteer firefighters who treat the job the same way. They aren’t career firemen, either. I mentioned a phrase earlier, and it ties back in here. I have heard it uttered by volunteer firefighters. “I can’t take that many classes, I’m just a volunteer. I can’t run that many calls, I’m just a volunteer. You can’t expect that much out of us, we’re just volunteers.” It’s time to remove that facade. It is nothing but a veiled excuse, a cop-out. If you start to think this way as a volunteer, try replacing that phrase with something more honest. “I can’t take that many classes, I’m just not dedicated. I can’t run that many calls, I’m just not dedicated. You can’t expect that much out of us, we’re just not dedicated.” Perhaps that will re-align your focus. Maybe it will be the motivation you need. If you still don’t get it, then quit. The same goes for the full-timers who carry the same attitude. If you can’t get excited about this awesome job, if you can’t get motivated and back on track, if you can’t remember why you chose this path to begin with, or if you chose it for the paycheck, t-shirt, or attention…then quit. If you can’t motivate yourself to truly give your all, then you aren’t needed. You’ll continue spiraling into an abyss of self-hero-worship and false promises…and one day those promises will get someone killed.

From now on, don’t let it be career vs. volunteer, make it the dedicated vs. the posers. Your paycheck, or lack thereof, makes no difference. You can be dedicated to a career in the fire service, dedicated to the job, dedicated to your Brothers, regardless of how much cash it pays you in return.

Paid and unpaid Brothers, unite.

Get the posers motivated, or out of the fire service.

Tear down that wall.

-Lt. Lemon


14 responses to “Tear Down That Wall”

  1. RescuingMyself says :

    Lt Lemon,

    I believe you’ve dug into yet another controversial subject in the fire service. And, I want to thank you for doing so! This is something that should have been approached long ago.

    As of this year, my father is a 27 year veteran with my volunteer department, serving the last four years as Deputy Chief. I would not want to try and count the nights he has stayed out working fires, wrecks, and anything thrown his way and than him go put in 12 hours at his day job. Just waiting for the time of day to roll around so he can be available again. Ready for that next call. Ready to help. And, like you have stated, that is a career firefighter.

    The new, young firefighters (full-time and volunteer) today start into this service expecting everything to be easy. They expect to be a brother/sister from day one. Expect the community to see them as a hero before they make their first run. Wanting everything handed to them.

    I may still be green, but from the day I handed in my application, I considered this a career. Traveling farther than most for training, working out longer than most, waiting for the day I became a brother in my department. Pushing myself harder to become the career fireman my father (and fellow true veterans) engraved in me from a young age.

    Thank you for another inflammatory article.


    • lieutenantlemon says :

      Thanks for reading and sharing your view. The fact that you started out with the right attitude is great. Most of us (and pretty much EVERYONE who reads this blog) did, too. The key is staying motivated and holding on to that attitude when it isn’t easy, fun, or popular.


  2. Jon says :

    Dead on, brother. Well said!!


  3. DL says :

    I forgot where I first heard it but its something I always say to some of my fellow members in the volunteer service-There are only 2 times you volunteer in the fire service, you volunteer to join and you can volunteer to quit. Everything else is mandatory.


    • lieutenantlemon says :

      I’ve heard that phrase, as well. I contemplated using it in this post, but it seemed cliche. It is, however, a great quote and it should be shared with every new volunteer member.


  4. Jason Jefferies says :

    NIce! When speaking to students while teaching Orientation and Safety for FFI, I get on my soapbox about this same mentality. The rant basically goes, and I’m paraphrasing. “This ain’t no hobby. This ain’t no pasttime. This ain’t something you do for kicks. This is a job. You must approach it with tenactiy and desire to serve, learn, and improve on a daily basis. If you don’t feel that way, get your things and leave my class.” I’m to the point in my life where I’ve quit apologizing.


  5. P.J. Norwood D.C./Training Officer East Haven CT says :

    Lt. Lemon, I just shared on FB with the following comment; “Lt lemon hit it out of the park” GREAT Job Brother. Please tag yourself on the link on my FB Page P.J. Norwood


    • lieutenantlemon says :

      Thanks for commenting and sharing. I’m not sure how to tag myself in your FB post, but I did look at it to try. I don’t think I’m more entertaining than the World Series, but thanks for the compliment.


  6. FiyaMan says :

    You said it brother, some are dead on, some could use a little conditioning and some just need to move it on along.


  7. Gary Lane says :

    Getting a paycheck doesnt make you a professional FF. Neither does wearing a t-shirt, having a strobe light on your roof or an IAFF sticker in your window. This write up was dead on and damn perfect! Should be read/incorporated into every FF class…paid or not….


  8. Jason Weis says :

    We have been struggling with this in our department for a number of years now. We are a volunteer, and our chiefs seem to believe that we can not push people to better themselves because after all, we are “just” volunteers. I have been a vollie for 10 years, and entered the fire service with an absolute respect and admiration for the “ol’ guys.” I dont yet consider myself one of those, but I strive daily to become one. The young newcomers to our department (and I think this is also a bit more society wide) have absolutely no respect, and think they are entitled to everything the “Brotherhood” has to offer without earning it.

    I think you have said everthing perfectly, and I wish more of our chief level officers would see it the way you do.

    Stay safe brothers!


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