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Stopbad: December 2015

Are you a T-shirt firefighter or a real firefighter? Are you wearing a costume or uniform? Do you take being a firefighter seriously? These are the questions that you, as a chief officer, should be asking your team.

December 7, 2015 
By Gord Schreiner

While it might be hard to tell at first glance, it is easy to weed out the T-shirt firefighters once the tones drop or by observing their daily actions. The way they drive, the way they talk, and the way they act all demonstrate how good they are as firefighters. Real firefighters are trained, ready to respond and operate safely. Getting a T-shirt is easy, but being a real firefighter is a life-long journey that requires great dedication and hard work.

Fire crews must constantly prepare and train. There is no ceiling because they are never done training. When your team finishes one training program, there is always another one to do. Unfortunately, there are some firefighters who think that once they put on the T-shirt they know it all. This type of firefighter is dangerous.

Real firefighters are constantly studying, researching and training. Real firefighters are fit, physically and mentally. Real firefighters are honest, ethical, socially responsible and nice. They do more than is expected or required of them. Fire fighting is not a menu and firefighters cannot pick and choose their ideal traits; they should have all of these traits.

I am in my fortieth year in the fire service and am still constantly learning and improving. I am constantly taking new courses or reviewing previous courses. You should be too. As the manager of the Comox Fire Training Faculty in British Columbia, I get to see a lot of new firefighters every year. When I give them a T-shirt and watch them light up, I am excited and proud, however, I am also quick to tell them they must earn that T-shirt and earn it every day for the rest of their careers (career or volunteer).


Some firefighters talk the talk but can’t walk the walk. I always say to new firefighters: “Don’t tell me, show me!” Show me that you want to be here; show me that you take this commitment seriously; show me that you care. The reality is that some, especially new firefighters, can’t make the commitment that is needed.

I can tell very quickly by talking or watching firefighters train, how seriously they are about this business. Many young firefighters dream of a fire-service career but won’t back up that dream with on-going, dedicated hard work. Many struggle with passing a simple test because of lack of commitment. If recruits are not excelling in small volunteer or paid-on-call fire stations, chances are very high they will not get a second look for career fire-service jobs.

To become good at anything, people need to make sacrifices, and the same goes for being a good firefighter. Firefighters do not need to sacrifice their family time, their regular jobs or their health, but they do need to sacrifice a bit of their recreational time. Firefighters may have to give up some of their social lives, some of their gaming time and some of their sports time.

Real firefighters know their jobs, know their communities and are always ready to respond. They also represent themselves and their departments well, regardless of what they are doing. Being a T-shirt or real firefighter can be contagious in your department. Do all you can to make sure your department is full of real firefighters.

One way to encourage real firefighters is to connect recruits with good fire-service mentors. Mentoring is key to the success of the new member and the department and often adds value to the existing member (mentor). New recruits need to be challenged to ensure they become great firefighters. Chief officers need to ensure that expectations are explained to new members, and should establish benchmarks along the way to ensure new members are growing.

Leaders also need to constantly assess all of their members and make necessary adjustments along the way to ensure their departments remain strong and become even stronger. Release the firefighters who are here only for the T-shirt and replace them with others who are willing to invest in themselves and their communities. If we allow T-shirt firefighters to thrive in our departments, service and safety will erode.

The fire service is full of many great people and tons of opportunities. We need to let our new firefighters know that if they do not invest time and effort into becoming real firefighters, they will miss many opportunities and may not be able to remain in our departments. Just wanting to be a firefighter is not good enough, you have to work hard to get there and work hard to stay there!

Gord Schreiner joined the fire service in 1975 and is a full-time fire chief in Comox, B.C. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter at @comoxfire

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