By Blaize Levitan, Connecticut
My grandfather, Jerry Levitan, Sr, was a volunteer firefighter in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for over twenty years. He didn’t start his firefighting career until he was 48 years old, completing fire academy training with recruits 25 years younger. He went on to have a successful tenure, serving as captain, lead instructor for department driver training, and as a trustee on his department’s executive board. Every summer we’d take an annual trip to his firehouse while visiting from Connecticut, which inspired me to join the fire department in my hometown as soon as I was old enough.
My grandfather’s lessons covered all of the traditional topics, from hose work, to ladders, to war stories. But the most important lessons my grandfather passed on were about life as a firefighter; how to live the lifestyle, experience the culture, and have a successful career of my own. These were formative lessons and I consider myself very fortunate to have had them passed on while I was so young.
Here are the five most important lessons my grandfather taught me about the fire service:
1). Life outside the firehouse matters.
Family, school, and work all come before the firehouse. You have a life outside the firehouse that requires your devotion, passion, and hard work. You must prioritize your obligations, without neglecting your family at home. Sacrifices come with this work, but people end up spending their entire lives at the firehouse, get burned out, and become miserable bastards. (My grandfather would list names of guys on his department that ended up divorced because they “chose the firehouse over their spouses”). Individuals that are at the fire department every waking second of their life and always want to know why you weren’t there for something, are probably unhappy. More importantly, kids are only young once and will only ever play so many soccer games. You can instill passion in your kids about your department, but if you put the fire department over your kids, they’ll resent both you and your firehouse. Many firefighters clash with their kids, and you can see why, they never miss a drill or call, but can’t ever make it to their kid’s baseball game.
2). There will always be another one.
Calamity is one of the constants throughout human existence. When you join the fire service, you’re part of the emergency response system, and someone will always dial 9-1-1 again. It may be a bummer to miss a “good one” but don’t get too caught up in it because there will always be another one.
3). You’re replaceable.
“The department has been around for 100 years before you and it will be there when you’re gone.” Don’t let your head get so big you think the department would cease to exist without you. You are a critical part of your team. You are part of your firefighting family. Work your ass off. But do not get so cocky that you think the department will forget how to put out a fire without you because it has, it can, and it will. Be proud if it does, that’s the sign of a good team. Stay humble and do what you can to better your department while you’re part of it.
4). Don’t say yes to everything, but when you do, give it all you’ve got.
Don’t be a “yes-man.” You should keep your plate full, but not overstuffed so that things get sloppy and fall off. Do as much as you can while still maintaining a high level of quality. If you sign your name to it, whether it is cleaning toilets or running a scene, do your best. You will build up a personal brand at the firehouse that is trustworthy and respected. Warren Buffet said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
5). Have damn fun!
Firefighting is a blast. It is a serious responsibility, you will face perilous situations, and make difficult decisions. But when you stop having fun, it is time to get out. You’re part of the best group of people, carrying out one of the most honorable services and traditions in our country. Respect that and have fun!
These are the five most important lessons about the fire service my grandfather passed on to me (with some paraphrasing, of course). I’m happy and honored to pass them on and hope you’ve gotten something, however small, out of them because that’s what it is all about.
What do you think? Tell us in the comments! Do you have your own lessons or stories that you pass on or that profoundly impacted you? Consider sharing them with us!
Disclaimer: This is for entertainment only. You must always consider your own personal safety and department policies and procedures.