It was 0200 hours and the local volunteer fire department received an alarm. The dispatcher announced a working apartment house fire. When the department arrived, firefighters immediately initiated an attack line and effectively started to knock down the fire.
A short time after the attack began, a mutual aid career fire department arrived to standby. The residents of the apartment complex said they were relieved when the “professional” firefighters arrived. As someone who was at that scene, it was like a hot spike was stabbed into my heart hearing the public's perception of career firefighters and referring to them as professional versus their view of volunteers, whom they obviously felt weren't professional.
Are volunteer firefighters professional? Do volunteers do the same job as career firefighters? Is a firefighter a firefighter? When we compare volunteer firefighters to career firefighters, are we comparing apples to apples? If you're a volunteer firefighter, you're probably thinking, “Of course, what's his point?” If that's all you're saying, you are being kind and I thank you. If you're a career firefighter you might be thinking, “It's about time someone wrote about this.” Again, if that's all you are saying, thank you. I ask you to put your preconceived ideas aside for a moment, no matter if you're a career or volunteer firefighter. Let's look into these questions objectively and with some depth.
According to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, the definition of the word professional is “characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession.” A second definition is “participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs.” Merriam-Webster also gives us synonyms of professional: expert, authority and master. An antonym is amateur. That same dictionary defines amateur as “one lacking in experience and competence in an art or science.” They also define amateur as “a person who follows a pursuit without attaining proficiency.”
All of us can agree that firefighters aren't considered professionals solely because they are “participating for gain or livelihood.” So, what is the difference between a professional and an amateur? Looking closely at these definitions, professionals conform to technical and ethical standards; they are experts in that profession and masters of their craft. An amateur lacks experience and competence.
The issues of experience, competence, knowledge and mastery are cause for much tension between volunteer and career firefighters. This tension often manifests itself in combination departments. It's not unusual for a volunteer chief in a combination department to have his or her authority challenged by the career personnel. Are they challenging the chief because of the definitions of a professional or are there other reasons?
Is the career firefighter who complains about training and spends his or her time at the fire station sitting in a recliner eating doughnuts and drinking coffee a professional? Is the volunteer firefighter who isn't at all serious about training and goes only to the dramatic calls and certainly not to the I've-fallen-and-I-can't-get-up calls a professional? What is a professional firefighter? Does the title volunteer or career make one a professional?
Firefighters who are professionals are dedicated to the job and all of its implications. If they're devoted to becoming a master of fire science and are team players, they are professionals. Professional firefighters are constantly thinking of ways to improve the science of firefighting. They are concerned about fire prevention. They are always interested in customer service. Professional firefighters can't get enough training and education. They're always teaching other firefighters all they know.
Professional firefighters are not proud or conceited. They don't hesitate to go to the assistance of one of their brothers, sisters, neighbors or community members. Professional firefighters don't grumble over the merit of an emergency call. Frequent flyers in their ambulances receive courtesy no matter what that firefighter feels inside.
Again I ask, does the title volunteer or career make one a professional? This job of firefighter is all-encompassing, and a professional firefighter is completely dedicated to the fire service and its constant improvement. A professional firefighter is an expert and master of his or her profession and craft. This is far from an amateur who merely dabbles in an interest. A truly professional firefighter, volunteer or career, lives for the job.
What about the public's perception of a professional firefighter? Does pay influence the public's concept of a professional? In many cases it's true that the public's definition of a professional is solely based on the fact that professionals are paid for what they do. The career firefighter has one up on the volunteer firefighter as far as the public is concerned. As firefighters, however, we all know that salary doesn't make a professional firefighter.
Image and competency also influence the public in deeming a person a professional. The perception of competency is based on two things: performance and the understanding of what it takes to be an expert or a master of one's field. When professional firefighters are called to an emergency, they respond to that scene in a cautious and safe fashion with due regard to public safety. For volunteer firefighters, this starts from the time the pager goes off and they respond to the firehouse or the scene.
All it takes to tarnish the public's image of a professional firefighter is to respond to a call in what the public perceives as a reckless manner. Career and volunteer firefighters must keep this in mind when responding to scenes with official apparatus. When at the scene, a professional firefighter maintains a calm attitude and does his or her job efficiently. A scene that appears to be chaotic promotes a loss in the public's image of the firefighter's professionalism, whether one is paid or not. With video everywhere today, more people are seeing everything we do as firefighters.
The second thing that contributes to the perception of competency is the public knowing what it takes for the professional to be a master at his or her craft. Here's where most fire departments drop the ball. Does the public know how much training is involved in mastering our job? We don't publicize the type of training we do and the amount of hours we spend doing it. Every time a department member completes a training course of any kind, that member's picture and name should appear in the local paper with a caption that states what course was completed, how many hours were involved and how that skill will help the community.
Another way to heighten the awareness of firefighter training to the public is to hold department drills in public with a sign naming the fire department and a statement such as, “Training to serve you better.” During drills, professional firefighters should conduct themselves as though they were at an actual call. That means working fully geared up and acting in a manner that would promote a positive public image — the most important factor in the perception of professionalism.
In the scope of things, how we look and carry ourselves is the key to a professional image. Station uniforms, clean apparatus and bunker gear, and a well-kept interior and exterior of the department's stations are the key to looking professional. Every time a firefighter responds to a call this image must be maintained.
Are there career and volunteer firefighters that are not professional, according to the standards described in this column? I think so. Are there volunteer and career firefighters that are the consummate professionals? I know so. How about those in your department?
Chief Mike Chiaramonte is a 35-year member of the Lynbrook (N.Y.) Fire Department and a past chief of the department. He's currently the chief fire inspector, where he is responsible for code enforcement and prevention education. Chiaramonte serves as chairman of the ICHIEFS Volunteer and Combination Officers Section Board and New York State Director to the ICHIEFS Eastern Division. He's also a National Fire Academy Instructor and an advisor to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Chiaramonte is a state EMT-CC and an instructor at the Nassau County EMS Academy. He has as a bachelor's degree from the University of Houston and a master's degree from Hofstra University, both in communications education.