“150 Years of Tradition Unimpeded by Progress”

The Ultimate Insult!

150 years of... 1Okay, it was a funny moment in the movie Backdraft. The scene when Brian McCaffrey, aka Baby McCaffrey, and his probie buddy from the fire academy, Tim, are in the firehouse kitchen serving lunch and you see the sign up on the wall with the statement, “150 Years of Tradition Unimpeded by Progress.” Yes, it got a good laugh, and still does. And there is no argument that a lot of firefighters deep down inside really do like the movie. They may not say it out loud or admit it, but they do. Heck, my wife was even in Backdraft. For real! Come on, how can you be a firefighter and not like a good firefighter movie. By the way, not to make some of you feel old, but “Baby McCaffrey” in real life would have like 23, 24 years on the job right now. Just saying.

I remember going to see the movie with my wife Jami and walking out of the theater with her crying and seeing my Fire Chief Bob Rubel sitting in the theater with tears in his eyes. The ending was dramatic and sad, the loss of a firefighter, and I know you stood up and cheered when they served the papers to that corrupt Alderman Marty Swayzak. The movie was special for me not just because my wife was an extra in it, but because one of the “real” Backdraft brothers, Ray Hoff, was my good friend and the best man at our wedding. Ray retired from Chicago as a Battalion Chief and continued to make a difference by teaching and training firefighters until his untimely passing. And he’s still making a difference today!


Reality vs. Hollywood

The movie was great and all and had some great lines, but the more I progressed through my career and the more I understood what we really do and why we do it, I came to not like that line anymore–“150 Years of Tradition Unimpeded By Progress.” I actually became offended by it. Maybe more of us should.

I realized a long time ago just how special firefighters were and, just as important, how smart they were. Yes, I’ve had to guard against being too impartial, but I’m not apologizing to anyone. The fact of the matter is they ARE smart, they DO care, and they ARE progressive! “150 Years of Tradition Unimpeded By Progress.” Really??

The Chicago Fire Department is loaded with great firefighters and have a very good reputation. They’re not perfect and will be the first to tell you they’re not. But they’re great at what they do and have some pretty smart and progressive people working there. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to teach with, hang with, and ride out with some of the best in the CFD. As funny as that line in Backdraft was, it couldn’t be further from the truth. All those years I never heard any of them say “Dig in ____ damnit!” or “You go, we go!” or “I was up there doing it!” What I do remember was having the opportunity to learn from some of the best, and I know I’m a better firefighter because of them.

Let’s just talk about that line for a minute and take a look at what we do. Now, let me preface all of this by saying yes, we have some that are resistant to change and no, we are not perfect. No one person and no one occupation is. But don’t confuse being a wee bit resistive to change to “you’re going to have to prove it to me” because we’ve had people sell us a bunch of crap before because it was hot and sexy at the time, shiny, or had a blinking light on it. Firefighters are some of the most progressive people I know. So as for “150 Years of Tradition Unimpeded By Progress,” just take a look at the list below, keeping in mind it is a short list.

Look at the typical fire engine or ladder truck of today. The technology and the design and specifications that went into them are incredible compared to the “old days.” We’ve come a long way from horses, buckets of water, and open cab rigs. “150 Years of Tradition Unimpeded By Progress.” Really??

Our protective clothing and SCBAs are nothing like they were way back then. No more rubber coats and gloves; we have better helmets; and we’re not pumping air into a smoke hood from a set of bellows outside or strapping a canister mask to our face. “150 Years of Tradition Unimpeded By Progress.” Try again!

Emergency Medical Services is nothing like it was in the “old days” and the ambulances and equipment we use today are a medical technology phenomenon. Just look at what a paramedic in today’s world has to go through in school and with their continuing education. “150 Years of Tradition Unimpeded By Progress.” Come on!

Look at vehicle extrication–better yet look at all of our specialized rescue areas. How can you not acknowledge the level of professionalism, expertise and intelligence of the firefighter of today?

And how about everything we do with public education and in fire prevention? Look at what we’re doing with our community risk reduction and outreach programs. Are we perfect? No!! No one is! But we’ve come a long, long, way.

Communications, including portable and mobile radios, fire station alerting systems and our dispatch centers and the people who work in them. “150 Years of Tradition Unimpeded By Progress.” Really??

Thermal imagers, our tools, our training facilities, preplanning and training software, self-rescue devices, P.A.S.S. devices, fitness and wellness programs, and the list goes on and on and on.

Firefighters have more opportunities for outside training, certifications, and new methods from universities now that help them earn that college degree that they never thought they’d be able to obtain.

“150 Years of Tradition Unimpeded By Progress.” I don’t think so.


