Living the Dream

Thirty-four years ago as an Auxiliary Firefighter for the Columbus (Ohio) Division of Fire, I climbed aboard a fire engine for the first time. It really doesn’t seem like it has been that long ago, although my body now tells me otherwise. My involvement in the fire service since that momentous first run has seen its share of highs and lows. After graduating college I moved to Greensboro and spent the next 25 years serving as both a career and a volunteer firefighter. Over time, however, my passion for working in the fire service diminished and I hung up my helmet in 2010.


A year later, my family and I relocated to the Boone area. After we settled into our new home, my oldest son convinced me to join the local volunteer fire department with him. We both began as probationary firefighters. It was like starting over for me. It had been a while since I carried a pager or jumped into a set of turn out gear. The experience certainly was exciting but it seemed like something was still absent. It wasn’t until I connected with a young man from my church who recently began his career in the fire service that I realized just what was missing.

Lately, I have been reading much about the passion, or lack thereof, in the emergency services. I truly believe that it is all about what we make it to be. If we want to reignite that passion, it must begin from within. I’m still active in the fire service today, thanks in part to the young man who reignited my passion for living the dream of being a firefighter. I won’t bore you with all the details of my past experiences. We all have our own war stories. But I will share some thoughts in the hope that I can be a catalyst in helping others to rediscover the passion of living the dream.

Be Intentional In How We Live Our Lives

Do you remember when you first began as a firefighter or emergency medical technician? Can you recall all of the sights and sounds and smells of your early days in the emergency services? Do you still have the feeling of excitement when you respond to calls today? The enthusiasm can often wane. And sometimes we work with others who drain the excitement out of us. But it need not be that way. So how do we maintain our passion? And how do we help others to live out their dreams? The key is to be intentional in how we live our lives.

I have seen it in action. I had a great teacher who was 30 years my junior. Travis Gryder reignited my passion and showed me how to excite others. He was living the dream in his work in fire and rescue services, as well in the way he lived his life. He was never at a loss for a smile and was a friend to all who knew him. He embraced the concept of servant leadership and led others by example. Travis worked as a career firefighter/paramedic with the Blowing Rock Fire Department and served as a volunteer with the Watauga County Rescue Squad until his life was cut tragically short by a motorcycle accident.

I have also read about living with intention. This is a model that has recently been documented by leadership authority John Maxwell. In his book, “Intentional Living,” Maxwell outlines four constructs on how intentional living can serve as a focus for sustaining passion and helping others to achieve theirs as well. If you have been involved in the emergency services for any length of time, I think you will recognize many of these concepts in your own life. As such, you are already on the way to living out your passion intentionally. Looking at the way Travis lived his life, I see these traits as well.

I Want to Make a Difference

The first step to an intentional life is to decide that you want to make a difference. For anyone serving in the emergency services, we have made that decision already. When I graduated from Greensboro Fire Department’s 37th Recruit Class, our motto was “serving the community.” We all wanted to make a difference, to make a positive impact in someone’s life and to help others in need. This becomes a foundational way of life for those living the dream. And it extends past the career field as well. Making a difference becomes part of everything we do.

Doing Something That Makes a Difference

Here is where we apply the difference we want to make. How do we make that happen? We make making a difference happen with people. And we do that by putting other people first. That’s not always easy to do, for a number of reasons. Perhaps we choose to place ourselves first to win approval from a supervisor or position ourselves for a promotion. And sometimes personalities complicate matters and we supplant others simply because we don’t agree with their views or we don’t like being around them. If we modify our perspectives to value others, it sets the stage to put others first.

Travis helped me to see just how important it is to not only value others, but to also add value to the lives of others. His enthusiasm was like a shot of new life in my tired soul. Travis was not an officer, but he certainly was a leader, a servant leader. Servant leadership is an ideal way of putting other people first as well as adding value to others, regardless of rank or organizational position.

With People Who Make a Difference

Living intentionally is a group activity. John Maxwell writes: “It is a fact that no person can achieve significant alone.” (p. 159) This supports the process to put others first. To live the dream, it takes a team. Most all of our functions in the emergency services utilize a team approach, so we are already conditioned for this progression. The key here is to surround ourselves with people who share the passion and enthusiasm for what we do. This should not mean that we are to develop cliques or elite groups, but rather a connected team of folks who embrace the principles of intentional living.

Travis Gryder

Travis was an example of someone who was living intentionally. I didn’t recognize it at first, but soon after we connected, I could sense it. And I wanted it too. I wanted to live the dream. And then I wanted to help others live their dream. It wasn’t anything that Travis said or did. It was the way Travis lived his life that helped me to see the significance in living with intention.

At a Time That Makes a Difference

It’s all about being at the right place at the right time. I’ve heard that said since the day I entered the fire service. And for the most part, it’s true. Whether it involves a promotion, or a great idea, it really is all about the timing. And being ready when the time is right! If we are prepared for and have positioned ourselves for that next step, then when it comes along, we are ready for that transition to a new level of significance. That means we should never stop learning and never stop training. We should never stop caring for ourselves and for others. We should never stop making a difference.

Travis Gryder was full of enthusiasm and ambition. He was full of love and compassion. Travis was living the dream. And he constantly reminded me that you’re never too old to follow your passion and live your dream. Although Travis is no longer with us, his legacy serves as a daily reminder to take advantage of the here and now to live life with passionate intentionality, every day.

Intentional living is a way of life. It is not something that can simply be activated when the need arise, nor is it something that can be developed in a day. Intentional living is a lifestyle choice that requires a solid level of reprise — and one that supports a life of significance, passion and purpose; one that develops love and compassion for others; one that allows us to share all of who we are through the connected relationships we build. Intentional living embodies all that we need to continue living the dream and to help others live theirs!

Steve Marks currently serves as the assistant chief for the Cove Creek Volunteer Fire Department in Vilas, North Carolina. He has been involved in various capacities within the emergency services community since 1982, working in both operations and administration. As a certified instructor, he teaches leadership, disaster management and multi-agency coordination. Marks earned a Graduate Certificate in Community Preparedness and Disaster Management from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a Masters of Science in Emergency Management from Jacksonville State University.

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