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Bonding and Building a Fire Service Team in 21st Century

In the 1970s, influenced by NBC's television series Emergency! and Dennis Smith's national bestseller Report From Engine Co. 82, the fire service took on new challenges, including EMS. Though the mission of life safety and property protection remains, beneath the red paint, the traditional badges of office and the need to put water on the fire, the fire service is no longer your father's—or mother's—fire department.

With increasing responsibilities, run totals and costs increased. Then, between 1973 and 1975, with rising gas and oil prices and President Nixon's wage-price controls, the United States was thrust into recession. The economic downturn resulted in high unemployment and budget cuts.

Taxpayers questioned escalating costs, including fire departments transitioning from volunteer to paid-on-call or career departments. Critics, some once volunteers, doubted needs for new and expensive types of equipment or all that labor: paramedics were wasting time instead of getting patients to a hospital; "firemen" were being paid to watch TV or play cards.

Before cable TV, VCRs, the internet or cell phones, that's exactly what happened during downtime. It wasn't recognized how valuable that time was.

Playing cards or pool required interaction. While playing—with no rank structure at the card table—hazards, tactics, the last call and even personal problems were discussed.

Conversations were in-depth, often followed up the next day, the next shift or the next game. Firefighters were conducting debriefings and didn't even know it. How many problems were solved, or averted, by talking things out during those games?

There was television. Usually just one. The duty crew voted on what was being watched. Firefighters respected wishes of others interested in certain games or special shows.

There are now multiple televisions, but with access to the internet, laptops, tablets and smartphones, it doesn't matter. Not interested in the game? What others are watching? Technology makes it simple to go our separate ways to watch what interests us.

You can now talk to people all over the world, a far cry from limited phone access and expensive long-distance calls. Calls that resulted in higher telephone bills sometimes scrutinized by the fire chief.

With individual dorms replacing bunkrooms, another area where informal debriefings took place has been lost. The bunkroom created opportunity. Firefighters joked, laughed and, more importantly, talked.

We talked about the last call. What went right or what went wrong? Solving problems, not carrying them to the next shift. Firefighters had a relatively safe place to ask officers about what they were thinking. We talked about how to do it better, becoming stronger for it.

Returning from a night run, firefighters head for their dorms, losing an informal occasion to debrief. The opportunity to learn or solve problems, preventing them from becoming something bigger, is lost.

Gone also is the What were you thinking? moment without it being seen as a challenge. Missed is a prospect of individuals becoming better as a whole.

Today every training class and conference starts with a request to respect each other and not talk on your phone or send and read texts during training. We're all guilty, forgetting how distracting a call or text message alert may be.

According to one annual internet trends report (Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers), some people check their phones 150 times a day. A similar Time Magazine poll found 1 in 4 people check it every 30 minutes, 1 in 5 every 10 minutes. A third of respondents admitted that being without their mobile phones, for even short periods, leaves them feeling anxious.

A 2012 Swedish study by the University of Gothenberg found young adults who make particularly heavy use of mobile phones and computers run a greater risk of sleep disturbances, stress and symptoms of mental health problems.

Personal interaction has been redefined. Not on purpose; it's the direction technology has taken us. Text messages replace conversation. Informal briefings held during card games and sharing in a bunkroom are gone. Those sessions helped settled disputes and prevent future problems from even occurring.

Computer fantasy football has replaced card games. Today's paramedics make Emergency's Johnny and Roy look like amateurs. Technology gains provide access to resources that help firefighters and officers make better decisions on scene and in rendering patient care.

Apps provide unlimited potential. Text messaging is now a primary means of communication in the emergency service to keep first responders informed.

Our phones have the ability to convert speech to text and text to speech. As Portland (Maine) Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria once asked, "Didn't we use to call that a phone call?"

With these advances, our newest generation, with relationships developing differently, has built different types of interaction. Firefighters text each other on and off duty.

Psychology Today research finds 80% of young adults use text messaging as their preferred method of contacting friends. In older age groups, the percentage using texting as their primary method to contact friends drops.

Let's hope that the opportunities offered by sharing a bunkroom or playing cards are replaced with new methods of bonding and building relationships, invaluable to those who risk so much. Methods that allow them to survive the challenges the fire service demands while enjoying so much it has to offer.

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