An open letter to the haters: Who are you to judge another firefighter’s level of passion?

I’m normally quiet about my passion, but you’re stirring up a hornet’s nest with all your chatter about who has it and who doesn’t


Passion is a good thing in our profession. Passion drives so much of our success on and off the training ground and incident scene. However, that doesn’t mean we need to rub it in anyone’s face, degrade other firefighters or judge another firefighter’s perceived level of passion.

We hear it a lot in the fire service these days, especially if you don’t agree with every word of an article or a post on social media: “PASSION! He doesn’t have it!” “You need to get some!” We hear the word so much in fact that it has devolved into another obnoxious buzzword.

I promise you, suggesting, screaming and throwing demeaning comments at other firefighters on social media doesn’t help your case one bit. Showing your passion is one thing. Saying others need to share your same level of passion or get out of the fire service is just showing your ignorance.

Passion drives much of our success on and off the training ground and incident scene.
Passion drives much of our success on and off the training ground and incident scene. (Photo/Chris DelBello)

I am speaking not only from my personal observation but also for the many firefighters who sit around the kitchen table in the mornings, observing your latest social media post or video that suggests that you are on some higher ground than the rest of us. Please chill out. We get it. We actually do. In fact, we challenge you to try to pick up a little sample packet of our passion for the job. I promise it will be too heavy for you.

Our passion is different. Our passion was built on experience, history, pride and hard work. It’s not the same passion you will find in a heated exchange on social media or a weekend training event or at the bar afterwards. Our passion will probably pull a muscle in your back. We are normally quiet about it, but you’re stirring up a hornet’s nest with all your chatter.

The burning question: Who are you to call out another member of the fire service, judging or suggest that their level of passion for the job isn’t enough? I find it ridiculous that one would think that there is only one level or one way to measure passion.

Measuring passion: “There’s not one way or a best way”

The fire service is an international industry filled with many types of individuals. Every department is different. Every member is different. Every member’s experience will be different. Everyone’s level of passion for this job will be different. And while there are many ways to exhibit passion, there’s not one way or a best way to measure it. For example, you can’t measure passion by the number of fires you’ve been on. There are passionate firefighters who have never worked a real burner, never faced real danger. That’s not their fault. It’s simply the reality of today’s fire service in some areas.

Nobody knows anyone else’s personal journey or experiences throughout their fire service career. Some members join the fire service and climb the ladder of success with relative ease. Some never promote by choice. Some never promote because of a particular promotional process within their organization. Some simply do not test well.

Influencers: “They do not realize how a career works”

I’m 52 years old now. My body is starting to show the effects of this career and life in general. This does not mean I cannot still be passionate about my work. Far from it.

However, there are “influencers” on social media who suggest that if you can’t physically do what they do, then you need to get out of the fire service. Hilarious. I can only assume they are early in their life experiences and do not realize how a career works.

Funny enough, these influencers hang out in the same crowds as the influencers talking about passion. But many of the passion-spouting members can’t physically perform to the same peak levels or even pass a current PAT.

Imagine the uncomfortable collision of these two groups: All the experienced members listening to some young, smug, cocky kid talk smack, then realize they’re talking smack on you. What’s worse: NOT realizing that kid is talking smack on you and buying them a beer after the session in the hopes that they will “friend you” or like your page.

If you think of yourself as an influencer within the fire service, maybe you should stop, take a breath, and consider your target audience. The audience you should target is the administration positions, not the street firefighters. The firefighters are probably onboard with everything you’re saying, they just don’t like the way you’re saying it. Your target audience should be the people who can make change within the organizations. Find a better choice of words for the members on the street. After all, there’s already too much judgment happening all around us, often without us even realizing it.

Our passion was built on experience, history, pride and hard work.
Our passion was built on experience, history, pride and hard work. (Photo/Chris DelBello)

Crux of the debate: “We need all types”

Then there’s the reality of your organization, plus the reality that every organization is different and founded on unique management philosophies. Today, few fire service organizations are steeped in a rich history of fighting spectacular fires and needing all types of fire resources. Instead, the reality is that most organizations need to serve the community in a variety of services, not just fire services. The firefighters are required to wear many hats and perform duties that they aren’t really interested in or, in some cases, certified to perform.

For me, this is a critical part of the passion debate. Why? Because we need all types of people in our organizations. Some might be passionate about firefighting while others are passionate about working with the media – our PIOs. We need passionate arson investigators. Lord knows we need passionate inspectors in just about every growing city in the U.S.

Stifled passion: “It is out of their hands”

Some department budgets simply stifle passion, or at least the perception of passion. To suggest that an individual doesn’t have passion because they don’t pay out of their own pocket to attend a training or social event because the department doesn’t have the funding for such events is simply ridiculous.

Further, some organizations seem to push back against the presence of passion, as it seemingly (and erroneously) signals a loss of control of the membership. Members who try to maintain an almost overly aggressive level of “passion” become targets. The target can at times be justified due to the demeaning manner in which their “passion” is presented – almost like a middle finger to the administration or anyone who doesn’t agree with what you’re saying.

