Let me begin by saying, I am the number one fan of Animal House. I would never do anything to disparage the film or any of its characters. And I am not being Dean Wormer here. But it's time to put that little part of our lives behind us for a moment, although it is a part of me I can never quite leave behind. So here's a little test.
Consider the events in Holyoke, MA over the past week or so. If the action you are about to take would cause undue embarrassment to you or your organization, or your family and loved ones, would you still do it? If your action was the cause of something that makes the front page, or the national news, and it's not something you are proud of, would you do it? If the action you are about to take would invoke criminal or civil penalties against you, would you still do it?
What happened here was a very innocent practical joke on the part of an interim chief. I feel badly for him and I really don't believe this chief to be an idiot (as some have stated) or a criminal (as others have), or even a bad guy. I don't even know the man. But what he did, especially in the anti-public servant climate within which we are currently suffering, was not exercising good judgment.
There is nothing about this incident that suggests that anything happened here other than an attempt at a little levity, albeit at the expense of violating the laws about calling in false alarms. Am I judging the man or his actions? No. I don't know all the facts, although they seem pretty apparent on their face. Do I understand the mentality? Yes. I have moved a fire engine parked at the supermarket to the other side of the parking lot along with a few other practical jokes. But the next blog post will be all about THAT angle regarding leadership, so stay tuned. I don't believe anything other than that this was a practical joke gone wrong.
But in light of this incident, maybe instead of testing someone's physical fitness, their aptitude for reading a sentence, or the many other things we should be testing and aren't, maybe we should put at the top of the priority list, a test for maturity. Because other than the only test that seems to be important in some departments these days – that would be the ability to fog a mirror – we insist on knowing all these important things about how much someone can lift, or how fast they can run stairs, or how fast can they calculate 2+2 and we miss out on what seems to be the heart of our industry's problem. If you haven't picked up on it, that would be a test for whether or not the individual we are about to hire or promote is capable of objectively separating their inner teenager from the responsibilities of adulthood.
Again, lest you think this is all about pranksterism, there are actually many examples of where a certain level of maturity is important, and why it's not a good idea to have people associate with us that think it is okay to video someone lighting fireworks out of your ass. The public perception these days is swinging toward the "bunch of overgrown kids pretending to be important" side and away from the "upstanding citizen who is here to keep us safe" side. While some of our colleagues might not see that as being important, the public, when choosing to spend their hard earned dollars, are really not interested in sending money in the direction of waste and frivolous behavior. They want to be reassured that the individuals to whom they are entrusting their tax dollars are responsible, thoughtful, and perceptive. People who are making the news wire for setting fires, calling in prank false alarms, stealing from treasuries, and any other number of violations of society, are NOT considered as being responsible, thoughtful or perceptive. In fact, if this is news to you, haven't you probably ALSO been the ones complaining because the public doesn't love you anymore? Acting like you are still a member of Delta Tau Chi is not okay when you pin bugles on your collar (and I am the number one Animal House fan, remember?) Sophomoric behavior is best left to sophomores.
There are a number of us who are frustrated with the eroding public trust that comes about when certain participants in our field act like a bunch of day care refugees. The failure for some to consider the ripple effect their actions have on others is incredible. We are in a real struggle to define the fire and emergency services. There are daily reports of communities downsizing departments, "renting" them out (that would be privatizing them), or simply reallocating funds that would have been spent on fire and emergency services to other competing interests. We are at war here for our very existence, and every negative report is used against us, implicitly or not, to give rationale as to why we (fire and emergency services) shouldn't get the support we need.
There is no need to comment that I'm sucking the fun out of the job. Right now, we need to be working harder than ever to save our standing in the community, be it as a career or volunteer professional. We definitely don't need our own people shooting our efforts in the feet. Fun is when we can come out of a good worker safely, with a smile on our face because we did a good job; or high-fiving in the nurse's lounge because we just pulled an asystolic patient out of their nose-dive and they are sitting up talking in Bed 2. Fun is when we are on the training ground joking around with each other while resting after a particularly challenging evolution.
Grow up. Fun doesn't come unless you earn it. It's not fun being a loser. You can have fun all day long, but in the end, if you haven't accomplished anything, you're just one more clown among many. When you are truly professional, you can work hard and have fun at it too.