What DID you sign up for? Reflections on our early days in the fire service

Our personal motivations for joining the fire service offer a key insight about how to communicate the job to new members


In one of our most read and discussed articles in recent years, “This is not what I signed up for’: Why some firefighters simply don’t understand the job,” Chief Bob Horton makes the point that low-acuity EMS calls were prevalent when he joined 20 years ago, so why are firefighters seemingly so surprised when they join the ranks and it’s not “Chicago Fire” all day long. Taking it another generation back, I can attest to the fact that call types have not changed from when I joined the service 40 years ago. Sure, we did run more old-construction fires, and there’s a much higher volume of calls today along, with a higher population for most of us, but the distribution of call types is pretty much the same.

So, where are we missing the mark?

Clearly, we need to do a better job communicating the job expectations and the varying call types so aspiring firefighters better grasp the true nature of the job. But is the problem really just about marketing? That’s certainly a big factor, it is really a MUCH more complex issue.

To really dive into it, pause for a moment to consider why YOU joined the fire service? What motivated you to fill out that application?

My motivation to join the fire service

Reading Chief Horton’s article got me nostalgically reflecting on why I joined the fire service, and truth be told, I’d say 90% of it is Johnny and Roy’s fault!

And not long after “Emergency!” ended its initial TV run, I was gearing up to join the fire service.
And not long after “Emergency!” ended its initial TV run, I was gearing up to join the fire service.

For context, I am the first (and still only) fire/EMS service professional in my family. The reminder is necessary to relate that many others within our ranks have long and storied family histories in the fire service, making their ascension fait accompli. Such a long-familial fire history is not attached to my lineage.

My World War II veteran dad worked as a mailman/preacher, and until I was pretty much out of the house, mom was a homemaker. There was no alcohol in my house, and the Post Office belt was the rule (OK, mostly in fear), not the exception. This was not quite the Cleaver family experience.

Then in 1972, a breakthrough show “Emergency!” launched onto our black and white TV. We would soon have one of those electric antennas attached to our chimney, along with a console color TV. I was glued to that show every chance I got.

Why does this history matter? Well, it was a simpler time to me. My sphere of trust and the influences of my growth were at first rooted in only three places: home, church and school. That’s it. I was raised in that middle-class service-oriented household with the expectations of taking care of our family and our community – holding doors for others, respecting EVERYONE, and saying “yes, sir,” “yes, ma’am,” and similar phrases.

We played in the dirt, used the streetlights as a watch, and before I had a driver’s license, I’d ride my bicycle to the firehouse, a mile or so away. My friends were the kids from school or church, kids who played in the dirt with me and hung out until the streetlights came on.

While my older brother became a mailman and my younger brother a preacher, “Emergency!” was my intoxication. These guys did everything, they helped people, and yes, they got to go lights and siren everywhere.

My upbringing in the church, with the belt, AND surrounded by Johnny and Roy served as my motivations for joining the fire service. As far as I knew, everyone was polite and every call was an exciting explosion or impacted some poor guy impaled on a fence rail, stuck in a canyon.

And not long after “Emergency!” ended its initial TV run, I was gearing up to join the fire service.

All-hazards, then and now

I joined as a volunteer firefighter in 1981. It wasn’t a marketing effort per se that got to me, but those episodes of “Emergency!” sure got me fired up about a career in public safety.

But I quickly learned that every call was NOT as dramatic as the show.

The reality of the job: Grandma was going to be throwing up on me at 2 a.m., and we’d go to vehicle wrecks much more than we’d be going to fires. It was the era of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), and I was one of the EMTs who responded over the years to the many drunk driving wrecks that resulted in the deaths of 19 of my classmates. It was enough to keep me from drinking, forever.

Fast-forward 40 years and it’s the same reality. It’s much more likely that new firefighters will find themselves with grandma throwing up on them at 2 a.m., and that they’ll be responding to vehicle wrecks far more often than fires. We are still – and have always been – an “all-hazards” fire service, in many places providing fire-based EMS or, as many of my more EMS-centric friends would say, EMS-based fire.

Adapt or devolve

Our call types haven’t changed that much, yet everything else in our culture has changed so dramatically that I almost can’t reconcile my experience today and that of my childhood. The access to information, the stimuli all around us, the endless drone of 24/7 news, and the immediate access to job applications together create an almost endless array of options and information for people to consume. Our newest firefighters are broadly exposed to this information and option overload, and if they aren’t “fitting” with the fire service, they, seemingly, will gladly seek out their next adventure.

So, amid the many competing options, how do we recruit and retain our members?

I believe that fire departments must tap into the same psyche that I had growing up – the notion of public service for the good of the community. Yes, there are fires to fight but there are also people to help in a variety of “all-hazards” environments, even if that’s grandma sick in the middle of the night. It may not be as attractive a pitch, but appealing to a sense of service is always impactful.

Fire departments must embrace the digital age to tell the story of service, the story of community. Of course, social media can be used for recruitment, applications and to share information with the public during emergencies. But it’s also the tool that can make that essential connection with a prospective member looking to serve. That’s how we set ourselves apart.

Demanding that our members or prospective members fit our neat little box of expectations is an unreasonable reality in 2021. But the “job” of SERVICE has not changed. So it’s up to us, as fire chiefs, to acknowledge, embrace and adapt to the changes around us so that we can accurately communicate the mission, vision and values of the fire service – and avoid hearing, “This isn’t what I signed up for,” as the door closes behind another missed opportunity.

Demanding that our members or prospective members fit our neat little box of expectations is an unreasonable reality in 2021. But the “job” of SERVICE has not changed.
Demanding that our members or prospective members fit our neat little box of expectations is an unreasonable reality in 2021. But the “job” of SERVICE has not changed.
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