Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Editor’s pick 2016: Redefining toughness

Jay Shaw   

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Sometimes I feel as though I should have been a firefighter in the ’70s when firemen were firemen and we rode on the apparatus tailboards, our senior officers were one generation removed from the war, and folks appeared to be just a whole bunch tougher. These were the times when you were told to suck it up, quit your complaining, and  “Take it like a man.” When veteran firefighters tell stories about what it was like to be on the job back then, I am so proud of our history and a little fearful for our future if we don’t start to understand just where we are going.

I truly believe the fire service has changed for the better over the years and that the progress we have made is revolutionary. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to go back if it means disrespecting our new traditions or eliminating equality in the fire service. I just sometimes feel we’ve lost some of our moxy and bravado. We still have ties to the foundational para-military roots that are at the core of our service. But with all this softening and erosion of our old-school values I can’t help but wonder if we are tough enough to fight fire any longer or do the dirty work that is the staple of our blue-collar existence.

My boss sent me to a non fire-service conference recently to learn about information governance – basically aligning data management with other agencies. During the session a delegate sitting at the table of eight with me pulled out a colouring book. That’s right, a colouring book – mid session, while the presenter was engaging us about how to protect and secure our data in a manner that is more organized and relevant. I was completely floored. Pencil crayons started to appear along with a sharpener. The delegate looked up every once in a while to sneak a peek at the PowerPoint slide, then returned to sharpening the aqua blue and rose red crayons. Slowly, an image of a flower started to appear on paper in front of me. I was having a hard time concentrating on what I was being paid to learn because of this individual’s steadfast determination to colour. While we were on a session break I returned early to the table with my coffee and saw that the colouring book was a de-stressing workbook.

I chuckled to myself as I pictured a fire officer yelling for water, only to find the pump operator curled up in the cab of the rig colouring because the job was too stressful – fire all around, the commander shouting out orders, hose teams struggling with low pressure, all while the driver operator is sharpening his deep-purple crayon in order to draw and blend the colours of a perfect sunset. What in the heck is happening to us?

I couldn’t wait to tell my daughter, who is taking a first-year university psychology course while still attending high school. I’m very proud of her; she is tough, strong-willed, and has a heart the size of Texas. When I informed her of what I had witnessed she told me, without hesitation, that what I saw was completely healthy and normal. In fact she said, “Dad, you should be more tolerant and accepting of those who use colouring mandalas for de-stressing.”


“What did you just say?” I asked. “You’ve heard about this? You support this?”

After a healthy discussion about all things psychology – and my own ability to relate emergency services issues to the common theme of mental health awareness and my support of our fire, EMS, police and military workers who have suffered very real ailments – I could completely see and agree with her.

Society, and our profession isn’t that weak after all; in fact, in many ways we are braver and tougher than ever before. How brave do you have to be to say you’re in pain? How much torture do you have to take before you ask for help? I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you that I will learn, grow and continue to refine and shape my views about how we should move ahead in the emergency services.

Skills that were needed in the ’70s have changed. While there will always be a need for toughness, how we define, support, recruit, and develop strength at the core level of our service is more important now than ever before. Making sure that we take those steps will be the toughest thing we’ve ever had to do.  

Jay Shaw is a firefighter and primary-care paramedic with the City of Winnipeg, and an independent consultant focused on leadership, management, emergency preparedness and communication skills.  @firecollege

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