Here’s what I did. I went to the firehouse. I didn’t go to class or home or anywhere else. I went to the firehouse — my firehouse.
June 18, 2007 ... I was teaching an EMT-Basic class at the firehouse. Around 1930 a good friend of mine — and fellow firefighter — caught me on a break and asked if I had heard the “news” out of Charleston. He reported that an unknown number of firefighters were trapped and/or missing.
After class I went home. There was still no reliable news from down the road. My intent was to catch the 2200 Fox newscast. I was fully expecting a report that things ended up being fine in Charleston. During that news report, there was NO statement as to the number of missing firefighters or the extent of injuries. At the 2300 local newscast the statement was officially released that an “unknown” number of firefighters were missing and (I) presumed dead.
Here’s what I did. I told my girlfriend that I had to go to the firehouse. Not that I wanted to be there, not that I was required to be there — it was where I NEEDED to be. I sat on the front pad of Colleton Station 19 for hours with the on duty battalion chief and the crew that was stationed there. We knew it was bad — just how bad wouldn’t be fully revealed until the next day.
April 25, 1999 ... my first daughter was born. The first people I notified outside of blood family — the guys at Lexington County Station 12 where I was assigned as a volunteer.
I could go on, but at this point you get the idea.
Some of you — paid and volunteer — work for the fire department, some of you are members of the fire department. These are wonderful things, don’t get me wrong, but the truly blessed of us have been converted. We are ON the fire department.
If you work for the fire department, you show up every third day, or as assigned. You do your job and you do it well, but it is just that, a job.
If you are a member of the fire department, you show up for shift. You do your job. You do it well AND you are proud of what you do.
Here’s the gold guys — and gals — if you are ON the fire department, you show up, you do your job well and you are proud. The difference is that when you are ON the fire department, you have been converted. You have been changed on a fundamental level. The fire service has become an inseparable part of your life. It is a beautiful transition, but not everyone goes through it.
When I was growing up in western Massachusetts, every adult male — or so it seemed — in my small town was on the fire department. They were members, they showed up, but they were also ON the fire department. Being on the fire department is something I learned as a kid. If all the guys got up in the middle of church and ran across the street to the fire house, it was explained that they were on the fire department. If Johnny was late to a birthday party because his dad couldn’t give him a ride, his dad stopped to help someone change a tire. Oh by the way, “he’s on the fire department, ya know.” Many emergency responders will drive past a wreck while they are off duty. Guess who stops? Those who have been converted — the ones that are ON the fire department.
Don’t misunderstand me, these are examples. I don’t stop at every wreck I pass. I don’t change every flat tire I see, but hopefully you understand the principal I am trying to convey here. I weigh all the factors and every case is different but when I do stop — it is in part because I am on the fire department. If I approach a stranger in these situations and they are leery of me, one of the first things that comes out of my mouth is, “My name is Tim. I’m on the fire department and I want to help you.” It is amazing how many people trust us because we are on the fire department. Do you think the sentiment would be the same if I said, “My name is Tim and I work for the fire department”? It sounds different, doesn’t it? It is different.
Here is where I need to tread lightly. It has nothing at all to do with years of service, training or any other factor. For lack of a better explanation, it is a conversion experience. I am a Christian and I mean no offense to any religion here, but this is my best explanation. A person can attend church for years — any religion or denomination — but until they have that conversion experience they are just a church goer. They may work hard. They show up like clockwork. They are proud to a member of that church. They may be on the roster but the conversion experience is what makes them special — it is what sets them apart.
You can work at the firehouse for years. You can be on the membership roster. You show up like clockwork, you attend all the fundraisers and hit 80 percent of the calls. You are proud to be a member. But, hear what I am saying, until you have that conversion experience, you are not ON the fire department. You show up, you work hard, but you are missing the beauty and wonder of our profession.
Just like religion, your friends and family may not “get it.” They will not understand why you would drive hundreds of miles for a stranger’s funeral. They will not understand why you stopped at that wreck or changed that tire or took that class for free on your vacation day. People don’t typically understand these things — even our coworkers — unless they have been through the conversion experience.
When a person is ready to take their religion to the next level, when they are ready for that conversion, what do they do? They find a person who has already caught that fire. They speak to them and get mentored by them.
Some of you know what I am talking about and maybe you are burned out or up against the wall. My question for you is simple. Are you on the fire department or are you just a member? Are you on the fire department or do you just work here?
Are you ready to be on the fire department?
Are you ready to make the conversion?