Cool Words Don’t Make Firefighters

ImageImage  It is my impression that lately we throw around many slang terms in the fire service that I don’t remember being as prevalent 30+ years ago. Words like, Salty, plug, knob and combat ready. While there has always been fire service slang, it appears to play a larger part in a firefighter’s identity and communication process. Also these terms draw lines in the sand that define you as a “real” firefighter or not. It seems if you’re not “aggressive” you’re not worth your “salt”.  My concern with terminology these days is that words, terms and t-shirt slogans seem to define what a good firefighter is–what makes a good fire department.  If you don’t “make the push”, you’re a wuss. It appears it’s all about the terms that create bonds that make you a “band of brothers”.  After 37 years of active service that was a hard thing for me to learn as an “Old Salt”, that it wasn’t  “walking the walk”, it was “talking the talk”.  And for all these years, I was fooled into believing it was performance that counted, Glad to see I could still learn something after all these years.

Now don’t get me wrong, slang in the fire service is not a bad thing. The armed services have their terms. Law enforcement has their terms, and so do we. What I have a problem with is that those terms seem to define the fire service today, instead of performance.

When I started as a firefighter at Rusling Hose Fire Company, two of my neighborhood friends,  Joe Giglio and Michael Caparbi were already members. On the outside, these were two guys coming of age in the early seventies, full of energy and party attitude as were the rest of us.

However, when at the station these guys were doers. They manned the ambulance during the day. While waiting on calls they were always training. They didn’t brag about it. They didn’t talk about it in cool terms, they just did it. If they were going out on pump training with new drivers they let it be known you were welcome to join, but you didn’t get a special invitation. I, the long haired hippie type, who Assistant Chief Bob Evans said wouldn’t last a year, usually joined along for these unplanned training events. I learned quickly I could learn to hook up to the hydrant, to feel the reaction on a 2 and a half, learn where the equipment was on the engine. All learning didn’t happen at formal drills and schools. Much of it happened at these informal “flashmob” small drill training events. It should be noted we didn’t get drill credit or CEUs, we did it because it was good for us, the department and the public. These two, along with John Gribbin, were infectious to be around at the station. We younger/newer members partied hard on the off time, but when at the firehouse, dedicated our time to being better than the day before at serving the public through formal and informal training. Quite a bit was the unplanned training.

Sure we tried to “one up” each other to prove we were the better than the other. We talked crap about other firefighters and departments. However, what made us better firefighters, better public servants was the quiet, but action-oriented informal leadership of Joe, Mike, John and a few others. They didn’t make comments of “Hey we’re gonna aggressively throw up ladders” as they did on a moment’s notice of deciding to do ladder training. Or “grab the knob we’re gonna practice making the push”, when suddenly deciding to train on flowing handlines.  These high school graduates spoke in technical terms of how to operate a hose line. Never bragging, rarely using “cool” terms.

You joined in on the impromptu training and informal critiques at the firehouse related to recent incidents, because these were the cool guys you wanted to hang with. Not because they wore cool fire t-shirts, (we wore concert t-shirts) or ‘cuz they had cool dirty leathers, (we wore tin and wore it proud). We wanted to be with them cause they were doers…because they were doers who wanted to be the best at their craft…because they had an infectious energy you wanted to be around. These guys weren’t officers at this time. They didn’t hold any special power over us to join in and have the passion and drive to be prepared to performed at our maximum capabilities. It was because they set the tone, set the example that had been shown to be effective at real incidents. It was because they showed through their actions they cared about their fellow firefighters and fire department, and they didn’t show it with “Johnson” all over their shirt. Oh and if you didn’t wear your “mask” inside cause you wanted to be like old salty, they smacked you in the head, because if you hurt yourself they had to take care of you. See, they made it known you had a responsibility to others to take care of yourself so you weren’t a liability.

