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Integrating Veterans in the Fire and Emergency Service

I delivered a session this year at Fire-Rescue International to a room of budding and current chief officers; the session was called Reintegration of Veterans and Hiring Disabled Veterans. The discussions focused on some of the benefits and concerns of bringing military veterans into our firehouses.

While the idea seems straightforward, it can quickly lead one down a rabbit hole, worrying about the what-ifs. We managed to stay away from too many of those, but the thoughts are still there.

So why don’t we have a fire or EMS job for every veteran who wants one and meets our requirements, whatever they may be? Are we a little too superhero-oriented to take a Clark Kent or a Steve Rogers at face value? Can we all gain benefit from the training and experience the modern war fighter can bring into our organization from day one?

I’ll guarantee you an immediate and consistent mission orientation and esprit de corps from any soldier, sailor, marine or airman you add to your organization. The question then becomes, “Do you really want that?”

Read any article in a volunteer or combination fire publication and you’ll quickly see the volunteer aspect is in dire straits. A quick review of any mode of operation over the last two decades and you’ll see we have consistently tried to keep past practices and standards even though technology and even the times dictate an update.

Creating a better organization may mean breaking up something that’s already working; would anyone do that? Well, for one, I would!

I would encourage change for the better, not change for the sake of change.

In my organization, I have a steady stream of 20-somethings who don’t really know what they want, but they like the thought of being a firefighter. Not one recruit has ever said to me, “I want to be here to help a 70-year-old stranger get back into bed at two o’clock in the morning, write a report about care delivered, then get up and go to my paying job.”

They consistently look healthy and have high-school sports pedigrees that exemplify a competitive edge and acceptance of low-level risk. The difference may be in the intangibles; they haven’t seen death and destruction and may not know how they would handle it. Is that really the best person for the typical EMS run—over 80% of our calls?

Here in the second decade of the 21st Century, we find ourselves surrounded by adolescents fresh from high school or maybe college, ready to save the world. Some of these are adrenaline junkies who would look more at home tearing down a home than wiping their feet before walking into one.

While I’m not saying the meek are the future, I am encouraging us to find a fresh class of people who have seen death, discomfort, chaos and fear and will share that experience with all of these fresh young minds. I believe we need people who have experienced loss and found a way to rebound.

I personally am looking for those who have lost a part of themselves—metaphorically or even physically—and will still get up and get back in there to the struggle.
We need the stories of horror and loss and sorrow to truly remind us that this service we provide is about saving the person—all of the person, mind, body and soul.

We stand at a crossroads of our profession yet again, where saving our own and saving our military brethren may start at our own table.

It’s true that a veteran-recruitment initiative will look different from coast to coast. It will be up to each organization to find the inclusion level that makes sense. Some of us may find the value in direct operational benefit, another healthy body or two on the truck or hose.

Your organization may be able to institute a logistics, safety or training role that keeps other trained personnel in operations. It may even be as simple as a capable apparatus driver or a report writer. The options are truly limitless.

The real challenge is that we need to get veterans involved and keep them interested. As we delve into our own rash of suicides among our own, we may find benefit in helping our brothers and sisters with war wounds in dealing with their own personal demons.

We can help our own communities all we want, but as a profession, we need to help the ones who have carried our fight overseas and kept us safe in our firehouses. Having a service member on your team may benefit your community more than you can fathom and may even save one of our own.


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