The Starving Artist

We are in an age of declining fire. In direct correlation to this, is the disappearance of the fire department mission and the art of firemanship. Meanwhile, resentment is rapidly on the rise. True firemen are like starving artists. Their sole focus is to be a part of an organization with passion and drive to be good at the job. They are consistently striving to find ways to perfect the craft. These are the firemen who consistently think they will never be good enough, and for once that thought is a good thing. These firemen will do work every day to be one percent better. So why do we punish them by telling them what they’re doing doesn’t matter? Fireman want to be held accountable to high standards, to train, and to serve their communities. Consistently, these firemen are being told that the thing they love, the thing they signed up to do, is less important than all of the other tasks departments have acquired. As a result, bitter firemen full of resent towards their departments take their place.

Fires have become a high risk, low frequency event. We all know that on average, less than 25% of runs are fire related, and most of those are some kind of auto alarm. In what world is that a reason to prioritize fireground skills less? Unfortunately, that’s the case for many departments across the country. Firefighters beg for education; whether it’s walkthroughs, drills, or just tips from the senior guy, but are told other tasks take priority. Declining fire should not be a reason for less fire training, it’s a reason for more. Nobody gives a shit what you are on the fireground as long as you’re capable, and that will always be true. But you better be sure they do give a shit that you are capable.


“Jack of all trades, master of none” is a very real problem for today’s fire service. Fire departments have to balance an ever growing list of duties. EMS, to prevention, fire safety, hazmat, technical rescue, and finally fire. As budgets are cut and departments reorganized, departments are forced to become all inclusive service providers. The community expects us to be able to handle any and all problems they experience. The old quote by Chief John Eversole from Chicago Fire rings true more than ever,

“Our department takes 1,120 calls every day. Do you know how many of the calls the public expects perfection on? 1,120. Nobody calls the fire department and says, ‘Send me two dumb-ass firemen in a pickup truck.’ In three minutes they want five brain-surgeon decathlon champions to come and solve all their problems.”

It is in this struggle for mastering versatility that the mission has creeped away, and with it, the morale of the crew. Resentment quickly takes its place.


Hiring pools are getting smaller every year, and EMS runs steadily increasing. As a result, departments are desperately searching for EMS providers. Some have even gone so far as to hire paramedics with no fire training, and will send them to a local academy. On the other hand, they won’t hire someone with fire training and no medic card. We all know paramedic school is significantly more expensive than a fire academy, and that administration often makes the final decisions. But it still speaks to the fact that priorities have shifted.

I firmly believe in highly skilled, professional, and passionate EMS providers. No one can reasonably argue against the need for that. How that looks for your organization: first responders, cross-staffed dual role fire-medics, or separately staffed departments is up to you. Regardless of what you’ve chosen, it must not be to the detriment of fire protection. Departments must determine a way to balance all of the tasks they’ve taken on the responsibility for managing. Without this balance, we are slowly becoming fire departments that have shiny fire trucks parked in the bays with dusty tool compartments- and that’s dangerous.

Fireground skills are an art, and are definitely “use them or lose them.” Meaning if you’re not using them at a working fire and/or training consistently, you will become less capable of performing them effectively. This is at the detriment of the property you’re tasked with protecting and the lives you’re required to save. Think of your last fire- how many things went right vs. went wrong? Did you hear the iconic phrases, “we put the fire out” or “at least no one got hurt?”

“Fireground Tactics” by Emmanuel Fried is probably one of the most tactically relevant texts written. In the intro Fried states,

“Decisions on proper technique in fighting any fire will depend on many variables. Probably the most important is experience, which helps one to make the right judgement. However, because of the relative infrequency of large fires, many fireman- even officers and fire chiefs – sometimes lack such experience. That is the principle objective of this book – to provide specific, detailed information on the most effective firefighting techniques.”

