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.