With over 41 years in the fire service, I am an admitted old fart, dinosaur, relic or whatever you want to call me. I remember the days of riding the back step, wild parties in the back room of the firehouse, the hidden “soda” machine in the rec room, racing to beat that other company to the calls and, most importantly, no cell phone videos or social media recordings of our every move posted out there for the world to see.
I won’t call them the good old days because, quite frankly, we were lucky to have survived them unscathed. But oh, was it easy to recruit and retain new members. The volunteer firehouse was the place to be in town.
Take your 39-hour essentials course, show up at a drill now and then, maybe need to go to an alarm every so often and you get to wear the t-shirt and be part of this cool group having all of this fun.
Before you get your knickers in a knot (yes, I said I’m old), let me set the record straight. I am in no way advocating a return to those wild and crazy times.
What I am saying is that we need to have more fun in the firehouse.
When we recruit a volunteer, we’re asking them to commit hundreds of hours away from their family for training, fundraising, meetings and work details and, oh yeah, respond to a whole bunch of calls: fire alarms, CO calls, EMS, hazmat, WMD and the dreaded odor of gas.
They must deal with death, destruction and danger on a regular basis. And get paid nothing for doing it.
We’re asking people to give up a big chunk of their limited free time to do something really hard and very dangerous that could negatively affect their future mental and physical health. And to do it for free.
We can’t do that and take all of the fun out of it!
Many of these recruits are young kids. We’re asking an awful lot of them and heaping a lot of responsibility on them. We have to find ways to make it more fun to be a volunteer firefighter.
Let me say it again: I’m not advocating we go back to the wild and crazy times. We’ve all seen stories of hazing and bullying, drunken joyrides, sex in the station, tomfoolery resulting in injuries, etc. These certainly result in much lost sleep for the chief and much negative publicity for the department, if not a lawsuit or jail time.
So how do we make it fun again to be a volunteer firefighter?
What we need to do is find good, harmless ways to have more fun in the firehouse. We need to make it so our members, especially the younger ones, want to come to the firehouse.
Maybe we need to install video game systems in the stations and have monthly video game challenges. Maybe we need to pinpoint particular interests of our target membership audience and gear our efforts in that direction. Bowling league, softball teams, race teams, pool table, dart board, ping pong, corn hole: what will attract your target demographic?
How about a department paintball trip—but no shooting the chief? Everyone has limited time, so you need to incorporate fun into the required activities like drills and fundraisers. How about occasionally turning weekly drills into contests and have prizes for the winners? Get the local fast-food joint or other merchants to donate gift certificates or other small prizes.
In this age of people working two jobs, with partners working and kids involved in a number of activities, everyone’s time is very precious. If the fire department is a competing interest for family time, the fire department is eventually going to lose. We need to get families involved—if not in actual fire department activities, at least in the fun stuff. Make the fire department part of the family, not the competition.
We need to use social media to highlight the fun times as well as the good work we do. But we need to be realistic about expectations and public perceptions. We need to make sure the community knows it’s not all fun and games.
We absolutely must worry about our reputation; public relations are very important. But it’s okay for the public to see us having some fun. They need to understand that these volunteers just gave up several hours away from their families to cut a couple of teenage bodies out of a mangled wreck. Or to get vomited on by the local drunk being taken to the hospital for the fourth time this month. To crawl down a hot smoky hallway looking for a lost kid.
None of this justifies abhorrent behavior, but as leaders, we need to understand what our people are going through and sometimes allow them the chance to blow off a little steam.
Chief Anthony Avillo said it best in Pass It On: The 2nd Alarm:
Lighten up and be happy. You are in the best profession on the planet. There is humor, camaraderie, respect of millions, countless stories, and the satisfaction of doing the job. If you can’t have a little fun with those that you entrust your life, you are in the wrong business.