Other times, it is just fear attached to career experiences or lack of experiences. Here's an example: When I was a new hire in a smaller department, I was tasked with giving a training class on VES. Again, I was the new guy but giving a class. When it came to the actual “search function,” the officer became concerned because he had never performed a search without the protection of the hoseline. On the one hand, he was excited about introducing this new tactic to the department, but on the other, due to his lack of training and experience, he called the entire operation into question and temporarily stifled the morale of the members at the training event. After meeting with the officer later and detailing for him my personal experiences and background with the approach, he allowed me to reintroduce the tactic to the entire organization. However, having said all that, some administrations are simply not going to allow change or what they perceive as a threat above their own experiences and training.

There are also administrations that simply refuse to change even in the face of overwhelming evidence of a need for change. That should not reflect on an individual firefighter. There is often nothing an individual firefighter or even large number of firefighters can do about this most of the time. It is out of their hands.

Some organizations stifle passion unknowingly with their rigid guidelines and extreme disciplinary actions when members are deemed “too aggressive” on the fireground or inadvertently damage equipment during training from pushing a little too hard. For an outsider to suggest that the membership should stand up to the administration and make changes is ignorant – and laughable. You don’t have a clue about the impacts of one administration on an entire organization.

A heads up for the clueless: When you judge on your social media platforms or during your speaking engagements, it stifles passion just the same as some rigid guideline or condescending administration. It’s a real turnoff for most of us.

Nobody knows anyone else’s personal journey or experiences throughout their fire service career.
Nobody knows anyone else’s personal journey or experiences throughout their fire service career. (Photo/Chris DelBello)

My mistake: “I refer to the memory often”

Regardless of what’s going on in one organization or another, nobody has the right to judge another firefighter’s level passion for the job.

I say this from my own personal experience – a learning moment for myself many years ago, when I made the mistake of judging a firefighter’s level of passion rooted in my perception of his lack of motivation. Nobody was aware of the mistake except myself, yet I refer to the memory often when dealing with rookies going through training.

At the time I made the mistake, I was a newly promoted captain stationed on the far south side of the city. Any help was 5-6 minutes away if we turned to the right out of the station. This other firefighter was almost always showing up either just on time or late. He always complained about training, always complained about work in general. He was hard to figure out and always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. He also had a lot of personal drama in his life.

However, on two fires (our only good fires together), this firefighter was the nozzleman and both times put on the most spectacular shows of aggressive firefighting that I would never have expected from him – and this was at a time when our department seemed to be giving members every excuse to move away from such acts of aggressiveness. Well, he impressed me to the point that I never questioned his level of passion for the job again.

What happened here? The firefighter had lost his passion for our department and the administration but not his passion for the job and serving his community. Though he may have presented like he disliked training, he performed on the fireground like he had hung on every word from our station training. The lesson for me: It’s shortsighted to think that a member who doesn’t attend every area training or national conference can’t be passionate for the job or display their passion in other non-training ways.

Conferences: “I won’t condescend firefighters who don’t attend”

There are members within the international fire service who enjoy going to conferences and social events and who are great firefighters. However, there are also many great firefighters who have never gone to a single conference because there is simply no funding for it through their department or personal budget, and/or they prefer to focus on their personal/family life – and that’s OK. You would be foolish to believe that because someone is never seen going to training events that they cannot be a great firefighter.

Further, consider the difference between training at the station and at a conference. Passion is discovered and training is accomplished far more at the station level than at a conference. Training at the station is where you obtain the full understanding of a task and put in the reps.

Don’t get me wrong: Conferences are great. I love going to conferences. I have even hosted a conference and some other training events. I enjoy the comradery and different experiences of the firefighters who attend. However, I won’t condescend firefighters who don’t attend or suggest they weren’t doing enough to better themselves. If your department funds it or if you can afford it and can attend a conference, I do recommend it. At a minimum, it may reignite a spark and remind you of the reason you wanted this job.

True passion: “It can be found anywhere”

Passion is good. We all had it when we signed on to the job. We do need to maintain our passion for this line of work. We need it to do our job well. We need it to maintain our level of training. We need it to push ourselves further and further into the deepest and darkest voids in zero visibility in the burning buildings where we find our victims.

However, to the ones yelling the loudest about passion: Stop. Stop being so judgmental and overtly assuming. Passion can be found anywhere, in the quietest and most unassuming people at the station or on a sketchy roof with heavy fire conditions underneath you and in zero-visibility conditions without a hoseline, pushing down a long hallway searching for life. That’s where the truest representation of passion will be found. Passion cannot simply be tagged to you on social media, handed out at a conference or consumed at firefighter social events.

Passion can be found in the 42-year veteran who spent his entire career behind a nozzle as a firefighter at one of the city’s busiest engine companies. And passion can be found in the 80+-year-old man who built three fire trucks from retired oilfield trucks and never received a dime for his time – a man who then introduced two of his sons and two grandsons to the fire service. That’s the truest representation of passion I could ever imagine.

True passion is found in the heart of the individual firefighter and built upon with their personal experiences throughout their career, not at a weekend event.

Have passion. Be less assuming of others’ passion.

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