I didn’t know much about firefighting until my little brother, Asad, joined as a volunteer in Sterling, Virginia two years ago. I didn’t know what to expect, and I didn’t realize the full depth of the world he had become involved in. At 19, my brother had joined a culture of young (and old) individuals willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to make a difference.
By watching him grow, I learned a lot about what passion and purpose can do for a person. Particularly, it makes you into the kind of person that everyone should strive to become in their career: strong willed, hard working, and a master of the craft.
I asked him for a suggestion on who I could interview from his station for this series and he immediately suggested his crew’s Lieutenant, Corey Burke. Corey is a full time fire fighter at the airport and a volunteer Lieutenant at the local fire station. He dedicates his life to service, but even more so, to building a strong community.
This post is not only for anyone interested in firefighting, but for anyone interested in what it takes to build that kind of work ethic within a community. This is how. You find something worth doing and you spend your whole life trying to perfect that. This is the life of a craftsman.
There’s a lot to be learned—and it can all be applied to any field you’re in.
To The Chats
How did you decide to get into the fire service?
It just happened. I have an uncle who’s fire chief in Whitefield, NH—out in the boondocks. I would just go to the firehouse and hang out when I was visiting my grandparents. Then, I was interested in sports medicine, so I thought getting my EMT would be interesting.
My high school offered a fire and EMT class, so I took that. My friend volunteered at a local station (Loudoun County). So I just joined. I didn’t do a ride along, didn’t ask questions. Just went to the website and joined.
It just clicked. I was interested in the military. This worked because I didn’t have to leave school to do it. After a few months of being here, I didn’t want to leave. It was senior year—one of those last ditch efforts where I didn’t know what to do with my life.
What was your path leading to the fire service? Were there other career choices? Why not choose that?
My thought process was get into the one college I applied to (UMBC) or just go to community college and do an English program or something. I didn’t get into my first choice, so I just decided to keep working at the fire station. I just really enjoyed it and it all worked out for a reason.
I don’t know how to explain it—it’s the strangest thing. It doesn’t matter what happens outside of this fire house. It’s a constant crazy whenever I come here, stuff just makes sense. It’s like a reset.
All these guys here, everyone has a different trade outside of volunteering. Then they come here, and this is exciting for them. This is that extra boost of excitement. Your brother is a life blood here. His passion is untouched.
It doesn’t matter what happens outside of this fire house. Stuff just makes sense. It’s like a reset.
Who are the kind of people that become firefighters?
We’re two sides of the coin: one side is middle aged guys looking for something to do, the other is 16 year olds who waited their entire lives to ride fire trucks.
This fire house in particular is special—Loudoun County. They’ve created something here where everyone who works here is here for each other. Not here for the trucks. They’re here for the guys. The guys created this atmosphere.
It is. It’s crazy how it’s turned into this crazy direction.
Why this station?
I think it’s the preload. We have a tenure of leadership and guys that stuck around over a decade. Our captain, couple of tower drivers—those guys started here 13, 14 years ago. They were already well developed when I and others came along. We fell under them, they took us under their wing. Our success is based on what they set up for us. We just keep the ball rolling. We do what we’ve seen before. When we run calls, it’s based on what’s been done before.
The guys that work here want to learn and be the best. They latch on. They’ve created the highest level of standard. You have to exceed the minimum to be here. You have to be proud of your fire truck. We have guys who show up every shift and still do extra shifts. Not because we’re short or need people, but because they want to ride with us. They rearrange their personal lives to be here. They get more out of being here than work sometimes.
It’s an entire culture. It’s a fireman culture taken to the next level.
Do you think everything happens for a reason?
I think part of it is that I didn’t go to college. I probably would’ve taken photography and turned into hippie. I saw myself going down that path. My wife and I are still interested into photography. We talk about if we have the funds, making our own dark room and doing it on the side. I could be a fireman and a photographer on the side, not the other way around.
I tried college, but it just didn’t work. My heart wasn’t in it, therefore it reflected in my grades. I wasn’t enjoying it and lacked direction.
This place was going. I was on a progressive path here. And there’s no real college program for this job—this job is just a trade.
