Being in the fire service seems to imply to others that we are tough and armour plated. I don’t like that image because I think it overshadows the single most important attribute that most of us in our profession exude – compassion.
It’s where that compassion comes from that I find interesting.
Some of us have had a tough go of life thus far. We may come from homes that are not so healthy or wealthy, have experienced severe rejection or great loss. Life doesn’t always work out according to our wants or wishes. Some would say that’s life, often in a way that offers little consolation or mercy. It’s hard for others to know us and to understand where we have been, unless we share our experiences with them. Indeed, many of us are probably afraid of others seeing us to our cores, uncovered, exposed.
Sure, we all put our best feet forward and go to work each day with a positive attitude, willing to serve others. It would be unproductive to carry the baggage of all of life’s disappointments, personal and professional, and go through life with a dark cloud above us, only to discourage others.
I recently spoke at the Ontario Municipal Fire Prevention Officers Association’s learning symposium on the balance between being professional and personal at work. Speaking in front of more than 100 colleagues was challenging. My goal was to project my vulnerability as a person and as a fire-service professional, and urge others to do the same. To my mind, success isn’t necessarily about having it all together; it’s about choosing to be happy with who we are and not what we are.
If I was going through a rough time or had experienced a major disappointment, I would prefer to talk or share those feelings with somebody who had had a similar experience; people who understand what you have experienced are often more compassionate and empathetic than those who have not.
Eleven years ago, my second oldest son died suddenly; he was 11 years old. This was the most tragic event of my life. Many of you probably didn’t know that about me but now that you do, it may change how you perceive me or my attitude toward life.
This revelation is not a plea for sympathy; it is intended only to illustrate that sharing personal information can provide a better picture of who we are, why and how we do the things we do.
From this loss, I understand what others may experience if they lose a child. I have met with parents and have shared my experiences with them and offered advice about what helped me to get through that difficult time.
I remember the day that my son, Michael, died and the choices I faced as a husband and father to four other children. With the support of friends, family and faith, the journey has been difficult, yet positive; I believe I found the positive things in the choices I made. I had to be strong for the family even though I was sad. My reactions to this sad event would become a reference point for acceptance and healing for Michael’s older brother, his two younger brothers, and his sister. We are very grateful to have had Michael in our lives as long as we did. Choosing to be thankful was the most important step on this new path. To some, this seemed impossible and wrong but for me it was the key to pressing forward. Life was not going to be the same but it was not going to stop either.
We all face choices every day. What we do and say and, more importantly, how we respond to situations are a true testament of who we are. We can think ahead of time of the challenges we may face, such as confrontations with co-workers, or professional or personal disappointments. It’s not as if we can script our responses, but thinking about what makes us the way we are will help us make good decisions about how we respond to these types of challenges.
Very few people come to this realization naturally. The rest of us have to work on it. Reading good books – even the self-help ones – can add new perspectives to life that can change us without us even being aware of it. Attending conferences and listening carefully to others as they share their experiences also helps to add perspective. Spending more time with positive people is a bonus.
There is no greater success than being who we are meant to be. Taking risks by divulging personal details may result in failure. But it is better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all, and that builds character.
It has been said that life is about the journey, not the destination. I believe life is about the journey and the destination. The journey will be fulfilling, but if putting in time until you reach that magic retirement factor is your goal, you will most likely not feel satisfied about your destination.
We must not ask, “What is it I truly want from my career?” but rather, “What can I give to my career?” I believe that we will feel the most return on our investments in our careers when we have the hearts of givers rather than receivers.
Ken Sheridan is captain of fire prevention in Norfolk County, Ont. He is a certified fire prevention officer and certified fire and life safety educator for the Province of Ontario. He is a graduate of the Dalhousie University fire administration program and has more than 23 years in fire suppression and fire prevention. Contact him at
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