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Guest Column: October 2009

Sometimes, with the busy lives we all lead, we forget where we’ve come from. It happens to all of us to some extent in our personal lives and our careers.

September 14, 2009
By Lou Wilde

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Sometimes, with the busy lives we all lead, we forget where we’ve come from. It happens to all of us to some extent in our personal lives and our careers. I hope as a chief officer I haven’t lost too much perspective about what it’s like in the trenches. I’m sure I could still charge a hand line and set a relief valve correctly but I don’t get out of bed nine times on a night shift anymore. I do my best to keep in touch with those who are still doing the job out there every day and night.

Talking with a fellow chief about this recently, we discussed the newer junior officers (lieutenants and captains). We remarked that every now and then these newly minted officers forget that they used to be grunts doing the dirty jobs, or how when they were firefighters they were the smart alecs who often challenged officers on their decisions. Now, these new officers have no tolerance for the firefighters they used to be – the shoe’s on the other foot. The same goes for training. Before, as firefighters, these guys perhaps thought that repetitive drills on basic skills were pointless but now, as officers, they realize that the onus is on them to keep their people safe.

Have you ever seen a senior firefighter who has lost perspective? I’m talking about the seven- to 10-year members. As career members, they are likely at the top of the firefighters’ wage scale and they’ve hopefully established themselves as competent and confident firefighters. They may be the hardest on the rookies for messing up the simple things that everyone should know. They are likely at the top of their games as accomplished firefighters but soon they’ll be in the hot seat when they move to the officer’s job and down a notch or two in Maslow’s hierarchy. If you really want to know if complacency has set in, without warning, ask the officer to demonstrate for everyone the emergency procedures for your SCBAs. If he is good he will know and if not there is nothing to gain by setting him up for failure in front of his peers but you get my point.

I have sat through between 150 and 200 interviews for prospective firefighter positions. I feel very fortunate to be able to offer the gift of a firefighting career to a candidate.

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For aspiring firefighters and those recently appointed new members, I offer the following to help you keep perspective and not forget where you’ve come from:

  • You have two ears and one mouth. Listen twice as much as you talk.
  • You are the new member; you will get the crappy jobs. You get the urinal and toilet. The next senior member gets the sink and mirror.
  • You will have more routine duties than the others.
  • You will work harder than other firefighters who make more money than you do.
  • The ratio of lies to truths told at the firehouse is about 3:1. When you see something in a memo, you can be sure it’s true. Until then, don’t bite the hook that is trolling out there (refer to rule 1 – Listen twice as much as you talk).
  • Labour contracts are usually for two to three years at a time so in a 30-year career you could have between 10 and 15 contracts. Morale will likely follow the flow of the contract cycle.
  • Your direct supervisor (captain) may have less formal education than you do. He may not have gone through the same hiring process that you did but he has been there and done the job that you’re doing.
  • You are a public servant. There are no Christmas bonuses and no commissions.
  • You will get out of bed nine times during a night shift.
  • You will have to comfort the granny who calls from time to time for reassurance rather than actual medical care since her husband died.
  • You will be expected to show compassion for street people you used to ignore.
  • When a retired member comes into the coffee room, introduce yourself because it’s likely nobody else will. Offer him your chair and fetch him a coffee.
  • Don’t bother letting people know that you’re no longer on probation. They likely don’t care.
  • Your 50-year-old captain may not tell you that you’re doing a good job but he will let you know when you’re not.
  • When the economy is good and there is a building boom on, painters and drywallers will make more money that you. When there is a recession your wage will stay the same while painters and drywallers will be happy to just find work for whatever they can make or be forced to change professions.
  • Be proud of your department but humble about your career. Not everyone is impressed by the cheesy T-shirts and ball caps.
  • Not all women love firefighters. There are zillions of ex-wives and girlfriends who will back me up.
  • Our job is to protect lives, property and the environment; this takes maintenance, prevention, investigation, administration, public education and training staff. You might have the sexy job that gets your picture in the paper but it takes more than the suppression branch to put our product out the door each day.
  • Do the next round of rookies a favour and fill them in on what they need to know. Remember, of course, not to forget where they came from.

It may sound like a cheesy way to sum it up but in order to know where we’re going, we need to remember where we’ve come from. Sometimes the longer we’ve been on that path, the more difficult it is to remember and sometimes we just forget. 


Lou Wilde is the assistant chief in Kelowna, B.C.


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