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Firefighters love some things more than the average person; this includes our beloved T-shirts. I recently discovered that I had over 40 shirts from 25 different fire departments. Some of you are laughing right now because you have double that amount, and you’re picturing the 15 plastic bins in your garage full of shirts.

While our T-shirts represent our company and pride in our job, we must be better than a cool logo and saying. Sometimes, we need to live up to that logo/saying. I do not doubt that many of us want to be great at our chosen profession, but we often get sidetracked, forget why we joined, are told that being into the job is a waste of time, or maybe don’t know how to do it.

While some departments provide actual career paths and mentors to build the organization’s culture for the present and the future, others are left treading water, never really understanding how to be more than just a T-shirt.

Let’s start with something very simple but also something that can be forgotten. We exist for one reason: to save and serve others. In most cases, this is under extreme circumstances, without any warning, and in a time vacuum. Firefighters should make this their daily battle cry; they should remember that we save those that could not save themselves, and we are the only ones coming! Yes, this may sound cliché, but when you bring that person out of the building and give them a chance to hug their loved ones again, another birthday, another holiday, there is nothing cliche about that.

Here is a straightforward question to ask yourself and other organization members: “what do you expect if it was your house and loved ones?” T-shirts don’t make grabs; firefighters do! Better yet, well-trained, educated, and dedicated firefighters make grabs.

If you’re looking to be better than the T-shirt, here are some simple habits and things you can do. These things also cost very little and are attainable from the brand-new volunteer to the big city firefighter.

1. Master the Basics! I’m not a fan of back-to-basics programs, and I feel we should be back to basics as recruits. As firefighters, we should be focused on mastering the basics. Every fire we respond to is a series of basic skill sets; donning gear and SCBA, stretching hose, throwing ladders, forcing a residential door, primary search, flowing water, overhaul, ventilation, and salvage. These skills should be mastered, and when you identify areas of weakness, we should not have to go back; you need to spend the time to master or re-master this specific skill.

2. Knowledge is power! On April 30th, 1983, the internet became available to everyone. There is no excuse not to know and understand fire behavior, building construction, targeted search techniques, water application, ventilation, and anything else about this job you can imagine or think of. There are thousands upon thousands of websites, trade magazines, articles, blogs, internet shows, and other industry information available to us by clicking a few buttons. I know firefighters and even officers can recite every stat of their fantasy football team, but I do not know the stages of fire development. Knowledge about our job makes us better than the T-shirt, keeps us safer on the fire ground, allows us to make quicker and better decisions, and can save someone’s life. Start by simply finding something each day to read about the fire service; this will only take a few minutes of your day, and by forming this easy and free habit, you will quickly discover that as you touch one subject matter, it will lead you into additional topics. You will find that over time, you want to spend more time studying the job than your pretend football team.

3. Ask Why? To understand the fire ground or any emergency scene, get in the habit of asking “why.” This is not to question or doubt others; it’s not to put people on the defensive; it’s all about learning. How do we improve if we don’t know why something happened or why we did something on the scene? After an incident and as part of my personnel evaluation, I would ask myself why I did certain things on the fire ground, and that would allow me to learn from both my mistakes and success.

4. Build a network and relationships. Some of the best advice I have received did not come from those within my department; it often came from my peers and mentors outside the organization. I cannot overstate the importance of building a network and relationships with others in the fire service. Do not overcomplicate this or jump on social media and start asking to be everyone’s friend. Start with a simple introduction and maybe questions as you meet firefighters and officers at training events or webinars. You will find peers and real mentors who want to help you and are happy to share their knowledge and experience.

5. Get outside your comfort zone. This one can be the hardest and is the one thing I’m suggesting that will not be free. Go to a fire conference, leave the four walls of your department, take a class from someone you do not know, participate in hands-on skills, learn new tactics, skills, and maybe a different perspective on the fire service. There are various opportunities available, from big shows (FDIC & Firehouse Expo) to local and regional events. I always recommend you research before spending your money to maximize your experience.

* Research the speakers and instructors

* Review the training and course objectives

* Cost breakdown from registration, hotels, and travel

* Vendors and sponsors

Be more than the T-shirt, and never forget that people are counting on you. I cannot tell you when or where your next fire will be; I can tell you that fire is coming, and it may be that fire where your skills and the skills of the people around you will be tested.

-Keep Training

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