What are some of the most the most important things you’ve learned on the job?
- PRIDE. It’s a big deal how you look and are presented. It means a lot to be proud of your uniform. We wipe down our fire truck after every call. So the public knows we care and it looks good. People donate money, not out of taxes. This is volunteer run.
- LEADERSHIP. There is a hierarchy that people work their way up. You have to respect the chain of command because it’s there for a reason and helps the station run most efficiently. The leaders also look out for you. Now as an officer I care about the guys around me. That’s all I do. I put my guys at such a high level. I’m not concerned about the fire ground, I care about their safety.
- OWNERSHIP OF MISTAKES. Not to be afraid of them, harness them and learn by them.
- DO RIGHT BY MY BROTHERS. Your crew becomes like family.
- CONFLICT RESOLUTION. The deescalation of situations. You go into somebody’s house. They’re fighting. You have to manage what resources people need, and keep my guys safe at same time. What’s the atmosphere of the scene? Can we change it?
- CULTURE. Fire service is a culture around the country. Anyone any other house will let you in and show you around and give you [their fire station] patch. Other fire guys will just roll up and visit. Within that sect, there is a sub culture and counter culture. There’s a group of guys who are trying to change the culture back and put pride back in the fire house. Pride did leave the stations at one point.
Now there are these blogs, like Fully Involved, that capture the culture and everyone eats up what they write. Thousands and millions learn about work ethic and pride and issues from these blog. These guys reach so many through social media, too. The guy who started the blog, Mark Vonappen, also traveled around the country and held trainings. So many people showed up, it was sold out. A couple of us went from Loudoun. It was cool to connect with the larger community of fire guys in that way.
What does it take to build confidence in yourself and in your work?
In 3 years, 300 guys have come and gone. That’s a lot of guys for a small fire house in Sterling, VA. This isn’t NYC. They come in, they want to make a difference and positive impact immediately. You can’t do that immediately. It’s impossible. They care about the outcome, they just can’t make it happen on their own and that bugs them.
They come in and get a mentor. They keep face. They get through it. Every time they have a success, we repeat it. Every behavior and skill is repetitive because it matters to be fast, efficient, and safe. Crawl before you walk, run before you sprint. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.
You get somebody do a perfect line stretch, you let them do it 5 or 6 times. Don’t mind fuck them the first time. Let them focus on that perfect stretch and get it right, then move on to next. We treat firemen here like master craftsmen.
Our Captain Keith Firman has said before, “Confidence comes from proficiency, not competency.” Proficiency means you can’t mess up. Competence means you can do it, but do it at most basic level.
Do you feel fulfilled by your career? What do you enjoy most?
I do. Best compliment you can ever get is having a fireman you admire tell you you did a good job. Or you find out through the grapevine that you’re told that you’re a good fire man or good at your craft. That’s next to someone from the public telling you you did a good job.
You’re not here for a praise. When people walk up to you and say, “Thank you, I love firemen.” It’s nice, but it makes you uncomfortable. We’re not looking for praise for showing up.
Final thoughts on finding your way as a 20 something?
I met my wife at the station. She did the EMT program. She was told, if you want to run calls, you need to ride at Loudoun—this is the busiest ambulance company in region.
She was the EMT on the engine. We were just talking. Goofy ass story inserted here: We hit it off, we dated. She’s been very supportive. She’s thinking abut coming back now that our son’s in school. Same time my son was born, my career at the airport kicked off. Her support and understanding of how important this job is has been essential. There’s a direct correlation between how good and how serious you take this job and how safe it is for everyone around you.
In March we lost 80 something fireman in the country. That’s ridiculous. Without her support, I wouldn’t still be here. She brings our boy to the station and he thinks its the coolest thing in the world. Who doesn’t like red firetrucks? If you don’t like that, you don’t like things like America.
I’m blessed to be with a group of guys I’m with. I happened to fall into a great group of guys in a great fire house. It’s helped me become who I am today. By fate.
If you’re interested, check out Fully Involved for more on the growing community in the country and check out the station at Sterling Fire. Also, here are a few more photos from my day at the station.