When it came to the title of “Old Salts”, we called them Old Timers: we even honored them with a recognition party every year. We wanted to emulate their traditions of being responsible, being proud at being the best you can be, being respectful of others. We didn’t want to follow in their footsteps of being “leather lungers”, fighting fires with no coordinated command system and not wearing all your PPE into the fight. And you know the funny thing, these Old Timers didn’t use terms like “fighting the red devil” or “battling the fire dragon”. Could it be these terms never existed before a certain fire movie in the eighties? hmm? So when referring to the lives, times and practices of an Old Salt maybe a few of you should pick up a history book or maybe get off of Facebook creating new Old Salt terms and find out real fire service history at this link:

As I realized I just might fit into the description of an Old Salt, I started to look back and think. I may not have seen the amount of fire a metropolitan area firefighter has, but I’ve performed at many fire, rescue, hazmat and EMS incidents in many roles (I filled in where needed as part of the team). I have seen lots and lots of death and horrific injuries. I had the sad responsibility of being the Incident Commander at a Line of Duty Death of one of my firefighters. My point: please don’t try and define me in your today’s social media terms. Please don’t try interpreting my beliefs to fit in your schema of what an Old Salt should be. Oh and I’m more like a beer, fermented barley, than a margarita glass.

In closing, I ask you take a little more time think about what you post on social media or wear on your body. To be more committed to actions than words. To not hold others to your slang standards, but judge them on their actions and intent. Especially in today’s age there is no one right way to do our job, and tomorrow there will be even more. Create an environment that will make others want to join you. Create an environment where they feel welcome, even if they don’t feel they meet your standards. Listen more, and use that as a tool to lead through action.

So when you think about throwing around a cool word here and cool word there and letting it define the fire service, listen to the song “Signs” from The Five Man Electrical Band, (a song from the Old Salt era). The end of the Chorus is, “Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

That’s how I feel about all these words and slogans thrown around today. However the last verse provides me hope and I hope you use it when judging other firefighters. “So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign. I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine.”


  1. Excellent, well written hitting the nail on the head….34 yrs service just retiring 2013…thanks for putting many of my thoughts / feelings here. Stay strong and safe.

  2. Very Nice article Tony, I owe my entire carer and life to the wonderful friends and leaders of the Rusling Hose Fire Department. I would not have been where or who I am with out YOU, Mike, Bob Sr., John Gribbin, Geroge Evans Sr. And all the great leaders before me who lead me down the right path.

  3. I agree Mike and John being drivers and around were an invaluable resource to any young firefighter. I owe a lot to these two fine gentlemen

  4. As the others said here in the comments you are relating what many can’t seem to articulate. I’ll check out more of your writings in the future. Just to add to the list of essentials is an epic stache and a kilt.

      1. HaHaHa. Yes Parascope where so much that occurred could not be talked about; either because it could not be remembered or it was too taboo for public consumption.

  5. what you said about today’s fire service is so very true . Great article .

  6. absolutely amazing-you are truly an amazing intelligent man-an you continue to help an serve thank you Tony

  7. Nice job Tony. Truer words were never spoken. As one of the old guys I was just speaking to some of our rookies (probies) about this very subject. I think in the old days we used to say, “all talk, no action!”.

    1. Bob you are one of those old timers I reference. All joking aside you are a great role model and sage that young and old should take the time to enjoy your knowledge and wit.

  8. Like an old Ahrens Fox, this is a great piece ! In the little time that it took to read it and I read it twice, it took me back in time and reinforced the pride and appreciation I have for the fire service. This blog sparked several emotions within and for me anyway, is as inspiring as it is eloquent. Nice job ! Stay safe.

    1. Andy thanks for your kind words. I was only writing what many of your were thinking. It’s our responsibility to provide the in coming firefighters with understanding of what we learned and where it is beneficial for them today. Thank you for the service.

  9. Very well stated, I will Quote you to my next Probie Basics Class. It couldn’t have been stated and better.

  10. Hi Tony, While I agree with much of what you say regarding inclusion and exclusion, that no one should ever feel an outsider or be shamed by not having a mustache, or the right tattoo in the firehouse, I want to offer up another perspective here as well.

    I am the owner of RIDE BACKWARDS – Quality Firefighter Athletic Wear. And I cannot tell you how many emails I have received from firefighters all over the world that have told me how a simple t-shirt, a saying or a slogan has inspired them to get back in shape, go to the gym, and got them back climbing the aerial all the way to the top.

