Are We Losing Our Voice?

This post, like many of my half-written, unpublished works has been brewing for a while now. It didn’t just dawn on me today, or yesterday or even necessarily a year ago. However, its being published is a direct result of singular action that I took recently and the decision that brought me to take the course of action I did.

This post is unequal parts about my journey as a blogger; the state of the fire service; the condition of the print industry; and partly about the direction of social media and our society as a whole. I’d like to think it’s primarily about my recognition as a far-reaching voice in the fire service, but that would be self-serving. In the end, this is just me raising the question: “Are we losing our voice?”

I’ve created and maintain a number of web sites over the years and right now I add content to at least five in a somewhat consistent fashion:

TigerSchmittendorf.com – Mutual Aid for Marketing Your Fire Department

FireRECRUITER.com – The Recruitment & Retention Resource Clearinghouse

RuntotheCurb.com – Because Every Kid Wants to be a Firefighter – and Every Firefighter Has a Story

TrainYourReplacement.com – Where the Student-to-Instructor Ratio is Always 1:1

SoldierFirefighter.com – Connecting Veterans and the Volunteer Fire Service

This is in addition to my attempts to fulfill my commitments to contribute to: iVolunteerFIRE.org – our online recruitment clearinghouse for the Erie County Volunteer Fire Service, the Boys and Girls Club of Lake Shore site: bgclakshore.org that I’m on the board of; and the folks who actually pay me at Erie County ESU: www.erie.gov/fire.

Since their creation, I have struggled with suffering from "multiple online personalities." I (half) jokingly tell folks that the only thing that separates me from others who suffer from multiple personalities is that each of my personalities has its own web site, Facebook page and Twitter feed. (lol) It’s when all those platforms start to talk to each other and gang up on me that it becomes a problem! 

My suffering is derived from my disappointment that I haven't done what I consider to be an effective job of keeping content fresh on any, let alone all of my sites. Nonetheless, I feel they each have their important place and carry distinct but integrated messages and missions. They are an outward display that my passion spans several different genres, and is divided in proportions that shift like the ideas in my brain.

I'm disappointed that the distractions of the many other busy aspects of my life have become an obstacle of both time and attention, preventing me from creating relevant and timely content here.

I feel that I'm falling victim to the very thing that I fight against – that we're becoming a sound-bite society; creating noise instead of rich content; and the growing need for a means of filtering it all to understand what is both real and relevant. 

It pains me that I post more on Facebook (and occasionally Twitter) than I do on any of my own sites, most often sharing someone else's content with a brief commentary to reinforce an existing personal premise or an emerging topic. I've even tried to tie many of those posts into a cohesive blog post, but with limited success due to the same distractions. I ponder, “Am I losing my voice?”

It concerns me further that Facebook is already viewed as "irrelevant" by many of the young people I'm focused on connecting to the fire service. Just last weekend I had a kitchen table conversation with some young live-ins in a Delaware firehouse who shared their dislike for Facebook, their growing acceptance of Twitter and other platforms I'm not even familiar with yet, and even some who completely despise social media altogether and refuse to participate. These are very interesting perspectives.

As new pages, groups and communities pop up on Facebook every day with fire service sounding labels ranging from the kitchen table – to the kitchen sink – the clutter continues and I lean towards agreeing with my young charges in Delaware. I’m further frustrated with the growing proliferation of fire service related domain squatters who claim to be supporters and friends while leveraging the unwitting engagement of others for their own personal gain. As we have to shout louder and louder above the din, are we losing our voice?

TigerSchmittendorf.com is part of the FireEMS Blogs Network, which is an outlet of FirefighterNation and FireRescue Magazine – all of which was purchased in the past two years by the mother-ship of another magazine: Fire Engineering,  owned by PennWell.

For those of you keeping score at home, there have been four major mainstream players in our industry for several years: Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Chief and Firehouse magazines. While Fire Engineering is the oldest fire service publication still in the market since it started as the Firemen’s Journal in 1877, Firehouse Magazine was the pioneer in creating a web based fire service portal when Firehouse.com came crashing on to the scene on Christmas Day-1998 – fueled by the energy and creativity of two young ‘Internet Punks’ from the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department in Maryland.

For you history buffs, that was in the day of dial-up and subscription based web access (could you imagine?), which, to put it in perspective, was right after cavemen invented fire, and the wheel. Firehouse.com is where I first started posting online (blogging) and I enjoy friendships with many of the folks who are still there today.

That was a pivotal time in our fire service’s world and it flattened what I refer to as the trickle-down method of communications that was all we had ever known, and all we had to rely on at the time.

We’re at another pivotal time in our fire service history as the media landscape – the information sharing platform of our industry – is in significant flux.

