While looking back, I remembered a song that I heard many times in high school by Baz Luhrmann called “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen.” The song talks about suggestions the singer has based on his experiences. In looking back on my 22 years there have been tons of stuff I have learned, and I am going to share them here in hopes that it will benefit you in some way, much as the song does (don’t worry you can see it on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTJ7AzBIJoI as you likely haven’t heard it).
First, take care of yourself physically. This job, whether career or volunteer, is tough on your body. Unfortunately, most of the damage we do to ourselves is irreversible. It could be your back, your knees, or maybe worse, such as cancer from not washing our gear and not wearing proper personal protective gear while working. Spend time working out. There are more resources now for this than ever before. I recommend 555 Fitness. They are a wonderful group of supportive people who want to see you succeed. Visit them at a conference near you and say hello. Do the Zoll Challenge as I did. See if you can ride a bike for a minute and then do two minutes of proper CPR. Let them coach you and get better!
Go to the doctor regularly. Do not let others try to downplay this and surely do not let others tell you that you are being a baby or anything else to deter you. It is so much easier to treat problems found early; no matter whether it is high blood pressure or cancer. Preventative care of your body is so much easier than reactionary care (and cheaper too). It’s your one and only body. Take care of it.
Next, take care of yourself mentally. We are seeing more and more the effects of our service on our mental health. We have seen an increase in PTSD retirements and, unfortunately, suicides in our brothers and sisters too. The first event that affected me was on Thanksgiving Day in 1997. Not much more than one month after I had started with the department. We were dispatched to a one car motor vehicle crash and ended with a very graphic fatality. Since then I, as most others like me, have seen so much. It becomes part of who we are. If we do not address this, it will swell up inside us and sooner or later there will be mental and physical prices to pay. Find ways to relieve this pressure. Talk to friends. Ask for help through your department. Get counseling. Find resources online. Let others help you through your suffering.
Reflections on this Best Job Take care of yourself physically, Take care of your mental health, Know you can’t save everything and everyone, Train like your life depends on it, Have mentors, Do everything you can to help others
Realize you cannot save everything and everyone. I think many times when we become firefighter/EMTs that we begin getting the mentality that we have to save and fix everything. How many times have you been called by the public, by friends and by family in order to fix something or save the day? The problem is that we cannot do this all the time and constantly. Attempt to protect the lives and property of others. However, remember that you cannot fix everything; including in your own life. Spend time with your family and let your spouse know you cannot save the world. I bet he or she will appreciate you for your honesty.
Never Stop Learning
Learn everything you can — every day. Some of our colleagues may not take this job seriously but any day this job can kill you. Train like your life depends on it because it does. Spend time taking classes from operational courses to any other training that builds you up. Get certified in areas where it will benefit you and your department. When you are training in your department, get involved and do not be afraid to speak up. Worst case scenario when you do this is that you learn, and someone may pick on you. However, the benefit is worth so much more than that. Do NOT ever stop learning. I still learn stuff about this job even 22 years into it and hope to learn even more as I continue. I hate it when I go to a training and you see someone who thinks they are too good to participate or who thinks that they know more than the instructor. Those are the ones I stay away from because they are dangerous.
Not every person was meant to be an instructor. However, that does not mean that you cannot teach. Find time to train someone else. If you have been in this service for more than six months you have something valuable you can share with someone. Take time to do so even if it is only showing someone how to force entry through a new type of lock that a business is using in your first due. If you do feel comfortable in being an instructor, do it. Find ways to teach. This includes big conferences such as the South Atlantic Fire Rescue Expo (SAFRE) and FDIC. You never know what you may end up doing. I never thought I would ever teach at such conferences and am blessed to share my messages now regularly. The more we teach others the more we are ready to face the dangers of the job. The information you share just may save a life of a citizen or a brother/sister firefighter.
Speaking of the major conferences, do not hesitate to go up to speakers and talk to them. Let me give you two examples in my career. First, I saw Chief Gary Ludwig from Champaign Fire Department at a national conference several years back. I so badly wanted to go up to him and talk with him, but I felt that I would be bothering him or that he wouldn’t want to speak with me. After I got back from the conference, I emailed him saying I wished I could have met him and such pleasantries. Over a year, he and I communicated via email and at a national conference I had the opportunity to meet him. Since then he and I have had many conversations and run-ins and I am a much better person because of it. Imagine what I would have missed if I had not finally contacted him.
Don’t Miss Opportunities
Finally, never miss an opportunity. The biggest miss I have ever had in my career happened a couple years ago. I was staying at a local hotel where I was going to listen to Chief Alan Brunacini and Chief Peter Lamb speak at the South Piedmont Community College. It was Friday night and I was there at the hotel early. While sitting outside and enjoying the weather, there walks up Chief Brunacini from a restaurant next door. We exchanged pleasantries and I told him I would be in his class the next day and he said he looked forward to it. I really wanted to ask him if he had time to sit down and just share any knowledge, he was willing to with me. Instead I let him walk away. At the end of his class I was honored by having about 30 minutes to talk with him. After that I found out how much he would have loved to talk to me if he had the time. Instead I lost it. Unfortunately, we lost Chief Brunacini several years ago and I will never get that opportunity back. Now do not think this opportunity necessarily has to be with someone like Chief Brunacini as it could be with a founding department member or someone else. This was just one of the major missed opportunities for me.
Love the Job
Whether volunteer or career, this is the best job in the world. You help others when they need it most. You are trusted when others are not. Ever been handed a lifeless child from their mother? I have. That shows trust above trust for a mother to hand over their child especially when that child is in need. Do everything you can to help others. Be there when they need it most and more than just putting out their fire. Do what you can to make their lives during their worst time be a little less bad. Remember, they may not remember how well you put out their fire, but they will most definitely remember how you made them feel. Do everything to leave this job better than you found it. Find time to spend with the founders or the senior men. Make the coffee for them and have it hot and ready at all times. Do something extra every day for the citizens and the senior men. You will be rewarded more than you ever will know.
So, in retrospect of 22 years, and in hopes of 22 more, think about these points I have made and remember “Wear Sunscreen.”