Undoubtedly, the longest wait I ever experienced was for my 18th birthday. The months, days, and even hours leading up to this moment was excruciating; I wished time would speed-up. This date was far more important than getting my driver’s license or being able to legally purchase alcohol a few years later. It was the first right-of-passage to become a volunteer firefighter.
Apparently, the fast-forward button was pressed that day. Two-decades later, I am finding myself looking back and wondering where the time has gone, not to mention most of my hair. As I began preparing for our region’s Fire Academy graduation, I found myself reflecting on a profession that has been the better part of my life.
My first few years as a volunteer firefighter was spent learning as much as I could about the profession. My parents would not be shocked to learn that I spent much more time reading the Essentials of Firefighting than I did all of my school textbooks combined. The classroom and practical learning opportunities gave me a great foundation. I also watched and listened to my elders as they passed down their knowledge. Story telling was much more than just passing time. My brain was being filled with valuable lessons-learned from the past. The firehouse kitchen or the first-floor day room became a second home. There could never be enough training opportunities. The pager sounding meant another opportunity to learn something new.
The 20+ year veterans of the fire service when I became a volunteer firefighter were some of the most influential mentors I have had in my career. Experience developed confidence and one’s ability to conquer the most challenging of situations with skill. The best mentors knew when to lead from the front and when to step back to be the coach. The fire department became a large part of my family. My mom’s name might just as well have been on the roster; she cared so much about the fire department as they did about her.
As we welcome the next generation of firefighters into our departments, we – the “veterans” of the fire service – have an obligation to pass down our knowledge. The evolving nature of our profession also demands that we are constantly refreshed on new strategies and tactics to do our job safer and more effectively. Seniority is not a hall pass to slide into retirement.
In twenty years, who will today’s recruits remember as being their best mentors? It all starts with us.
Note: this article appeared in the May/June issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!