The Right Stuff

I have been following with interest the discussion of a National Firefighter Code of Ethics.  The other day I saw that Ken Willette, the Public Fire Protection Division Manager at NFPA, blogged about the one written by the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen's Association this past year.  Being obtuse, like I often am, I had actually never gone to the blog although I have seen some of the well-written articles that have come from posts on there.  Nothing like going to the source, huh?  Well, if you haven't done it, you need to go yourself, and when you are through, being the fire service leaders I sense you are, send your people there as well.

But this doesn't stop at the fire service.  In fact, as I have said many times before, there are lessons to be learned from a brotherhood of individuals who, as recently as a decade before, were considered to be the last bastion of integrity, honor, and valor in a society in which those values have been eroding daily.  The ever-decaying values in the fire service are an excellent case study, and many questions can come from how we went from where we were to where we are today.

And I am not suggesting that the entire fire service lacks these ideals; we just have not been very good at removing the elements from our midst who do not embrace those same values.  Well, our profession (and for the uninitiated, this refers to both career and volunteer professionals in the emergency services business) has been challenged by a number of external forces that, to the casual observer, seem to have affected the type of person we are getting to replace those who have gone on to other places.

Emergency response, paid or not, is very much a value-driven occupation.  Just because you show up and put out a fire or lug someone to the hospital, is irrelevant, despite the arguments that we are not customer oriented.  If anything, our business is all about the customer, because frankly, we tell people all the time that we can replace their material objects, but we can't replace the people.  We say this is the reason we rescue first and not salvage first.  But ironically, we have many of the same people saying that we shouldn't consult with our community in the spirit of partnership, or that we know better than they do what they need, or even more cynically, that their observations regarding our service and the way we do it doesn't even matter.

Therefore, there is a profound need to make sure the people we bring in not only have read and signed a memo telling them what our ethics happen to be, but that they LIVE these ethics.  That they BREATHE these ethics.  That they BELIEVE in these ethics and that they are proud to associate with others, a brotherhood of others, who feel the same way.

A while back, I happened upon a rollover in another jurisdiction while off-duty, and stopped to see if they needed any help. The driver was already on the way to the hospital, and the crews were just picking up debris, but I know a lot of firefighters in that jurisdiction, so I was really just chatting before heading on.  In the corner of my eye, I saw a firefighter pick up a phone on the ground.

I don't know about you, but my cell phone wasn't cheap, and they aren't indestructible either.  Plus, even if it is just damaged, you could still get the contacts off of it, etc.  But the firefighter opened up the phone, laughed to himself, and THREW the phone into the damaged car.  Not gently, mind you, but enough that it broke.  Since it wasn't my jurisdiction, but everyone there knew me, I walked over and picked up the now damaged phone, then handed it to a trooper.  I glared at the guy on the way by, but I didn't say anything. But I let him know that this was unacceptable, at least in my department.

I won't say that we don't have any of those types in our organization, but as Capt. Tom and I were saying the other day, the balance has been strongly tipped in favor of the "good guys" for a while now, and we continue to drum our organizational culture into those who don't get it.  But these values don't come naturally to some and frankly, do you even want to take the chance of trying to drag a member to that place, or should we look first for those with the right stuff, and then TEACH them to be a firefighter?

If I were advertising, I would say that if you revel in someone's misfortunes, or if you like the power of being a uniformed public official, or if driving in total disregard of others appeals to you because you have lights and siren, you probably shouldn't apply.  There's nothing at all wrong with chasing the adrenaline, but it certainly needs to be kept in the perspective that you will take on a challenge to help others, not to wish it on people so you can get your fix.

If we really believe in our brotherhood, our profession, as a calling rather than just a job, we need to take a look at who we introduce to the team. So long as we continue to permit those who are among us to soil our ranks because they fill a spot, we will continue to tarnish the image we used to be proud of.  I, for one, prefer that when I go to see my kids at school, they consider firefighters to be worthy of admiration, rather than another person they can't trust.  There's a lot of that going around lately, let's not let it happen to us.


  • Matthew says:

    Given the state of many of our promotional systems, or lack therof, can any of us be surprised ?

  • In that regard, Matthew, many of our leaders (the ones making the decision you refer to as to which is the right method of promoting people) learned from people who didn't have a grasp of these issues themselves.  The fire service has been so insular for so long, and the experts we "learned" from, or should I say, the only ones who we gave any credence to, were those who failed to look outside of our industry for guidance on how to improve our organizations.

    I remember those who discounted our fire service leaders who looked at different methods of leading ("Be Nice") saying none of this applies to our job.  It's time to look out the window at what works and improve.  The changes will happen regardless of whether we want them or not.  We can control the changes, but we can't stop them.

    Thanks for commenting.  Good luck.

  • Svend says:

    Here, here.

  • Peter Lupkowski says:

    I got a kick out of a spate of recent articles demeaning former Chief Brunacini's consumer and value driven orientation.  It is possible that some of the anti-firefighter rhetoric we now hear is at least partially basd on our inability to gain knowledge from other industries and adapt it to our situation.  

    • We are getting hammered right now around the nation by anti-public sector sentiment. Think of how much worse it would be if we took an approach that we didn’t care at all what anyone wanted? At least now we have a a few understanding and empathetic people and if we alienated everyone, we’d have no allies at all.

      In an economy where people have the choice between funding you and not funding you, laying off companies vs. not laying off companies, privatizing and not privatizing services, if you think not paying attention to the service your citizens value is smart, I’m thinking it won’t be too much longer before you find out how bad things can get.

      Thanks for commenting!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *