National Fire Heritage Center Oral Histories
Conducting Oral History
By Rodney Slaughter, NFHC Director
The American Fire Service is fascinating in terms of the breadth of its history, the richness of its traditions, and the deeply imbedded values and beliefs of those that serve this profession. The National Fire Heritage Center 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 National Fire Heritage Center’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 fire fighting culture that is seldom recorded or preserved. This type of information will expand our knowledge on the profession and be a value to future generations of fire service professionals and historians.
This article provides a guideline for those who share our passion for collecting American Fire History before it is lost to the ages. This is not the definitive source for conducting oral interviews (see suggested resources at the end) but does provide a good working understanding of the subject.
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 interview techniques 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.
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 persons 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 recognizes, 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 his or her story from their perspective. The interviewer needs to respect the person, their story and their perspective.
If there is a contemporary interview style that you could easily identify with and effectively adopt, it might be that of a mental health care professional. A psychologist, or psychiatrist, will first establish a safe environment for the interviewee and provide an appropriate atmosphere for a person to tell their story. The person being interviewed is thoughtfully allowed to tell the story with carefully crafted follow-up questions asked by an attentive interviewer.
As an interviewer you should never exploit the person you are interviewing or their story. An interview example that many of us see on television is the techniques used by investigative reporters. But this type of interview technique is not the best example on how to conduct a historical oral interview! Investigative reporters are all about their story– regardless of who gets hurt in the process of getting to the “truth.”
You are not an investigative reporter. The story you record will not be on the six o’clock news. As an interviewer you have a moral and ethical responsibility to respect and protect the rights and dignity of the people you interview.
Modern media provides another interview technique that we should avoid—that of a criminal defense attorney. Once again this is not the best example of a historic interview technique. You should not ask questions that would hurt the feelings of person you are interviewing or probe into their motivations or attack them personally.
You also need to respect any information that you are asked not to share. Confidential and off-the-record comments and remarks should be kept off-the-record. There is no crime that you are trying to solve or real mystery that needs to be unraveled. Your effort should be simply to record the historical information re-told by someone who lived it. The best protection against abuse of an individual is to transcribe the interview and allow the interviewed person to read and correct the transcript before you finish your own fact check, analysis and before it is published. This is also a good time to ask the interviewee if they would like to expand on their information.
The person being interviewed should understand, at the outset of the interview, why you are collecting their story, and what you intend to do with it once you are finished. To this end, it is important to get written permission through a copyright release form (see attached sample at the end of this article) to archive and/or publish their story. The release form should also include any material collected during the interview such as:
- Interviewer Notes
- Audio Tapes
- Video Recording, and/or
- Personal Photographs
The National Fire Heritage Center will not publish or release any oral interview histories without the expressed written permission from the person being interviewed.
Preplanning Your Oral Interview
There is a pretty good chance at this point that you already know a person that you would like to interview. If not, look around your organization and you will probably find an active member of your department in their 60’s, 70’s and even 80’s. These people have the institutional knowledge of your department that would be a great historical benefit.
Look also around your community. There maybe survivors of past disasters or victims of emergencies that would like to tell their story too. Surviving family members of department personnel who have recently passed away may also be interesting interview subjects. There is really no end to the interview possibilities in your own community.
But, conducting the interview is only a part of the task before you. To be successful you need to develop a pre-plan by doing a little research on the person you are about to interview. This research would include collecting background information about the person. Web-searches, recommendations and information from other people who know the person will be very helpful.
Your background research should also include major events that occurred during the careers and in the life of the person you are about to interview. Archived stories of major events can easily be collected from the local newspaper or your local historical society. A chronology of events will help narrow your research ideas and will provide a prompt for follow-up questions.
An example question might be: What was your role in response to the Grand Hotel Fire on Main Street in November 1979? Other questions could also revolve around technological advances being introduced to the department such as: What was the initial response of the firefighters when brass couplings and nozzles were replaced with aluminum alloys? Having a chronology of historical events and technological advances in the fire service will better prepare you to as an interviewer.
In your initial research you may find archived newspaper, magazine articles and photographs that you can copy. You can use this archive material to help successfully jump start your interview. Ask your interviewee if they can identify any of the people or describe the event in a picture or article. The interviewee may have additional pictures that they will let you borrow and copy. Be sure to scan, catalog and return them promptly afterwards.
The pre-plan of your interview should include:
- Learn as much as you can about the person you are about to interview before the interview.
- Bring a file folder of archived material.
- Be prepare with a set of questions to help get the interview started and to keep it going.
- Check audio and/or video recording equipment before going to the interview and check it again just before the interview session begins. Start each recording with the date, place, and participants including you the interviewer.
- Keep and use notes of names, places, events, and dates.
- Listen carefully to the interviewee:
– Follow leads in the conversation.
– Know when to move on to the next question by recognizing when the subject has been fully discussed. You can return to your list of questions at this time.
- Be reassuring and aware that when telling stories- memories and emotions may surface (joy, sadness, anger). Respect the interviewees’ feelings and be gentle.
