Character vs. Characters

Fire_52I hate to dump on my “B” Shift brothers, but I led a merry band of these guys for a period of time, so I have earned the right to state my piece.  Obviously, this isn’t an indictment of “B” Shift specifically, but as Bruno observed years ago, and we all continue to share today, “B” Shift seems to be an assembled band of technically competent but disciplinarily challenged individuals who are not above putting saran wrap on the station toilets or cribbing  your car at least three courses too high to leave the parking lot in the morning.

What struck me, however, as I watched the ongoing saga of the University of Oregon football players on ESPN, was that although our “B” Shifters may be characters, they (most of them, at least) have character.   And while there are enough stories going around professional football and baseball to keep us busy for months, don’t even get me started on the overpriced, overindulged, thug mentality of some of our most talented pro basketball players.

There is no reason to bring people into our team who lack character.  When we employ people who are talented, but lack control, ethics, or substance, we are sacrificing our core beliefs in order to get people who we consider will put us ahead of the game, unless of course you meet that description yourself.  At some point, however, regardless of talent, people who lack these qualities fail, and often they fail catastrophically.  They either succumb to the temptations of success, they feel entitled, or they can’t keep up on their own.

I think about the fact that in college football, there is a term for when a program gets like this.  It’s called a “lack of institutional control”.  There are entire fire departments out there who sound like they are experiencing this lack of institutional control and honestly, these people continue to give us all a black eye.  Juniors breaking into department warehouses to steal bunkers and tools, arsonists in the fire service, firefighter medics failing to transport critical patients, and tawdry affairs being aired out by the media (although I will personally vote for the picture on Fire Daily as the Best Double Entendre of the Year) all reveal to us that we have a number of people who sincerely lack character in our midst.

When we need to write a paper to ask ourselves if we have allowed our personnel expectations to injure the reputation we have fostered, we should be aware we have a problem.  Has the bar gotten so low that we’re willing to bring in anyone, so long as they can fog a mirror?  I know staffing is tight right now, but if the personnel on my team can’t be trusted to do the right thing when no one is looking, what reason should I have to trust them when the going gets tough?

If finding people who are willing to serve is that difficult, do we instead have a bigger societal issue?  At what point should the fire service begin to cut losses and say, “Hey, it’s not worth the hit we keep taking to maintain rosters with juvenile delinquents, slackers, and criminals just to keep companies on the road.”

I don’t suggest that finding people with a strong work ethic or character is easy, and frankly, it is getting harder every day.  Any more, it’s more about “me” and not about “us”.  There is a huge lack of consideration for others, especially when helping someone happens to inconvenience me for a moment (After all, I’m an important person).  But we need to be willing to be objective about individuals and determine if they are able to do our job with integrity, or or they unable/unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good.  If it is always about me, you will find out soon enough when that person is challenged with a choice between me and the team as to which way their loyalties lie.

I would venture to say that we should be digging deep and not keeping all the silt in the hopes there’s a diamond in there, but instead taking the time to test and filter out the undesirable elements, regardless of how many times we are required to let someone go because they “just don’t get it”.  We emergency service leaders must look beyond our borders and seek people who have strong character and can be trained to do the job.  We can’t afford to keep people who are just going to continue the cycle, we need to engage young people who want to be molded into leaders, and instead of running off the eager and enthusiastic ones, teach them and reward them, and mentor them.

The “Black Sheep” of B Shift that I used to work with were a little hard-bitten, a little cynical, but genuinely good guys who didn’t take crap from anyone.  They were disciplined on the fireground, but they were not the ones you could count on to be cheerleaders.  They required you to earn their respect, and when you got that from them, you knew you had made it.  If you were a leader with any credibility, you could get them to move mountains.  If you were a poseur, you would be quickly exposed.  While the guys who worked with me were sometimes hard to convince about a new policy or outlook, if they were convinced of the benefit to the team, they would follow you wherever you led them.

Our industry needs to understand that the people who are worth anything aren’t going to keep coming around when they get treated badly, they aren’t going to take “because I said so, Rookie” as an answer to “why?” and they aren’t going to choose time away from their families to be given all the scut duties while the vets sit around and watch.  I know of a few officers who think it is funny to make the probies go get their coffee for them, or to stand around and watch under protection while their personnel are working in the sun or the rain.  When good people say, “I don’t want to work for you anymore”, take that as a wake-up call that your management style sucks.

Take the time to encourage your personnel.  Treat them with respect and understand their needs.  Never exploit them, but when a challenge comes up that requires a little extra motivation, get out there with them and show them you’re not too good to do the task with them.  Don’t be their buddy, be their mentor.  If you do these things, the troops will willingly follow you anywhere.  Surround yourself with good people and if you do the right things, you and your team will enjoy success.  But most of all, be secure enough in yourself and your organization that when someone doesn’t stack up to the higher expectations of the fire service, that for the good of all of us, we encourage them to consider another profession, like professional basketball.  At least they’ll make better money.


  • Fire Critic says:

    Great post! Actually, one of the best I have read in a long time! I couldn’t agree more.

    As a guy who started out on B shift, worked most of my career so far on C shift, and now find myself on A shift I can say that I understand what you are saying about B Shift!

    Great words. I hope everyone is reading and absorbing!

  • truck6alpha says:

    Sometimes I think B Shift gets a bad rap. But I like to use something people can relate to in order to make a point and I think the Black Sheep are very much characters, but have the willingness and devotion to the job and are good fireground operators.

    I think the fire service’s issues of finding good people with the right attitude come more lately from the materialistic ethos of today’s society and lack of maturity of many young adults. Past generations were forced to grow up faster because they HAD to go get jobs, or to fight wars, etc. Today’s young to middle aged adults had the luxury of not having to serve in a compulsory military, were born to parents a little better off financially, and were able to avoid going to work right away to go off to four years of college. I know this is a generalization (I didn’t have those luxuries) but many people I know who are my age were able to go to college without having to also hold down a full-time job, have parents who were certainly able to afford to buy them a car, or support them for a while, or have been through several careers, and I think many of them lack commitment.

    We need people who understand commitment and sacrifice. We need people who are willing to serve, not to be served. If you are joining our business for the power trip, you’ve chosen the wrong career.

    Thanks for the comment!

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