You can infer that his point isn’t if you don’t see a lot of fire you can never be a good fireman, but that you must study and learn from those around you with more experience. If you can’t gain experience from fires on your own, you must get it from those who do. This includes everything from conferences and HOT classes, ride alongs with urban departments, and most importantly, your senior firemen. So why is it, that we whine about how many questions the new kid asks, and then complain about how bad their skills are in the next sentence? If you’re both complaining about someone being a bad fireman and refusing to help them improve; it’s not them that’s the problem, it’s you.

Lack of preparation is unacceptable. We’ve all heard the risks associated with this laxness, the very worst being the loss of a citizen or a LODD. We all say we’re “here for them,” and yet actions speak louder than words. Our citizens are expecting us to be fully prepared, trained, and ready to work. But it’s become far too easy to bad at the job, and if we’re unable to do what’s required on the fireground, we’ve failed. The list of reasons why departments don’t train is endless: “We run too many calls,” “I have a report to write,” “The floors still need mopped,” “The truck is dirty,” “We don’t have enough staffing and/or we can’t take a truck out of service.” These are no longer acceptable answers, they’re excuses for laziness. Departments that do this struggle to keep people on staff and to keep the remaining members engaged. They wonder why morale is at an all time low, and resentment at an all time high. Yet, when members beg for training or support, they’re consistently told in one form or another, “not today.” Don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to morale? Pay attention to the mood around the firehouse after a fire, or a good day of training.

This all being said, you can not worry about the others on your department. You need only concern yourself with your own level of education and training. Someone threw a ladder wrong? Didn’t know to open the wet wall and the fire spread to the second floor? Unless you’re the officer that isn’t your problem. You need only worry about what you can control, and that is your own skills, time spent in the books, and attitude. Use it as a mental note for what you can personally do differently in the future and move on. Like many other things the fire service likes to complain about, worrying about whether your fellow fireman is swinging a tool right is just a distraction from the task at hand.

So what do we do? How do we provide all of these services, bring back the mission and perfect the art of firemanship? New kid, you’re excited about the job, keep a hold of that passion, and try not to let the naysayers get to you. Understand that there is fine line of reigning in your passion and getting along with your crew and stifling it. Find mentors, and never stop asking questions. Remember, your place is to learn everything you can about the job. Be excited, but know that sometimes passion can come across as arrogance. Don’t let your excitement make you overly confident. Ask questions, not to see what everyone else knows, but to learn everything you can. Make sure you’re studying the job from the inside out, rather making the mistake of studying it from the outside in. Meaning, start with your department’s SOG’s and learn your officer’s and crew’s expectations. Then seek guidance and tips from your senior men, and finally outside resources.

Senior guys, take the time to teach your crews. You know the intimate details of your city like no one else. Try to remember what it was like to be the new kid, and pass on what you wish someone would have taught you. Also, have the guts to learn from your new firefighters. Sometimes, a fresh pair of eyes or a new question is exactly what you need. There’s something to be learned from everyone, even if it’s what not to do. And finally, aim to be a “Jack of all trades, master of one.” Short staffed members will argue that on their departments, you have to be able to do everything, and that’s true. However, it is also an excuse. What better excuse for being “okay” at everything, and “great” at nothing than to say it is required? Frankly, it’s a reason to settle. The fireground doesn’t settle for anyone, you can’t either. Find what you’re passionate in and become “that guy” for your crew.

Departments must find a way to prioritize the members, and the mission again. Simple changes will make all the difference, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Leave the medic in the station and roll the ladder on fire runs rather than letting it collect dust in the bay. Empower your people to take on projects to make the department better: paint tools, clean off the work bench, pre-plan new buildings. Make the rookie pick a subject and teach the crew for 30 minutes. Take 10 minutes on an auto alarm to talk through truck placement and line deployment. Quiz your guys on building construction as you drive through the city. Little things create buy-in and in turn increase morale among the crews. Feed the artists. The most dangerous phrase in the fire service isn’t, “this is how we’ve always done it.” It’s, “we should, but don’t.”

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