Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Between alarms: Service above self makes stronger firefighters

Arjuna George   

Features Hot Topics Leadership annex firefighter

I have had the great privilege of being part of the fire service for two decades. Over the last 20 years I have grown, and cultured an understanding about people, service, leadership, management, medicine, and of course fire fighting. In this business it’s all about giving, and making the fire service better. In turn, the service provides you with rewards and life skills that are priceless.

My prior work experience was focused in customer service and I was happy to learn that the fire service is the ultimate customer-service job. Whether volunteer or paid, the fire service is a career, a way of life, and the best education anyone could ask for.

As I look back on the past two decades, I have been reflecting on the many lessons I have learned, the things that have moulded me into the person I am today. I would like to share my top-10 teachings.

  1. Life is precious and far too short – Too often, we respond to someone’s worst day, sometimes witnessing the end of a life. It is an experience that greatly impacts everyone at the scene, expanding outward to family and friends of those present. As young people, we often take life for granted, but as we mature, we witness how life can change in a moment’s notice. Appreciating each and every day is critical. Every morning we should wake up energized and grateful for another day with our families, friends and colleagues.  
  2. Cherish family – Appreciate both your blood family and your fire family. The fire service can engulf your life, because it is the best job in the world, but it can also jeopardize your family. Unfortunately, I know too many firefighters (and their families) who have felt the burden that this line of work can put on loved ones. I live and breathe fire, but I ensure there is balance for the most important people in my life.
  3. Understanding empathy – This amazing job has provided me with a better understanding of empathy. This skill is a tough one to teach, but it is a skill that will make you a better firefighter and better person overall. Due to the nature of our business, we are often in contact with people experiencing extreme emotions. Learning how to handle these situations and communicate with genuine empathy is both powerful and rewarding. Many would call empathy and compassion soft skills; I disagree, and think the term discourages others from embracing empathy. These skills are powerful and imperative; they are hard to master but are so vital.
  4. Leadership skills – Since I was a recruit, I have taken every opportunity to learn, watch, read, write, and study fire-service leaders. For aspiring firefighters, leadership skills will help you become stronger as a person and in your job. Leadership and collaboration are critical life skills that will help you in every aspect of life.  
  5. Life skills – The fire service allows members to develop diverse life skills. When I joined the service I never thought I would learn so much about business, finances, and administration. The skills you build are transferrable to other careers and to your personal life.   
  6. How to deal with stress – Emergency services is one of the most stressful occupations. Dealing with your mental and physical stressors is critical to a long, healthy career. Stress can lead to serious health concerns and must be addressed. I have realized over time that small breaks  – regular mini-vacations – are needed in the fire service. Mental and physical breaks will help you deal with day-to-day stresses.   
  7. A strong work ethic – You can float through the fire service, but if you are committed and have a desire to excel, you will find strength in a strong work ethic. There are so many opportunities to test yourself, and you will become a better firefighter for it. Working outside your comfort zone and testing your physical and mental abilities, ensures that you continue to grow and improve. Life is too short to sit idly by; live each day with a purpose and a passion. If you cannot get to that place, maybe a career change is needed.
  8. Appreciate differences – Develop an appreciation for how others live. It is always important to be considerate of others and appreciate their ways of life. Some may be privileged, others not so much; some may be facing mental-health challenges; trying to understand and appreciate others will help you gain some honourable skills.
  9. Be humble – Being humble is a lost art, but it is a key aspect to being a good person and a good leader. Allow yourself to be humble and not let the stereotypical fire-service hero mentality go to your head. Once again, this is a hard skill to master, but by being humble you will have greater success in leadership.
  10. Give back – Last but not least, I have gained the most valuable lesson: to give. Give more; take less. Avoid entitlement. The fire service is a service-oriented business, but all too often we see a what’s-in-it-for me attitude. To be successful and serve our communities we should be focused on service above self.

Leave the fire service better than when you joined it. You will not be disappointed with what the fire service will give you in return: a sense of accomplishment, meaning, and a greater appreciation of what it means to help others. My wish is that when you decide to retire you will have your own top-10 lists of what the fire service has taught you.

Arjuna George is chief of Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue in British Columbia; he has served with the department since 1997.  @AJGeorgefire


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