Teaching – Our Most Important Task

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In social situations, when we reply to the question, “What do you do?” and reply with, “I’m a firefighter,” the follow-up question is usually, “What the biggest fire you ever put out?” or “What’s the most important thing you ever did?” Right? We’ve all been there. And our “shoot from the hip” reply usually will deal with a major rescue we participated in or a large fire we worked. However, there’s a much more important task we probably carry out each day or that we should carry out each day – and that is, to teach every day! From the newest probie in the department all the way up to the chief, each of us should teach someone, something, every single day.

“What should I teach? What do I know that I could teach?” are probably questions you are asking yourself at this moment. Never forget that if you are now working as a first responder of almost any genre, but specifically a firefighter, you did not reach your current position without learning many, many things. You have garnered a great amount of information over your lifetime, whatever age you are. From that knowledge base, you have certain information that perhaps, you realize that others do not have. When you realize that, we call that a “teachable moment.”

It is important for each of us to remember that there is difference between sharing a thought or idea and teaching a method, a process, a concept. Let’s think back to our days in high school and/or any educational process we endured after that, be it college, trade school, the fire academy, etc. Did our teachers just sit on the corner of the desk and share random thoughts and ideas with us or, did they arrive prepared to teach us the facts and concepts of psychology, sociology, water’s expansion rate when heated, calculating flow rates, tying knots, etc.?

To teach, we must first have that desire to share, to impart knowledge that we have, to some one else who does not have it. For example, look at the current world of social media. While there are millions of scraps of information shared every moment, we, as first responders, tend to gravitate and follow those other first responders we find. While it’s true that there are plenty of first responders who simply share someone else’s scraps, a great deal of the information posted by first responders, is educational in nature.

We see ideas for new methodologies, new systems, new techniques, alternative means to complete a certain task. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree. Then there are times when we offer an augmented method to the original idea that perhaps has worked for us and now, we have just shared (sic. taught) that augmented manner to a whole group of likeminded individuals. Any one of us can do this and probably have. We just have not identified it as a teachable moment.

Now, let’s expand our view of who we can include in our definition of, “students.” Besides our peers, (no matter the rank) and our families, who else do we often have contact with on an almost daily basis? The public! It is here where these teachable moments must be seen as invaluable. For one simple lesson that we provide to a civilian, just might save a life before we ever hear the tones or don our PPE and respond to the alarm.

At this point, I must admit to you, the readers, that I have been an educator for the past fifty years and I try to find a teachable moment in almost every interaction I have with another person. Additionally, I have been blessed to have a very full life, working in numerous fields, some which I have let vanish in the vapors of time and others that have taught me much and from which I continue to share today.

Every year, we observe “Fire Prevention Week,” and there is usually a theme that has been attached to it. If you have read some of my other articles you will know that I do not believe in just “fire prevention week,” nor do I believe that October is, “fire prevention month!” As firefighters (again, no matter our rank) we have a duty and obligation to teach fire prevention and fire safety, every single opportunity that we have! At every interaction with the public, be it a visit to the firehouse or our visit to the local supermarket, we have a golden opportunity to interact with members of the public. And it is my belief that if we do not take advantage of those opportunities, we are derelict in our duties.

Yes, that’s a pretty damning charge, isn’t it. But thing about it. If there are a few of us shopping for the day’s lunch and dinner at the market and we see a parent with a child or two in tow, what does it cost us (as long as we’re not toned out) to walk over and say hello to them? Do we always carry some of our fire prevention brochures in a pocket, so that we can hand a couple out? Or stickers? Do you realize the impression our action could make on both the children and the parent? We could certainly take a couple of minutes to teach them, “Look – Listen – Learn,” “Stop – Drop – And Roll,” or any one of a plethora of fire safety concepts that we’ve learned over the years!

Talk about influence – many firefighters and paramedics who are my age (thus close to retiring if they haven’t already) went into these fields for one reason – the  old television show, “EMERGENCY!Though a dramatic series, it was based on Los Angeles County’s burgeoning new paramedic system, made part of the fire department. L.A. County was flooded with applications after just the first season. Talk about public relations!

And what of the positive public relations we create when, instead of just hurrying through our errand at the market, (since we’re wearing either our day uniforms and/or part of our turnout gear) that as we go through the aisles, we smile and give a nod to the civilians we see?

On social media many of us have addressed the very strong and positive message we send to our civic leaders when we invite them to attend a “Firefighting 101,” seminar at the firehouse. For some of us, that effort has paid off in a number of ways, as we used it to teach our civic leaders just a fraction of the complexities of our jobs. This in turn, can lead them to a better understanding of our need for equipment, staffing, etc. For all intents and purposes, we use the “Firefighting 101” class to teach our community leaders to, “LOOK – LISTEN – LEARN!

I remember one community in the northeast, was having a difficult time convincing the city council to pay for the repair of, what I believe, was the only aerial apparatus in the department. Promises were made and broken, time after time. It was all over one of the social media platforms and there was a lot of more support from other firefighters, but that had no bearing on their situation. I suggested to them to, “take it to the people.”

Let the public know that the only aerial was in the shop and the city council was dragging its feet on its repair. I told them to make a point that the people who live in the couple of 5+story apartment buildings were aware of the situation.

Whether they followed my advice, or they came up with it on their own, I do not know, however they did just that. They scheduled public forums around the city and let the people know all the good things about the fire department and the city, as well as the more difficult situations. That’s all what the citizens needed to hear, and they got the job done. And it happened, one way or another, through a teachable moment.

All too often, we are so wrapped up in everything we do, that we forget the simple things we can do. Don’t compare teachable moments to “pearls of wisdom,” because:

  1. Pearls are relatively rare, and
  2. There’s a big difference between common sense and wisdom.

Teachable moments are simple, as long as we open our minds and set them as a priority as part of our interactions with others. Whether you teach some knots to a new firefighter in your department, or you actively promote fire safety in almost every interaction with the public, teaching can be more powerful than any stream from a smooth bore nozzle or the strike from any axe. While not “pearls,” they are indeed worth their weight in gold!


Steven S. Greene is a former volunteer firefighter/EMT and employee of county EMS. Mr.Greene has also been an educator for over fifty years and continues to teach today. He is the co-founder of Dalmatian Productions and the creator and host of the podcast, “5-alarm Task Force: News & Issues for Today’s First Responders.”….He can be reached at dalmatprod@outlook.com.

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