Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bigger than you and me

I went to my third firefighter graduation at my department this week. This is the ceremony where the new recruit who have been training for the last 5 months are finally given their badges and released to start running calls. It's a big deal for those who are participating, because it's the realization of a goal that used to seem to far into the future, but what's less talked about at the time is what a big deal it is for the department.

My first graduation was as an outsider, when my brother was just joining up. I didn't know anybody there except him, and I didn't have any particular interest in firefighting at the time, but I remember being very moved by the ceremony. Afterwords my eyes were a little wet as I congratulated him and it was a silent drive back to college for me as I thought about what I'd seen.

My second was as a participant, a new firefighter excited to start doing stuff that mattered. After my brother pinned my badge on me, I could hardly wait to get out of the building and to start doing all those things I'd been training for all those months.
Now I've just been to my third, as a member of the department welcoming in the new blood. It's emotional, but in a different way: I'm proud to be part of such an organization, one that was important enough and meaningful enough to these outsiders that they decided to invest and sacrifice of themselves in order to be part of it as well.

And it will keep happening. Year after year, new men and women will take up the mantle as the most experienced ones start to step down. Logically it would seem that this adds up to a department that is of a constant status. Like a glass of water, some is poured out, some refilled, and you're always looking at basically the same thing. But this is inaccurate; any organization like this is actually cumulative. It's more like a river: individual drops of water travel through on a seemingly set course, but slowly the water as a whole continues to erode a new path for itself, shifting the banks and making it's way as a result of all the drops that has ever flowed through it.

The department will always have one chief, but it's current culture and structure is the result of layer upon layer of past leadership. We will always have new recruits, but our training and policies improve every year as a result of experiments on and suggestions from each group of orange-helmets that step up to do their part.

The continued existence and renewal of this entity, this fire district, is an ongoing validation of the fact that what we are doing here is worthwhile and necessary. The life of this department reaches far into the future, as long as there are people in this area to protect, and each firefighter through his participation gains for himself a piece of the immortality that such organizations by their nature preserve for their alumni.

It's bigger than you and me, and in a way this humbling realization makes you want to pay tribute to such a cause. But what to do? What do you give an entity with no emotion or consciousness? How do you show loyalty to an intangible abstraction? In my opinion, the only show of appreciation that has any lasting effect is the kind of participation that only makes us better.

Do nothing to detract from our reputation, but in all encounters give others reason to respect us. Teach the new generations of our ranks not just with the knowledge that you were taught, but also with the wisdom gained from your own mistakes, and let them start off knowing more than you did. Most importantly (for my department anyway), continue to provide a helping hand as long as there is even one person out there who needs it.

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