Tradition vs Tradition

Often today we here people within the fire service–or from those hanging onto to it from the outside–that firefighters are NOT progressive and that pride and tradition are bad things. But you see, I like the traditions within the fire service. Not those of doing dumb things and getting firefighters hurt and killed, but those that celebrate our heritage and those that recognize the special people that do what we do.

I love the ceremonies that celebrate just how special the fire service is. Those pipes, drums and honor guards, and the way we acknowledge those who have committed to a life of honor and service. I love that tradition.

And when we talk about pride, I’m not talking about the pride associated with arrogance. I’m talking about the pride associated with ownership. That whole this is my engine, my ambulance, my firehouse, that’s my captain, this is my department, my crew thing. To be honest, I think that’s kind of cool! Pride and Ownership!


The Ultimate Insult

So here we are today and I have come to the point where I think “150 Years of Tradition Unimpeded By Progress” is the ultimate insult to not just a firefighter but to the entire fire service. Firefighters are proactive. We wouldn’t be where we are today if we weren’t. But to call a firefighter names, say we’re going backwards, refer to some as “thinking firefighters”–when what you’re really saying is that if you don’t agree with us (on whatever it is) you’re not a thinking firefighter. Well, not only do I think that’s wrong, but it lacks professionalism and is a wee bit childish. Those that call themselves a brother or sister in the fire service and remember where they came from would never allow that to happen. Hey, we argue and have our spats and our food fights, and, yes, at times we want you to prove something to us before we change again. As we said before, we are not perfect, but we are a family!

In closing, keep your eyes (and your mind) open. Stay fresh. Pay attention to anything new coming out. Train every chance you can and read something about this job every day. Volunteer or career, being a firefighter is one of the most incredible things you can do in life. That whole “Service Above Self” thing is pretty special.

“The funny thing about firemen is… Night and day they are always firemen .” I like that line from Backdraft.

Be safe and let me know what you think.

If you’d like to have Chief Lasky out for a presentation please contact him at www.PrideAndOwnership.com


  • Bryan Gore says:

    Great blog chief. There is nothing like that rejuvenated feeling of a good lecture, fresh new training, or training a class and seeing the new knowledge sink in. After enjoying your lecture in Rhode Island, learning from the man vs. Machine training, and reteaching the level 1001 again I am reminded of the first step into a boot as a green volunteer and how exciting it is. Learning and refreshing breaks down that “unimpeded’.

  • Matt Tobia says:

    Well said, brother. For those on the inside – no words are necessary. For those on the outside – no words can suffice.

  • Dan Hanagan says:

    Great article on a great movie. I have referenced that same message about tradition and questioned firefighters on their progress. As a firefighter for 26 years and a fire instructor, I love the job. Lt. Dan.

  • Tim Casey says:

    One place we do still struggle is with our culture is when we are feeling overwhelmed with stress, depression, anxiety and need help. I attempted suicide 20 years into my career because of my depression and a feeling of burnout. I never shared any of my feelings with my brothers, I was a senior plugman I couldn’t let myself be seen as weak unable to cope, or man up. So suicide was a better option than seem weak. Unfortunately I believe many of us are still making that choice, it seems almost like a tradition as I knew a lot of brothers that had succeed with there attempt.

  • Dave Dinelli says:

    Chief, I prefer to look at the quote “150 Years of Tradition Unimpeded By Progress.” like this. 150 years of answering the call, 150 years of putting the people we serve before ourselves, 150 years of not saying “we don’t do that”, 150 years of when the call comes in I will do everything in my power to get in there and get your loved ones out. I don’t care what the “survival profile” is If I can physically put hands on that person they are coming out with me. I hear too many people saying that “I’m the most important person on the fireground” To me it is about going head first into a person’s worst day and not saying no.
    The one thing I’ve learned in almost 30 years is if I don’t do it, if I say it is too hard, or risky, no one else will.
    So I’d like to keep the “150 Years of Tradition Unimpeded By Progress.” knowing that the real meaning is something deep inside us.

  • Ron Ayotte says:

    Tradition and progress go hand in hand… look at the military. They have hundreds of years to traditions, yet they have progressed to what it is today. We are no different. While the equipment has changed, the core mission of the job hasn’t… protecting life and property.

  • james nolan says:

    very true on all counts. pride is not arragance, if expressed in its true meaning. I am proud to have served 31yrs as a firefighter,from pro to station commander.in australia.change is inevitable,but change for the not right reasons is not good for anyone. gr8 movie gr8 theme gr8 actors .be safe brothers and sisters.thinking of you all

  • Ross Bartoe says:

    I am a retired firefighter Chief, I read your post and it is well said. Now for my take on this…That is that while 150 years or tradition unimpefded by progress is that we have the same heart, the same dedication to our job as those of many years ago. While I agree that with change comes a better fire service and less loss of life, we need to hold dear the dedication that the fire service gives us. To remember that no one is left behind goes the soul of what all of us are. Dedicated to those who are our brothers and sisters in the fire service. I take this saying as meaning that no matter who long the fire service goes it will still hold tradition to each other and the fire service.

