Why “All Hazards” Is Hazardous to Brotherhood
Updated: Apr 5, 2018
Brotherhood is a funny thing in our profession. It serves as a requirement to unity but is increasingly being used as a tool of division. It has really become more of a catch phrase than an actual part of our craft. Brotherhood is beginning to boil down to your typical tool of convenience as many will argue you don’t possess it the first time you go against or do something that is not beneficial to them. It has been turned into an unattainable moral high ground of firefighters, discounting our human nature to screw up.
In my opinion brotherhood is about family and like your own family there are up and downs. There are times we all get along and times we can’t stand each other. We do right by each other one day and do wrong by each other the next day. However, just like with our own families, it is brotherhood that unites us when times are tough, the world is crumbling around us, and we inevitably need each other even if we don’t like each other at that very moment. Brotherhood therefore is essentially another word for love, it just sounds more masculine making it easier for many of us to accept it. That love was built into our profession by going to jobs together and doing whatever it took to make sure the man next to you survived.
I think it is safe to say we are in the middle of one of the largest pushes for cultural change the fire service has ever seen. There are many speculations as to why this phenomenon is taking place in a profession which has historically fought change. There is even more speculation about the validity, endurance, and necessity of the push for such change with many theories on how we got here including a generational divide, societal changes, gaps in leadership development, and even the fact that we have allowed education and technology to have more of a role in our departments. Surely all these factors have had an impact on the changing culture in our firehouses, however, what we fail to discuss is how our changing mission is impacting not only the composition of our departments, but also how we interact with each other.
Before I go any further let me just be clear early on; I WILL SERVE MY CITIZENS IN ANY CAPACITY, AT ANY TIME, TO THE BEST OF MY ABILITY. I don’t want this article to become misconstrued as some complaining, whining, ignorant gripe about not wanting to do anything but fight fire. The point of this article is to shed light on the possible link between non-fire related responsibilities unintentionally causing a negative impact on brotherhood.
Like with most things in life, every good comes with some bad and in our case while the expansion of services is almost always good for our citizens, I believe it has put some serious wrinkles in the fabric of our culture. The “all hazards” approach to firefighting has had some influence on every department I have been a part of since I came into this amazing fraternity almost 15 years ago. While back then it wasn’t as obvious, I have watched “justification of need” balloon from additional, loosely related disciplines into the “call us when there is no one left to call” mentality. As a result, departments across the country took on the roles of extrication, technical and specialized rescue, HAZMAT, fire prevention, and EMS. Recessions, shrinking budgets, political fights, and the fire service’s inability to say no to anything that could help the community have further compounded the problem. And while none of us can look at that list and really argue that any of those are any less important than fire suppression as far as public safety is concerned, what we often miss is how those disciplines have divided us both by mission and operational mentality.
Firefighting, or fire suppression if you will, is scarily similar to both team sports and military operations. Victory does not occur without the effort of all parties involved, the weakest link defines the group’s level of success, and each group within the larger group will police, assist, and remedy each other out of necessity as the failure of an individual will often result in failure of the group as well. The stakes of fire suppression are extremely high for both civilian AND firefighter safety. The work is so labor and task intensive that even the best individual effort will rarely, if ever, be successful. Furthermore, the reality of injury or death essentially forces a reliance on those you have gone to battle with resulting in a unique, unspoken bond which can develop only through repeated success under dire circumstances.
Also, consider that much like the military, the fire service attracts people from all walks of life uniting them with a common bond which is firefighting. Without it, there is no way we would all get along. As many areas are seeing a decline in fires, or fire departments being established in areas with low call volume, we see evidence of this fact in the personality clashes and personal problems which often consume our days. Essentially, fire suppression is the root of the brotherhood we speak of. It wasn’t created in the day room, on the bumper, at birthday parties, at a bar, by trading t-shirts, or going on weekend getaways. It was created under fire, under stress, and under duress because without each other we do not survive. So, without even getting into the differences between fire suppression and the other disciplines we have become accustomed to providing, we see that fire suppression needs brotherhood just as brotherhood needs fire suppression.
Aside from the perceived decline in fires and the addition of career fire service in areas which traditionally did not have or “need” one, the missions which come with the “all hazards” approach have essentially conditioned us to become better at working as individuals than as a team. While some aspects such as extrication and HAZMAT mirror the brotherhood requirements of fire suppression very closely, they still have an individual tone to them. It often only takes one person to operate hydraulic tools successfully, the contained atmosphere of the Level A suit creates separation from one another, and while the team effort is still required for the overall completion of the mission it just isn’t the same as doing a vent job or making a push together.
The highly contested addition of EMS is probably one of the greatest detractors of brotherhood that is invading our culture. Again, let me reiterate I think our citizens do nothing but benefit from our ability, desire, and commitment to provide EMS either in first response or fire-based EMS capacities, but as far as brotherhood and culture goes it is more of an individual sport. While I have never worked for a department that delivered fire-based EMS, having worked for private EMS I have seen both sides of the coin. I see a significant difference in how an EMS call is run from the ambulance vs. how it is run from an engine or ladder company. Although the thought process is similar to firefighting and there are some safety considerations for both the medic and the patient, running a medical call is significantly different from attacking a structure fire. When things go bad you are typically restricted to your own individual efforts, the patient outcome is generally reliant solely on your ability to perform interventions, there is rarely backup or additional companies coming to support your efforts once you have begun transport, and you will usually be providing patient care alone for the majority of the run. So, whether you are working in the back of a private, municipal, or fire department ambulance, it is easy to see how the increase in EMS is growing our individual strengths while neglecting our ability to work as a team and in return groom our brotherhood.
