Deputy Chief Ron Ayotte says if you love the job, keep it growing

When I got on the job with 4 other probies back in November of 1981, one of the first things we were told by the senior guys as we walked in the door was “you (expletive) new guys are going to ruin this job.” Of course, we laughed this off; for we were full of piss and vinegar and looking to prove ourselves worthy to be firefighters.

These older guys, veterans from World War 2, Korean War and Vietnam learned their craft “on the job”. Only the larger cities ran their own drill schools, smaller departments relied upon the “on the job training” model.Back in the days before smoke detectors, most fire alarm systems consisted of pull stations connected to a small panel and master boxes, there were also street boxes. Telephone calls reporting fires were made from landlines or pay phones. It was common for them to go to one to two fires a week on average. They took their Civil Service Entrance exams out of what was known as the “Red Book”, which was a publication from Massachusetts Department of Personnel Administration that was about the job and covered types of fire pumps, ladders, basic tactics and such. Their version of the CPAT was called the strength test included climbing a rope, being able to swim, running a mile within a certain time frame and lifting weights.

In the mid 1970’s the entrance examination was changed to reflect general knowledge and the strength test was changed to better reflect the job. The Massachusetts Fire Academy was established in the early 1970’s, allowing the smaller communities to send new firefighters to get basic training.

The company officers and senior guys called my generation of firefighters “coloring bookers” because they felt that the exam and testing had been watered down. They learned their craft by fighting real fires. Orders from company officers were considered to be gospel and the orders of the Chief were respected as if they came from the Lord God Almighty himself.

Now let us fast forward to today’s fire service. Many of us snot nosed coloring book rookies, as we were called by the senior men are now the senior men, company officers and chief officers of our fire departments. We still have the love the job and look forward to each and every duty tour and call, train as much as possible and keep up with the latest trends. Many of our newer firefighters literally grew up in the firehouse environment and have followed their parents into the fire service. Others want the job to fulfill their dreams and want to excel.

On the flip side of the coin, there are some chiefs, company officers and firefighters who have a very limited amount of actual fireground experience but have a wall of certifications. They have killer resumes, but that’s about it. Some feel that they have to be buddy buddy with all of their personnel and are afraid to offend anyone or hurt their feelings and advocate for a kinder, gentler fire department. Some feel it is “too dangerous” to fight a fire from inside the structure and advocate doing it from the outside only or not doing anything until all of the vests in the ICS system are filled. Some firefighters are there not for the love of the job, but for the pay and benefits and/or the “social status” in the community; that is something that has gone on since the beginning of the fire service and nothing will change it.

I am a realist. I know that we do not have as many big fires as we did in the past; most of the incidents run to are barely a blip on the screen of the electronic and print media or they warrant only a line or two in the local newspaper. Smoke detectors and modern alarm systems are catching fires in their incipient phases and public fire education and prevention have had an effect. We run EMS calls and we are required to multi task with hazmat, tech rescue, etc. We get the lead story on the evening news and the front page of the newspaper above the fold only when we go into surround and drown mode and lose a building or suffer a line of duty death

We have to encourage our personnel to train and keep up with the latest trends when it comes to fire operations, building construction, etc. We have to learn the basics of our craft before we can even think of going on to the fancier stuff. We have to realize that we can’t be everyone’s friend. Friendship is friendship, business is business. When one accepted the promotion to company officer or a chief officer, one also accepted the responsibility to carry out the duties entailed with the job. There are times where you have to be the bad guy, it comes with the territory.Firefighters who are worth their salt will recognize that fact and accept it; grudgingly, at times, eagerly at others.

As far as fireground operations, contrary to what some of the “it’s not our emergency, why take the risk” crowd believes, nobody I know has a death wish. I know firefighters from all over my home state of Massachusetts, New England, all over the country and from all over the world. Some are personal friends, some are friends made through the internet, yet I feel that I know them all as family because they are. We all have one thing in common: we took an oath to save lives and property, not sit back and watch people die and their livelihood and possessions burn. We will do our very best to carry out our duties, but we also have to realize that there will be times when the fireground is a lost cause. If we wait until the ICS vests are filled and victim survivability profiles are completed, we have failed epically.

Lt. Ray McCormack of the FDNY stated at an FDIC conference a few years ago… the best way to save lives and property is to get in and put the fire out. Ray hit the bulls-eye with this statement.

Let’s keep the job evolving. If you are one of the new guys don’t ruin the job for future generations.

Photo courtesy of Hit The Plug, with permission. See more of here.

Ron Ayotte Ron Ayotte is one of four Deputy Fire Chiefs with the Marlborough Fire Department, Marlborough, Massachusetts. Ron began his career with the MFD in November of 1981, was promoted to Lieutenant in November of 1988, Promoted to Captain in August of 2000 and was promoted to Deputy Chief in 2006. Ron’s responsibilities at the MFD include incident command, communications, plans review, inspections and training. Ron also works per diem in the Support Services division at the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services/Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, working support for various Academy programs, including Recruit training, Call/Volunteer training, Certification and LNG-LPG firefighting training. Ron’s writings and musings can be seen at Chief Concerns.


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