Are We Still Telling Stories at the Firehouse Kitchen Table? We Better Be!

Jim Aleski

January 22, 2024

The fire service is steeped in a proud history. That history is commonly passed down from one generation of firefighters to the next through kitchen table legends and anecdotes. But this storytelling is more than just a way to pass the time on long shifts in the firehouse. A fire department’s culture, traditions, health and safety, and even compensation often depends on it.

Why do we tell our stories?

Firefighters work in environments full of randomness and chaos. Stories help make meaning out of that chaos. Stories give structure and context. They help form and find meaning in memories and help make those memories stick.

Sometimes those memories turn into more legend than fact. Sometimes there’s a difference between what really happened, and the story that’s told about what happened. And that’s ok.

Does it matter if they're real?

Tim O’Brien’s classic book, The Things They Carried, is technically fiction but tells stories that depict real experiences that O’Brien and his fellow Vietnam vets experienced in war. The mundane parts of these stories have been made up – names, who was involved, exactly was said – but the truly crazy, chaos of war parts of the stories – are based on truth.

Real events depicted with some fiction – sounds a lot like the stories told around the firehouse, doesn’t it?

How does this fiction part work? Well, stories help firefighters take control of the world and give it context. Firefighters need to remember those stories, so they can use them to help multiply and pass on their experiences. Sometimes all the real truths can be mundane. They can easily be forgotten with time and the telephone tag nature of the way they are often told. So, some fiction helps make the stories stick together and stick in both the storyteller and listener's minds.  

Control and context. Memory and exchange.

The importance of stories in the firehouse

And again, why is this so important? Let’s talk about internal storytelling.

The firehouse kitchen has long been a place where firefighters bond. It’s where they pass along traditions, knowledge, and experience. That magical term firefighters all throw around – brotherhood - is a natural outgrowth of these social interactions.

Internal storytelling is something firefighters have always valued and done extraordinarily well. But is it starting to fray a little bit around the edges of late? Is it being challenged?

The firehouse kitchen is full of cellphones and tablets these days. Firefighters can be conversing with six different people outside of the firehouse while sitting around drinking their morning coffee. They’re running their side businesses. They’re flipping through Facebook or Instagram. The TV is always on in the background.

Firehouses are getting bigger. Everyone has their own bedrooms. There’s Wi-Fi. Everyone’s on their phone in their own little nook and cranny.

I’m certainly not stating this with any sort of scientific backing. But doesn’t it make sense that as our members become more isolated, our incidents of mental and behavioral health are going to continue to go up?

Aristotle talked about storytelling as a means of catharsis – a way to release emotions. Are we letting some of these opportunities escape us? Our culture and brotherhood were built around social interaction.

How to make storytelling a priority

It’s probably like everything else we struggle with - we aren’t working to maintain the tradition. We don’t make it a priority. We talked earlier about control and exchange. We’re not always focused on that. As one generation of firefighters retires and new ones come on the job, will these traditions even be remembered?

I recently sat in a class taught by Jim McNamara from the FDNY. He’s spent his entire 28-year career in some of the busiest companies in Harlem. He’s the senior man at Ladder Company 26. Jim said the two most important parts of the day at his fire house – known as the legendary “Fire Factory” – is when the crews prepare lunch and dinner together.

Jim said that Ladder 26 “never had a TV in the kitchen and never will.” The members of the “Fire Factory” – led by their senior members – recognize the value of tradition. They understand that their time together is not finite. They know that there are only so many opportunities to create and strengthen bonds and pass along knowledge and experience. And they ensure that those opportunities are prioritized.

Storytelling is no doubt the norm at the Fire Factory – they work hard to make it that way. And without a doubt, the stories are sprinkled with plenty of fiction. It's always been that way and it always will be.

So keep the tradition alive. Tell a tall one at the firehouse today.

Jim Aleski is a 25-year fire service veteran and career lieutenant in the Cherry Hill (NJ) Fire Department outside of Philadelphia. Jim serves as a Branding and Content Specialist at NEP Services and formerly served as the Communications/Social Media Director for the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey (PFANJ), the state affiliate of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). Prior to becoming a career firefighter, Jim responded as a volunteer while working for more than a decade as a media producer. Jim was involved in the production of hundreds of national TV commercials, network branding campaigns, music videos, and corporate communication projects. Jim holds a BS in Mass Communications from Emerson College and earned a MS in Fire and Emergency Management Administration from Oklahoma State University.