  • Jack Weiser says:

    I’m not aware of the origin of the phrase “Service above self” but it is the slogan of Rotary International as well!

    Thank you for reminding us of the giant leaps we in the fire service have actually seen take place!

  • Bobby Halton says:

    Rick, great post I had a slightly similar thought in my September 2014 Editorial:

    Don’t Throw out the Baby with the Bathwater

    The fire service is always had a very interesting perspective on change. For as long as anyone can remember we been opposed to it. Or at least that’s what you would believe if you listen to some of the discussions that go on routinely when we get together. At almost every fire service gathering or whenever you flip through one of the fire periodicals or visit a fire website you can always find someone quoting the often used phrase “1000 years of tradition unimpeded by progress”. Unfortunately you’d have to be completely deaf dumb and blind to even remotely believe that line applies in any way to the fire service. The other interesting thing about those of us who believe that the fire service has been opposed to progress is that they always identify the other guy as being the one opposed to it and not themselves.
    The real truth is that the fire service has been one of the best examples of an institution changing with technology, society and research. Look at how our gear has adapted as we have discovered new fabrics and new methods for putting these fabrics together. Look at how our command system has evolved and continues to evolve as we learn more about how the brain works and how people react under pressure and stress. Look at how our apparatus have evolved from hand-drawn carriages which were lamented when they phased into horse-drawn carriages and how the horses were missed when they phased into motorized apparatus.
    We have always been incredible change agents and will always be incredible change agents but change needs to be managed and that is where sometimes things get away from those involved in change. Change in the fire service is not immune to having things get away from us. There is a scientific principle called the normalization of deviance and the related concept of drift into failure which is also the title of an excellent book on the subject by Sidney Dekker. Normalization of deviance is generally defined this way “The gradual process through which unacceptable practice or standards become acceptable. As the deviant behavior is repeated without catastrophic results, it becomes the social norm for the organization.”
    And drift into failure as described by Dr. Dekker has five features. First just like on the fire ground uncertainty about the event or the environment, a scarcity of resources as in the initial alarm, and time pressures which force us to make decisions that sometimes deviate from our normal safety procedures. Second drift happens in small incremental steps almost invisible in review. Third regardless of how large a system is enough small changes can lead to catastrophic results. Fourth is unruly technology, it is often misunderstood how our technologies are going to interact until it’s too late. And fifth is that complex systems can sometimes overwhelm and subvert the very structure that is supposed to keep them from failing.
    It’s important to understand drift into failure and normalization of deviance because it has affected the fire service in the past. In the late 70s early 80s as we became enamored with our newfound technological advances, improved bunker gear, improved radio communications, pre-connected lightweight inch and three-quarter hose, and improved command systems, we began to focus more on our command systems and our ability to penetrate fires more rapidly and more deeply than before.
    In a classic example of the normalization of deviance when the mayor of Bipperville found out that the Bopperville Fire Department was staffing with three he decided it could work there too. Then so did Kipperville and Copperville. Some politicians even thought, “Well two should work then. And so began the drift in our staffing numbers, we lost the doorman, we began to vent more haphazardly, we stopped paying attention to wind direction, lost sight of riding positions, began to advance without backup lines, and backup lines became redundant instead of bigger and the list goes on and on all small changes to the system but all had the ability to cause our systems to fail. And when brought together could create the perfect storm on a dynamic and complex fire ground.
    We are change agents and it’s important that we respect the hard learned lessons of the past while at the same time embracing and integrating the newfound knowledge and technology of today. There is tremendous wisdom to be found in what used to be called common sense. One of the best pieces of advice comes to us from the technological advances in the 1800s. Back then when homes were constructed right off the kitchen was generally built a small porch or enclosure. The reason this area was created was to house the bathtub.
    On Saturday night the matron of the household would heat water on the kitchen stove and fill the tub. The head of the household generally the father would take the first bath followed by the matron, followed by the oldest son followed by the next child and the next and the next and the next until finally the baby got its opportunity to be bathed in what was generally at this point cool sewage. After the baby was bathed someone had to throw out the bathwater. From which we get the old saying “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater”.
    We need to embrace what we have learned from experience and tradition for much of it comes at a dear price, we need to embrace what we are discovering in our research for it is incredibly valuable and accurate. But we mean to be mindful not to throw out the wisdom with the data.

  • Michael Rapp says:

    Ray Hoff is a man among men. Honorable, strong…
    He is a stand up guy and was a great chief… not many like him then and certainly few left like him today.

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