Tools of the Trade
Your pre-plan should include a number of supplies that you should bring to record the interview which may include:
- Digital video and still cameras and/or audio recorder
- Extra memory storage
- Extra batteries and/or extension cord and power strip for all the equipment
- Towel to fold over the external microphone to muffle ambient noise
- Pencils and writing pad to take notes and to write down follow-up questions
- Your list of questions and your pre-researched chronology of events
- Digital watch or clock (an interview should not last longer than two hours)
With an interview pre-plan mapped out in advance, you are ready for your interview. Make sure you pick a quiet and comfortable location. If at all possible choose a location or schedule a time when you are alone with the person you are gong to interview. Explain the tools and equipment that you brought with you as tools to help accurately capture the persons interview. Begin with simple questions and small talk to make the person comfortable and to establish a rapport. Your first question, after you’ve settled-in, should be one that elicits a long response. From this point on you should also:
- Ask one question at a time. Do not ask compound questions that require more than two separate answers or thought processes.
- Allow silence to work for you. Wait for an expanded explanation.
- Be a good listener, using body language such as looking at the interviewee, nodding, and smiling to encourage and give the message, “I am interested.”
- When necessary, use verbal encouragements such as “This is fascinating information!” or “How interesting!”
- Ask for specific examples if the interviewee makes a general statement and you need to know more. Or you might say, “I’m not sure that I understand. Could you explain that in more detail?”
- Never be afraid to admit that you do not know something or to ask for clarification.
- Ask for definitions and explanations of words that the interviewee uses and that have critical meaning for the interview. For example, ask a wildland firefighter how they define a “hand line?” How was it used? What was its purpose?
- Rephrase and re-ask an important question several times, if you must, to get the full amount of information from the interviewee.
- Keep the interview no longer than one or two hours. Interviewed subjects are complimented when you have to return a couple of times for several short interviews. This builds trust and confidence in your interviewee and shows your continued interest in them. The time spent between interviews allows you to review your notes and develop some follow-up questions.
- If an interviewee suggests other resources such as articles or books for you to get more information on your topic—do the follow-up and develop some questions before you return for the next interview to show that you’ve been paying attention.
Open Ended Questions
The types of questions you ask are critical to the success of your interview. Open-ended questions are questions that encourage people to talk about what is important to them. They help to establish rapport, help you gather additional information and increase your understanding. An opened ended question is one that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” response.
When asking open ended questions, listen carefully to the answers to your questions and do not interrupt. Be prepared to respond to and discuss issues you had not anticipated.
The following samples of opened ended questions can be used as a starting point in the development of your own questions or be used as back-up questions in your interview:
1. How did you initially get involved with the fire service?
2. How did your military experience prepare you for a career in the fire service?
3. By what measure was a firefighter considered a success (or failure) back then?
4. What are the differences between the fire service back then and today?
5. Who mentored you (took you under their wing or took an interest in your training and development)?
6. How was new technology introduced in your department?
7. Can you describe your role in the __________ emergency in 19XX?
8. Has the role of the firefighter changed over the years?
9. What were the challenges that you faced in your career?
10. Who did you and other firefighters turn to for answers in your department?
11. How did the firefighters cope with the death of a victim?
12. How did you and other firefighters deal with the death of a member from your own department?
13. What did you and your fellow firefighters do around the station in your down-time?
14. Is there a single emergency within your community or within the country that changed your department?
15. Do you remember the first engine that you rode on when you first started out?
16. What do you consider the most significant change in the fire service?
Mop-Up and Publishing
Once you’ve completed all of your interviews you are about two thirds finished with your project. The next step is to transcribe the interview into a written format. Offer free copies of the tape and transcripts to your interviewee. Let them know how the interviews will be used and invite them to any public presentation of the materials.
This transcription, your original notes, audio/visual documentation, and release form all become part of the historical record and should be donated to a museum or historical society like the National Fire Heritage Center for safe keeping.
Not all interviews go as planned. You should review your audio/visual documentation and notes and think about the way you asked questions and about the questions you could have asked instead. Learning from one interview to the next makes the process a little easier every time.
With your own research, organize the chronology of events in this person’s life and career. You can color in the record with factual information about events surrounding this individual’s narration. At this point you can begin to develop a descriptive narrative as the basis for an article based on the oral history of your selected subject.
The National Fire Heritage Center is extremely interested in collecting articles based on the oral interviews that you have conducted, researched and have written. Articles submitted to the NFHC may be published in our monthly newsletter and will be posted in the archives of our web-site for public benefit. The collection of oral histories from firefighters all over the country will provide a benefit to students, researchers, historians, authors, the fire service and the public. Your contribution will be greatly appreciated.
Braun, Willa K. “Transcribing and Editing Oral History,” AltaMira Press (January 1, 1991)
Lasky, Rick. “Pride & Ownership: A Firefighter’s Love of the Job,” Fire Engineering Books & Videos (June 22, 2006)
Latour, Jane. “Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York (Palgrave Studies in Oral History),” Palgrave Macmillan (July 21, 2009)
Maclean, Norman. “Young Men and Fire,” University Of Chicago Press (November 15, 1993)
MacKay, Nancy. “Curating Oral Histories: From Interview to Archive,” Left Coast Press; 1st Edition (October 31, 2006)
Richie, Donald. “Doing Oral History” Oxford University Press, USA; 2 edition (August 7, 2003)
Smith, Dennis. “Firefighters: Their Lives in Their Own Words,” Broadway; 1 edition (March 12, 2002)
Thompson, Paul. “The Voice of the Past: Oral History,” Oxford University Press, USA; 3 edition (May 25, 2000)
Yow, Valerie Raleigh. “Recording Oral History, Second Edition: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences,” AltaMira Press; 2 edition (April 7, 2005)