Cantankerous Wisdom: Stirring the Pot—Safety & Wokeness

Bill Adams is aware of how wokeness can affect the fire industry.

By Bill Adams

There’s an old saying that a watched pot never boils. White hairs believe pots must be stirred occasionally to keep stuff from sticking to the bottom. When there’s too much unstirred kitchen talk in the firehouse, troops can develop sedentary mindsets. That’s when brains coagulate and start sticking to the skull.

A sedentary mindset means things are running smooth; don’t rock the boat and keep all ideas of changing things to yourself. Addressing sedentary mindsets is the solemn obligation of the raisin squad. Bringing up the past might trigger the new breed’s thought process, although most newbies cringe whenever old timers show up for morning coffee.

The attached photograph of a 1954 semi-cab American La France pumper was brought in to stir the pot. I proclaimed its major improvement over older rigs was mounting the air packs on the front of the pump house so firefighters could stand and pack-up en route. There weren’t any seat belts getting in the way. Besides, if you were on the fluffy side, you hardly fit in the jump seats. The young guys were flabbergasted.

Both photos via author courtesy of Jim Burlingame.

I mentioned safety concerns led to purchasing an enclosed cab with open jump seats in 1974. But the Warner & Swasey cab had less jump seat room than the La France. Its Waukesha gas engine ran so hot you didn’t dare rest a bare arm on the treadplate engine enclosure. Although you still had to stand to pack-up en route, I said at least they improved the air pack holders by enclosing them with vinyl covers. That convinced the young guys us old people are beyond repair.

Most firefighters have an inherent compulsion to complain; it must relieve stress. I’ve done my share: First they put doors and roofs on our apparatus. They nagged us to pull up our ¾-length boots. We were told to pull down our helmet earflaps to prevent burning our ears. Then we were forced to use air packs and start wearing bunker pants. They pulled us off the back step and stuck us inside fully enclosed cabs. Wearing seat belts became mandatory.

Most of us felt such rules and regulations were an infringement upon our “rights,” and we complained—but we still followed the rules. They were for our own safety; although we didn’t know it at the time. The powers-that-be let us gripe as long as we complied. From what I gather, some of the new breed don’t dare complain for fear of offending someone. Sadly, wokeness has invaded the inner sanctum sanctorum of the firehouse kitchen. Will it soon affect fireground operations?


One definition of wokeness is being “aware”—regardless of the reason or one’s personal agenda. In the firehouse kitchen, “woke” people are the whiners and bellyachers that urinate and groan about everything. Most don’t like apple pie, sunshine, fresh air, and probably their own images in the mirror. Some firefighters are caught between a rock and a hard place; they don’t want to be accused of not being “woke.” Is the day coming when firefighters might be criticized for “not thinking right?” What the hell is happening?

Lieutenant Mike Ciampo (FDNY) wrote an excellent column in Fire Engineering titled “Redundancy” which triggered this tirade on wokeness. Most of the basic fireground procedures that Ciampo mentioned are done—or started—automatically by seasoned crews. But I’ve been told that times are changing, and some firefighters might be reluctant to do anything automatically for fear being reprimanded for not being “right” or woke.

I’m not talking about freelancing, which is detrimental to any fireground operation. Freelancers are dangerous and should not be allowed on the fireground. The crux of this article is: Should firefighters automatically do what they were taught to do or wait until they are told what to do?

Years ago, firemen—and most were back then—were taught to react to specific criteria on the fireground. Well-oiled (trained and experienced) companies can put their rig into service without being given explicit orders to do everything from buckling up their coat to setting the parking brake. Today, some might be apprehensive about receiving a rectal realignment if they don’t choose properly or if they don’t wait for orders. That’s a sorry state of affairs.

Related: Cantankerous Wisdom: Keep Politics & Wokeness Out of the Fire Station!

Fireground operations are often very fluid. Conditions can change rapidly and firematic officers have the right and obligation to adjust the response to them. A deteriorating fireground with extenuating circumstances can justify “other than ordinary” operations. However, should an engine company stand around waiting for the Boss to do a 360 before—at the least—prepping for action?

At a residential call, while waiting for Lieutenant Can’t-Make-A-Decision to ask Command for directions, should the ladder company crew start pulling ground ladders off the rig to access the second floor on multiple sides—as they were taught? Will the Lieutenant later chastise them, saying he’s the one who decides which ladders to pull?

Many firefighters that’ve been around for a while might show disdain for weak and timid leaders—especially those who are fearful of making a mistake or offending someone. Do dithering decision makers expect rank-and-file firefighters to show the same timidness? Many firefighters aren’t afraid of offending someone—inadvertently or not — it’s part of firehouse camaraderie. Wokeness be damned—lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way!

It’s not natural for firefighters to stand around waiting for orders to do something. Doing so may not always end well. As an example, in 1876 when George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry left Fort Abraham Lincoln for the Little Big Horn River, he said not to do anything until he came back. He didn’t, and they didn’t.

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