The American fire service is fascinating in terms of the breadth of its history, the richness of its traditions, and the deeply embedded values and beliefs of those that serve this profession. The National Fire Heritage Center (NFHC) exists precisely to document and hold in trust the history and culture of the American Fire Service for future generations to study, explore and enjoy.

Much of our historical information is carried from one generation of firefighters to the next by our oral histories. The NFHC’s Board of Directors realizes that we must not wait to begin gathering these life stories. We must begin in earnest, to collect our oral traditions, one individual firefighter and fire service leader at a time. Collectively, we will capture important features about our firefighting culture that are seldom recorded or preserved. This type of information will expand our knowledge of the profession and be of value to future generations of fire service professionals and historians.

The importance of oral histories

Every day we create history, individually and organizationally. It is the insights of our leadership, the deeds of fellow firefighters, and the people we serve which are equally valuable as the resource within our written records. Oral history interviews provide a “living history” of not only the individual but also of our fire culture, our organizations, and of each of us individually.

Your own story and the stories of the people around you are a unique resource for your family, your community, and your profession. This collective information may one day serve as a survival guide for the firefighters that come after us and for a generation of firefighters yet unborn.

What is an oral history?

An oral history is a systematic collection of living people’s testimony about their own life experiences. These histories are often compiled by professionals in history, anthropology or folklore who conduct personal interviews to capture an individual’s personal history as a tool to verify and validate the written historical record.

The concept is easily understood: to collect information about the past from people who had lived it. The effort captures data that is not always available in written records about events, people, decision-making processes, and personal belief systems. This qualitative information is often buried deep in the memory of the person being interviewed. As such, the oral interview is a very subjective methodology that captures the historical perspective from the individual being interviewed as they perceive and remember their experiences.

Often times, this memory is shaped not only by the person’s past but also by their present circumstances. An example would be interviewing a retired firefighter who can recall the days when using self-contained breathing apparatus was scorned by “real firefighters,” but recognize, after decades of experience, that this practice had exposed them to health hazards many years later. The bravado of past practices, in this case, is reinterpreted by the person being interviewed as a result of his or her knowledge of current practices and contemporary information.

The important thing for anyone who sets out to record an oral history is that the interviewer allows the person being interviewed an opportunity to tell the story from his or her perspective. The interviewer needs to respect the person, the story, and the perspective.

Oral history guidelines

Over the next several weeks, we will publish a series of articles that provide guidelines for those who share our passion for collecting American fire history before it is lost to the ages. Topics covered include ethical considerations, preplanning interviews, interview tools and questions, and publishing.

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