Cultural Differences and Similarities of Military and Fire Service

 

By Charlie Bausman

The Fire Service is filled with military veterans. To give you a snapshot, my Captain was a USMC Artillery Forward Observer, my fellow firefighter was a Navy Corpsman in a Search and Rescue unit, and I was a USMC Infantry officer.

Perhaps it’s a testament to the kind of personality that’s attracted to high-risk jobs, or a desire to be part of a team again. Regardless, the Fire Service and Military share many traits, but also differ in several important ways.

When asked by military friends what the firefighter job is like, I generally explain that it’s incredibly similar, with 99% less bullshit. Below are some differences and similarities from my own experiences.

 

Personnel Management

The Marine Corps has high expectations for performance, standards, and discipline. It also tends to have very little trust in its junior enlisted levels, with Privates to Sergeants often micromanaged in every facet of their life. Get in trouble on or off duty, expect a NJP. I can’t properly explain how frustrating it was as a lieutenant to see young Marines get the book thrown at them for minor infractions that would effectively end their career.

In my experience in the Fire Service so far, each firefighter is treated as an adult. Know your job, accomplish the given task, take care of your gear. If you get in some kind of trouble, it’s resolved at the crew level 99% of the time.

 

Approach to Training

Workups in the military are affected by multiple variables. Large Scale Exercises (LSE) at the Division level, Regimental exercises, Battalion exercises, and certifying events to ensure a unit is ready to deploy only scratch the surface of requirements.

The nature of officer progression leads to fast-revolving rotations of battalion, regimental, and division commanders. Each wants to make his mark on the unit, and training events are planned accordingly.

Those factors (amongst others) lead to many days away from home under very harsh physical and environmental conditions. That’s part of the job, but I often questioned what we were doing during huge exercises that had little value for the ground level troopers. My close friend, who is now a Company Commander, said he has spent 75% of his workup in the field, away from home. This is before leaving for 6-9 months on deployment overseas. He has a newborn baby.

In the Fire Department, any time we are on shift, we are in a ‘deployed mindset’. You might get a fire or medical call at any moment. We dedicate time to training every shift. Sometimes it’s tough, physical work, and sometimes it’s a simple round table discussion. We’re not rushing through a work up to support multiple levels of command… we are sharpening skills and maintaining proficiency at the crew level. It’s a more common sense approach to training.

 

Career Advancement and Personnel Retention

Whether officer or enlisted, the military has an Up or Out policy. You’re generally in a billet for 1-2 years, before moving up to the next one. If you don’t promote on the approved timeline, you’re getting kicked out. The option to stay in a billet or at a certain rank simply doesn’t exist.

Personnel retention in the Marine Corps is notoriously low, partially due to some of the circumstances listed already. After each deployment, it seemed like we had a 50% turnover from guys getting out.

The Fire Service is the polar opposite. If you want to stay a back step firefighter for your entire career, you can. If you promote to an officer rank on a truck or engine, you could stay there for as long as you like. I saw an Instagram post the other day of an NYFD firefighter who retired after 35+ years riding in the back at the senior firefighter rank – think about the amount of knowledge that man has doing one job for his entire career.

Personnel retention is also very high. Guys might move from department to department once or twice over the course of a career, but I haven’t seen very many who get out of the fire service entirely.

 

Brotherhood of the Jobs

This is where both the military and fire service have much in common. The brotherhood developed through a dangerous job seems to be natural. It’s what I loved about the Marine Corps, and it’s what attracted me to the fire service.

In both careers, you spend a lot of time with your ‘co-workers’. You have like-minded individuals who know that the man or woman to your left and right have your back if things go wrong. You’re expected to work efficiently as a tight-knit crew to accomplish the mission.

I love my crew like I loved the Marines in my unit. It’s as simple as that.

 

Physical Fitness

This is where the Fire Service could use some work.

Fitness is a way of life in the military – if you’re weak and can’t get the job done, you better correct it or expect to be trained accordingly. Every branch of the military has some sort of high stakes annual fitness test. If you can’t pass it, you’re getting the boot.

The Fire Department I work for only had an entry-level fitness test. We’re allowed one hour a day for PT, but no direction is provided in terms of programming. Some firefighters are very fit, some are average, and some definitely fall into the category of unfit.

However, priority on physical fitness seems to be coming. It’s certainly a generational trend, but newer guys seem to put a much higher emphasis on training.

 

 

Joining the Fire Service was the best professional decision I’ve made. I enjoy the nature of the work, and I enjoy being part of a team. When I initially got out of the military, I missed certain aspects of it. Now, I’m grateful for the opportunities experiences in the military, but I don’t miss it.

 


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