A firefighter’s perspective is often difficult to obtain. For a typical firefighter, there is no easy way for them to share their experiences within the profession. In every career path there are highs and lows, life lessons and invaluable knowledge. However, in no career is this more exemplified than a career in the fire & rescue service.
In our exclusive interviews with a number of firefighters across different regions around the world, we have gathered some fascinating insights. From fire officers to station managers and custodians, from Wales to New York, Madrid and Sydney, we heard their story.
Why do people choose to become a firefighter in the first place? Well, there are the practical, logical reasons and then there are the more emotive reasons. The majority of our respondents mentioned at least some aspect of their desire to help people and make a difference. On the other hand, the profession has traditionally been secure, with good pay and benefits, and this has seemed to motivate some more than others in their career choice.
What is it about the fire service that makes people choose to stay for much of, if not all of their working lives? As one firefighter puts it “Being family, working as brothers helping people…learning something new every day.” Firefighters who work side by side aren’t just colleagues, but become an extension of one’s family. This might be less than surprising given the amount of time a typical station firefighter spends away from home waiting for the next call-out.
However, this can be a big challenge as well. A full-time professional firefighter may find it very difficult to spend the time they would like with their loved-ones at home. Society tends to depict firefighters as thick-skinned and impassive, which are advantages in many ways. However, they are as prone as anyone to emotional challenges, especially when involved in tragic incidents. A New York firefighter recounted a time when he was at the scene of a car crash. Watching an 18 year old burn to death entrapped in the vehicle was, for him, the most challenging moment of his firefighting career. In turn, for fire officers, who debrief firefighters after incidents including multiple fatalities and involving children, the emotional challenges are enormous.
With this in mind, it is easy to see why many firefighters feel less than fully appreciated for what they do. Government spending cuts have affected public services across many areas of the world, and politics aside, many firefighters feel that this has radically changed how they are able to operate. Feeling undervalued by the government and “attacks on the service” were reported as some of the worst aspects of the job.
We surveyed firefighters about skills they have trained for recently which are vital to the service today. Included among these – and most often mentioned – is water rescue. This demonstrates how broadly skilled and adapted modern firefighters are expected to be.
This broadening of skills works most effectively when joint interoperability between all of the emergency services is at its best. Are improvements needed in this area? There were widely differing answers to this question. Whilst some replied that they indeed do all work well together, others said that communication systems and joint training were key aspects that needed improving.
What advice do firefighters have to anyone considering joining the service? It is definitely not a decision ever to be taken lightly. Some have gone as far as to say that you need to have wanted to be a firefighter since you were young. On the other hand, others commented on how the job has changed so much, “not the secure role it used to be”, and as a result it is a good idea to have a back-up plan.
For all of the pressures of the job, and tragedy that firefighters invariably deal with day-to-day, there are always going to be the occasions when incidents turn out to be memorable for a mixture of bizarre and even humorous reasons. Therefore, we would like to end on a light note, sharing with you some of the funnier call-out incidents that we heard. One UK firefighter remembers a call-out where a child got a plant pot stuck on their head. Another firefighter recalls the time he and his colleagues fought a barn fire, and they had to step through knee-deep cow manure.
Perhaps it is necessary for a firefighter to remember the light-hearted moments to help them dwell less on the negative and at times shocking moments. Firefighters, wherever they come from and whatever their rank within the service, have been through similar situations and never lose dedication to this vital public service. Are some people born to be firefighters? Possibly, although in many ways we could all live by the example that firefighters set.