Fifty years of doing any one thing is something to be proud of in today's world. When Fire Chief premiered in 1956, things were quite different from what they are today.
That year saw Israel, Britain and France attack Egypt during the Suez Crisis and the Soviet Union invade Hungary to crush anti-communist revolution. Elvis Presley entered the charts for the first time with “Heartbreak Hotel” while Fidel Castro sailed to Cuba to join in the revolution. The price of a typical home was $22,000, and the average income was $4,456. Congress approved the Highway Act, which began the construction of the Interstate Highway system. The top price for a Ford car was $3,151, and gas was 23 cents a gallon.
Are these facts and figures amazing to you? Hopefully not! Instead I hope it just gives you the right perspective of the time period so you can appreciate how far the fire service has come in the last 50 years.
Do you know where the fire service was in 1956? With the exception of major urban cities, all fire protection was provided by volunteer companies and departments. Fire training was almost nonexistent at the state and local levels except for a few progressive states and cities. Fire trucks had manual transmissions and no air conditioning or seatbelts. Turnout gear was made from cotton duck material, and helmets were thin plastic or leather.
Many years ago, Chief Sherman Pickard of the Raleigh (N.C.) Fire Department hung a banner at the department training center. It said, “Knowledge of the past breeds an appreciation for the future.” Author Stephen E. Ambrose said the same thing in a different way: “The past is a source of knowledge, and the future is a source of hope. Love of the past implies faith in the future.”
I believe one of the most important traditions that should be maintained in the fire department is a dedicated effort to sustain the knowledge of the its past. To me, having an appreciation of the past will always keep a person in a position to hope for a better future for his or her department.
Too often we want to throw away all the “old junk” in the department and bring in the new stuff. This is important and must be done; however, one should think twice before discarding some junk and dismissing some senior members! Everything has a time and a season, and there are times when it's necessary to put things out of active service. I just ask that the great history of the department be honored at the same time and given the respect and reverence it deserves.
So what are some ways you can do that? Start with members of your department who have more than 20 years of fire service experience. Interview them and document their careers. Also talk to former members of your department. Reach out to all former members who are still living and present them with a plaque or special item denoting their past membership and contributions. Get in contact with all former chiefs and write a summary of major fires and disasters that occurred during their command.
Speaking with former members is also a good way to begin researching the history of your department. Write an account of your department. Include this information on your Web site and in brochures. Take advantage of the recent interest in scrapbooking, as there are many tools and techniques now available.
Speaking of scrapbooking, if your department hasn't already done so, start a photo journal of the department. Document major calls, news articles, awards, banquets and any celebration. Take photos of all apparatus and stations. Look for pictures of apparatus, equipment and stations previously used by your department. Your local historical society will be glad to assist. If you have an existing photo album or history file, save all the material in a digital format. Also digitize important documents for quick access.
Contact local historical organizations or museums to collect, document and store important papers and equipment. They even may be able to help you assemble a display case for your station's public area with samples of outdated fire and EMS equipment such as nozzles, SCBA, hose, radios, medical supplies and even computers.
Most importantly, the department should undertake an effort to recognize senior members, acknowledging their past contributions and accepting their future input.
There once was a senior member in a volunteer fire department who always seemed to disagree with every step to move to the future. He was the person who always had something to say against buying new equipment or was opposed to that new-fangled training program. With time, the chief came to respect his views and his perspective. The veteran firefighter came from a time when the department had to scratch and dig for every dollar, and he never wanted to waste its limited funds on efforts that might not end in solid and documented results. In the end, he was the person whom the chief contacted first about any new program or major purchase. Many times he provided the department officers with insight and comments that allowed them to build a more comprehensive presentation to give to the members and helped anticipate areas of potential disagreement.
These members are important to the department in many ways. They can serve in a wide variety of functions and duties. Take advantage of their experience. For example:
- Establish a mentorship program using senior members as advisers to new members.
- Use these members in command functions or as staff advisers to the chief during major events and disasters.
- Conduct a training night where senior members sit and tell stories about the “big fires” they fought during their careers and how things used to be. These lessons should be treasured and applied to today's operations.
Always make current and past members feel welcome and involved, even if they are no longer active responders. Greet them with a smile and handshake and a sincere “thank you” for their service. To that end, invite all former chiefs to your annual award event and make sure they are recognized.
Simply stated, the department should make an effort not to disregard those members who, due to health, time or changes in their lives, are no longer the first out on the fire truck. These members have paid their dues and should be appreciated for their past efforts; their experience and knowledge should be valued.
As I've written, 50 years is a long time to do one thing and do it well. Fire Chief deserves to be congratulated for its service and dedication. Take the same approach with all your members, and never forget to thank those whose past efforts made your present possible.
Ken Farmer is the president of Capitol Safety Systems, which provides consultant services in management, leadership, sales and course development. He's also a volunteer firefighter with the Fuquay-Varina (N.C.) Fire Department, where he previously served as chief.
National Trust for Historic Preservation www.nationaltrust.org
American Historical Association www.historians.org
Center for History and New Media http://chnm.gmu.edu
Oral history tips www.genealogy.com/95_carmack.html