The addition of these responsibilities has also created a need for more apparatus which divide our staffing. Unlike an engine and ladder which will often respond together, the ambulance, HAZMAT rig, or rescue squad can run calls either independently and frequently operate outside the district where they are housed as they are specialized units in many jurisdictions. This results in splintering of the crew for meals, training, station duties, and downtime which have traditionally been times where the bonds made under fire were bolstered and grown. Furthermore, in the case of EMS the lopsided call volume between the ambulance and other units can be so severe that it can lead to animosity and separation depending on the staffing model and rotation which is used. Also, EMS continuing education and re-certification hours tend to occur on the individual level as different levels of certification require different amounts and types of training, causing them to be difficult to complete as a team.
Finally, the “all hazards” approach has led to a broadening of sorts for hiring and promotion. In the past, firefighting skills were almost always the deciding factor in promotions, awards, and coveted assignments or additional duties. The advent of additional disciplines has led many to seek the individuals with the greatest number or most beneficial certifications. For example, the Paramedic certification is much more valuable in many corners of the country than the ability to deploy a hand line, cut the roof, or perform a size-up. The ability to function as part of a team is being replaced by the ability to pass a test or satisfy a requirement on a checklist. We are being led to believe that fires are down, which somehow justifies a decrease in firefighting proficiency. Not only have statistics shown fires are not down in many areas, but in those they are it creates are greater need than ever for the brotherhood to return as it will be all hands on deck when a fire does break out. As stated earlier, one or two individual efforts will never yield the same results as one or two operationally efficient teams.
The desire and subsequent need for well-rounded firefighters exposed to multiple disciplines and topics is also inadvertently creating an unhealthy competition of sorts between members as they seek to have the best portfolio at promotion time. We see less classes, conferences, and outside training opportunities being attended by crews and more being attended by individuals. While they are supposed to take the information back to their departments, many use it as an additional bullet point or hoard it so that they have a leg up on the competition at test time. Many are taking classes simply to meet prerequisites rather than to learn and become proficient at the topic of the course. Those who are concentrating on mastery of a specific topic will often be overlooked as the assumption that more is better is making specialties in our craft extinct to a degree.
I self-admittedly have not been to enough fires in my short career to develop the brotherhood that I have discussed above. I try to be a good fireman and make good decisions. I try to treat those around me as I would want to be treated but like many of you I fall into the common traps which result in straying from that mission. However, when it is time to go on a run or help someone who is down on their luck I will always support them regardless of my personal feelings for the person. One day, I hope to experience the kind of brotherhood I have only heard and read about from those who paved the way for me to be where I am. However, like most of you I have no control over whether or not the next fire will be in my due or who might be on the ticket with me when it does happen. I can only commit to working together and growing that bond each and every time we turn out.
There is no shortage of people who are finding new means and avenues to speak up about what they feel are the factors which are contributing to the downfall of an occupation that often represents one of the last pure professions around. Even though social media can be a double-edged sword, I think it has played a pivotal role in laying the foundation to restore the brotherhood as it has united so many individuals who likely would have never found each other into a unified movement for change. In a society which allows the dissatisfaction of one to drown out the preference of many, the voices of our brothers and sisters from across the country are uniting to stop such madness! So, while we are led to believe we growing more and more divided each day, a close examination of the raw, sincere, emotional rhetoric about bringing back the brotherhood will show you that propaganda is just that and the reality is we have far more people working for us than we do against us!
While we cannot change the mission or the men we work with, by understanding how we are becoming divided we can develop strategies to bring us back together. Perhaps the days of finding brotherhood in the heat and limited visibility of a hallway are over for us. Perhaps the days of fire suppression being the leading factor in career development are history as well. Although the brotherhood as we once knew it may need to be tweaked or even redefined, as long as we have people committed to bringing us back together it will rise again in one form or another. So the next time you find yourself acting as an individual in a situation that you could easily turn into a group effort, do it! If your response model allows you to take additional people in the back of your ambulance, take them along and divide the labor. The next time you cut a car, treat the tool like a hose line and use everyone on the crew to your advantage. Many of our newfound individual efforts simply need to be adapted to a team response. Pursue promotional requirements and continuing education as a team. Hold each other up. Congratulate each other when you succeed. Remember, only one person can make Fire Chief at a time, but he will be impotent without motivated, dedicated, well-trained crews carrying out the mission on his behalf. Don’t be blinded by opportunities to do your own thing, see the big picture by functioning as a team whenever possible. Just because we are becoming responsible for all hazards doesn’t mean they have to be hazardous to what has and always will be the biggest staple of the job, brotherhood.