Fire Chief Magazine Editorial Director Janet Wilmoth and I at the CFSI Dinner in Washington DC.

Fire Chief Magazine Editorial Director Janet Wilmoth and I at the CFSI Dinner in Washington DC.

The recent closure of Fire Chief Magazine bothers me deeply. Not just because I had formed a kinship with it’s editorial director Janet Wilmoth who I credit with “planting a seed” for my focus on storytelling, but because I believe that, while there are issues of common concern that transcend every corner of the fire service, I'm concerned that we're losing our voice in very key areas as Fire Chief trumpeted the leader's voice like no others.

The demise of Fire Chief Magazine was more a reflection of a disturbing print media trend than it certainly was an assault on the battle for championing true leadership in the fire service. Nonetheless, it’s disturbing and has far-reaching implications.

Perhaps I’m naive in this digital-native jungle we live in but I still believe that print has its place in our homes, our hearts and certainly our minds. And therefore, I believe that we in the fire service have an obligation to support print as its advertisers have paved the way for us to share and understand life-saving information for decades, and they are the same advertisers who fuel the online presence of those publications today.

If you look inside the first few pages of FireRescue Magazine, you’ll see my name listed there as a member of its editorial board. I’ve always said, "There's a lot of big names on that list, and my name is on there too." I still feel as though I'm a small fish in a very large sea and I'm both proud and humbled by the recognition my affiliation with that organization provides.

I don't think there's a publication on the market today that is truer to its mission of "Read it today. Use it tomorrow." FireRescue is about real-world application of real-time information, leveraging the intelligence of formal engineering, dissecting it into digestible chunks and translating it into practical application for us "simpler" minds. (lol) That’s not to say that it is written down to anyone. Just the opposite, as Editor-in-Chief Tim Sendlebach's cut-through-the-clutter leadership and writing style are exactly the strong voice and filter we need more and more every day. And they are an entity who has managed to transition their philosophy to the online world as there is nobody who wears the heart and passion of all that is good – and all that could be better – about the fire service on their sleeve than FirefighterNation’s Online News/Blog Manager Bill Carey.

But I wonder what the fall of Fire Chief Magazine and their online presence means to the other major publications? While one less market competitor can mean more advertising scraps for the survivors, I’m sure that it was yet another wake-up call for an already changing industry. I fear that a day may come when we young and old alike collectively sigh and say, “I sure wish we had a print magazine that we could touch and feel, and actually take the time to read, digest and formulate constructive thoughts from.” I certainly hope not.

Keeping in mind that I write this, sitting at a PC with six different social media and fire service web portals open at the same time in my browser. Nonetheless, I am loyal to the magazine and its mission.

A new blog network has recently appeared on the fire service horizon. It’s built by those same two (formerly young) ‘Internet Punks’ from Hyattsville who created the original Firehouse.com and who I must largely credit with my relationship with all of you and FireRescue Magazine/FirefighterNation.

I have made the business decision to transfer my previously unaffiliated sites (FireRECRUITER.com, RuntotheCurb.com and TrainYourReplacement.com) to the new network that offers me an opportunity to build out these sites towards their full potential, to gain exposure, attract a larger audience and to perhaps attract co-contributors where appropriate. As Janet Wilmoth may agree, there's nothing more rewarding than to plant a seed and watch other people nurture that idea far beyond its original capabilities than if I had confined it to my limited thought patterns.

I originally created those three online destinations on the WordPress.com platform and simply point the domains there. None of these have ever been part of any blog network. Admittedly, it's a cost effective but half-a** approach to maintaining a professional online presence. This new network offers me an opportunity to change that, and to find and share my voice.

I have always positioned TigerSchmittendorf.com as my main landing page for all of my other online efforts and as the clearinghouse for my full-length feature style of writings – and it will continue as such on the FireEMS Blogs network. In the end, I'm practicing what I preach, and that is, "In this world of emerging and colliding technologies and platforms, reality is that we have to be on channels all the time." And thus, that's why I'm diversifying my portfolio in hopes of sharing my stories, ensuring the survival and success of the volunteer fire service, and doing what I should have been doing a much better job of all along: training my replacements.

If you look and listen to what I share, it's not much about firefighting tactics and strategies because I feel there is no limit of firefighters far more qualified to chime in on those topics. Regardless of the topic, my message is more about change — and changing our mindset as to how we look at both the challenges and solutions we face today.

I guess this is just another example of how I need to heed my own advice and change my mindset about this challenge, viewing it as another opportunity to find my voice, leveraging the reach of the solutions this technology creates.

Let your voice be heard. Let's have a conversation.

Stay safe. Train often.