    True, cool words do not make firefighters but neither do tattoos, clean rigs, painted firehouses, flying the flag, wearing your dress blues, having a great station gym, a handmade kitchen table, or any other number of a host of activities we do because we take pride in the job and love what we do.

    I don’t like putting labels on people or actions. It is the motive behind what we do, what we wear, what we say… that is where the meaning does or does not lie.

    I think we have to take all cases and people on an individual basis. Stereotyping anyone or anything is a bad call. T-shirt or no t-shirt, slogan or not, if a firefighter is inspired or inspiring his brothers and sisters, take that inspiration where you can find it. We all thrive in a different environment. Some of us need direct sunlight, some of us need shade in order to grow.

    I think the key point is don’t shut anyone out or down because of what they do or do not wear or say. Listen, learn, be active. “Pride and ownership!” Love it, great slogan! Peace to you. Thanks for your work.

    Mia Zierk

    1. Mia I have no argument with your points. However it wasn’t my intent to exclude anyone. It was my point that words, slogans and symbols like a dirty helmet shouldn’t define you. It should be performance. I personally wear many types of t-shirts of bands, emergency services and places I’ve visited. However they don’t define me. I do believe as do many firefighters slogans like ” I fight what you fear” and “find em hot, leave me wet”: is a poor representation of the fire service and reduces the image of the fire service in the public’a eye. As someone who grew up at the end of the ’60s we espoused ” be who you want to be”. I believe that still. The last thing I am is exclusionary. I’m usually seen as outside the box, a non conformist. Again my post is performance 1st, walk the walk; but don’t let symbols define you. I truly glad you posted and provided another point of view. Send me your catalog, I might buy a shirt.

  11. Some of the best times were stopping by one of the Hamilton firehouses and participating in the daily drill. There was always something new to learn or practice. It built confidence and rapport between the services. These sessions left me with lifelong friendships and exemplified the brotherhood. There will always be buzz words in every aspect of public and private industry but all that matters in the end is that the doers do. Strong work Antknee and thank you for the opportunities that have put me where I am today.

  12. COMBAT READY is actually a class taught by instructors from traditions training at fdic. It provides tips and instruction on how to be a better fireman and preventing yourself from getting killed. Please researc

  13. In boston firemen are jakes,in newark they wet the line, in dc engines are wagons, in maryland chiefs cars are buggies, etc etc. the entire job nationwide is cool words/slang. It is what it is

  14. Mike, First of all thank you for your perspective. it truly is appreciated. Second, You are correct on both points. I follow Traditions on social media. I have many fire service colleagues who have attended their classes and hold them in high regard. In no way Am I casting negative opinions on any of them. In my second paragraph I said we use slang and it’s ok. What my emphasis is , is when the words, not actions represent the fire service. And in my traditional views I believe there needs be more initiative to just jump in and do something productive and not be told you have to.

  15. We use a slang term to define the slang weavers, meatball snapperheads. I agree that there are many who are trying too hard to make an already cool job, cooler.

    The job description as applied for is firefighter, your mentors however, were firemen. I believe there-in lies the difference.

    1. Doug that was pretty much my point. in addition from previous experience i see many times newly created bravado as a process to 1 up the last generation. A dangerous trend.

  16. I too put in 34 years in the fire service, and saw much of what are saying coming on at the end. When I started, we called it “esprit de corps”, and it was a way of life as much as a feeling. We started a career because we wanted to, but today it seems like it’s just a job. I am active in our Retired Firefighters Association, and we are trying to bring back the old traditions, but it’s a tough road. Apathy seems to taking over. Some can be traced but budget cuts, but a lot has to do with attitude. Thanks for your words, and the emotion behind them. Please don’t feel like the Lone Ranger on this! There are plenty of us out here who feel as you do.

    1. George I agree it’s tough road, but keep plugging. Even though they don’t jump up and say, I hear you, they’re listening. I try to impart to those coming in that tradition had change and some of the things we did in the past that we thought were cool, are not so cool now. The tradition to be responsible, respectable and team over oneself are not just important but a code to live by. Check Out my Friend Tiger Schmittendorf. He is listening and observing the younger generation and getting positive results.

  17. We’ll said chief, I was always told the guys who talk a lot probably never did. Just go do your job quietly thank everyone when your done ,go home and be ready for what may come next.

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