"The Lost Art of Firemanship" – an excerpt.

I was recently digging through the supply closet at the firehouse when I came across this withered citation in a battered frame. I had seen similar items littering the walls of other firehouses, but I had never paid much attention to them—nearby, the proudly-snapped photos of big fires and grinning, smoke-stained crews always proved to be more visually appealing.

However, as I held the wooden frame and blew the dust off the smudged glass, I was curious about the wording of the citation itself. Issued from the District of Columbia Associate of Insurance Agents on October 8th, 1958, the citation offers high praise for Engine 15 as the "Company of the Year."

In recognition of devotion to duty, great firemanship, courage, initiative and teamwork in the highest tradition of the Department, this Citation is presented.

Courage, teamwork… anyone who's received so much as a Most-Improved Player trophy from Little League has heard these buzzwords countless times.

But firemanship? What the hell is that?

I had never heard anyone use the term around the firehouse, but I suspected it was the origin of the wistful conversations the older guys have about my younger generation. It's not uncommon to hear cries of "they don't make 'em like they used to," or declarations of a historic pride and dedication that we'll never understand. The "new" Department, they claim, doesn't go to fires, and seems to be solely a miserable medical department with some really big, really red ambulances that can't transport patients.

Now just waitaminnit, you old bastard. My generation's level of dedication to the job—no matter what our call volume consists of—can be addressed later; but maybe we could cross a little bit of this gap if we understood this "firemanship" you speak of.

The Googles did not fail me; interestingly enough, the top hit for "firemanship" was a three-year-old blog called biglinefire, written by the mysterious figure of Jason B.

I was unable to reach him via his blog; as I cannot find any other contact information for him, I was unable to ask for permission to reproduce the excellent post entitled "The Lost Art of Firemanship."

It's absolutely worth a full read. I simply cannot leave this post with a link, but instead must offer some of my favorite excerpts; I can only hope that the gods of copyright will look favorably upon my actions, as I seek no profit from Jason's writing.

—————

Speaking of the most basic tenets of the science behind firefighting, Jason opens the generation gap early:

We learned hot air rises and fire always looks for the path of least resistance. I learned these things when I was 12 years old. Why is it that this basic information seems to be foreign to most people entering the fire service today? Yes that was many years ago… but the kids these days have grown-up in a much different time and culture than I did.

Although, he would posit, the blame for my generation's problems rests on more shoulders than our own:

…Many of the “kids” appear to lack basic life skills: how to clean a toilet; how to press a shirt; how to cook a basic meal or how to follow simple instructions. It is not all their fault. We as a society must take our share of the blame.

We again fail them in the academy… I have seen as little as four hours of the fire academy dedicated to SCBA… The instructors have spent much more time on topics such as Hazmat, confined space and terrorism. 

The writer fully admits that problems without solutions are useless; he offers a bit of advice from his point of view, regarding moving forward and keeping the problem from growing any worse:

…we cannot change how the next generation is raised. But we can encourage vocational education. It should be ok to take a shop class.* People should know how things work and how to fix things and I don’t mean debugging a computer program or how to hard reboot a CPU.

…we must not forsake our traditions. Fire has been fought by men and women, crawling down hot, smokey hallways taking a beating to put the fire out. It was dangerous then and remains dangerous now. Let’s not let forget the lessons learned by our predecessors; take the time to teach the New Kid what firemanship is about, what the job is about.

* (Just a side note: I graduated from college in 2008, and was never offered anything even close to a shop class during my seventeen years of formal education; in fact, the majority of the people I knew in high school or college couldn't work with tools if their life depended on it. Thanks for looking out for me, Dad!)

His parting sentiment is a nice recap; again, the entire post is a great read when taken together, but the wrap-up is a good reminder to us young 'uns… anyone who truly cares will take it to heart:

As a profession we must return to the basics of our trade: Hot, dirty, hard work that every generation has done before us. Keep yourself educated, in shape and be true to the job. Remember we are the fire service and it is only as good as we make. Do not forget Firemanship, because without it public works could do our job.

—————

So what happened? Why is my generation so different from the previous two? Have entire similarly-aged recruit classes been genetically predisposed to have an "I don't give a shit" attitude? Or is it that if we were working our asses off and going to fires as often as our predecessors, we'd be better firemen over all?

Ah, the nature v. nurture debate rages on. Maybe firemanship died with all the fires. But methinks that lazy firemen have existed since the profession started, and good, dedicated firemen will continue to prosper in any Department. It's really just up to the individual.

But on firemanship: it's nice to finally have a term that represents that… thing. That idea that you can't quite put your finger on, but the guys you really respect seem to have it mastered. It almost feels like a spiritual concept, something many of us strive for but few will ever really embody.

I certainly don't have it yet; but figuring out what the hell it is sounds like a good first step.

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Alex Capece

Washington, D.C. Firefighter and Paramedic

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"For anyone who ever wanted to grow up and become a firefighter... from someone who did just that."
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