Power of Food in the Fire Service

Burgers and dogs on the grill can be a great way to bring people together. Photo from Unsplash.

Burgers and dogs on the grill can be a great way to bring people together. Photo from Unsplash.

By: FD Hacks

“Communication breakdown” is cited in almost every after action report. Internal fire department politics and poor mutual aid relationships are problems that plague every fire station in the country at some point. If only there was a solution…

Well, that is where the power of food comes in. The almighty healer of the fire service! Alright, that may be overstating it a bit, but gathering around delicious food can help diffuse decades of issues. Let’s be honest - firefighters love to gossip. Whether it’s complaining about the chief, talking about Larry behind his back, or speculating on someone’s affair, the firehouse is chock full of its own drama. But sometimes, especially in the context of larger problems (like budget shortfalls or declining volunteer membership), it can get out of hand.

When my volunteer department was having internal membership issues, accelerated by declining morale, we instituted quarterly dinners. Some were cookouts, others were catered meals sponsored by the department (a local BBQ joint, an Italian restaurant, etc). At least once per year, (with a goal of three), we’d cook up our own big firehouse dinner in the department kitchen. Whatever the meal was, it was damn good. The first two dinners, about 40% of the department turned out. While not everyone, we felt it was respectable. Members mostly stayed in their own social groups. But by the third dinner, turnout started to increase. Word got out about good food and people seemed to have a great evening. As more members attended, groups started to mix. After about six, the dinners steadily averaged approximately 70% turnout. More importantly, firefighters left grievances at the door. Dinners became more like big family events - we may have our differences, but we’re all family in the end. We’ve kept the tradition going for three years now it is has been a success.

Food for Mutual Aid Relations

The power of food is not just limited to improving internal department camaraderie. A cookout or catered meal can be a great way to bring departments from neighboring jurisdictions together. Now more than ever, we rely on our brothers and sisters in other communities to protect our own. Relationship building is one of the most important aspects of mutual aid. While it is important to train together, it is just as important to develop a working relationship with other departments. Coming together over a good meal can be a great way to develop essential elements of your emergency response organization.

Food and the Community

Use food’s power to improve your relationship with your own community. Police, Public Works, and other municipal departments are important partners in protecting our communities. Responding to an emergency or preparing for a potentially devastating storm should not be the only time we work together. Consider bringing in everybody in for a cookout. Administrators can hold a meeting over lunch rather than in the office.

Eating is human and can be used to break down barriers or obstacles that may be in place in a more formal setting. We realize that the rumors about other organizations, so pervasive that they become institutionalized in the way we operate, are just that - hearsay and nonsense. There will always be a bad apple (or two). Maybe some chiefs still don’t get along over something that happened 30 years ago. But for the most part, we can all work together, play nice in the sandbox, and may actually develop new friendships.

As an aside, if you decide to cook your own meals, Firehouse Chef is a website full of great firehouse meals. Firefighters from around the country submit their own classic recipes. It can be pretty useful. Here is the link: http://www.firehousechef.com

What do you think? Have you used food to improve your fire department’s morale? Do you bring mutual aid companies or other local departments in for a cookout? Or do you hate the thought of sharing a meal with the company next door? Let us know in the comments! Or email us your own stories about using food to enhance your department at fdhacks@gmail.com.

*Disclaimer: Always consider your own safety and fire department policies and procedures.