What You Want vs. What You Need

So, continuing on my theme of pissing off the vast majority of the fire service with the intention of waking you up, I am going to go ahead and tell you that there is a huge difference between what you all believe to be our jobs and the reality of our jobs.  This is a recurring theme in our "business", because you know what, it IS a business.  It is a business because we have to, like it or not, adopt good fiduciary management; we have to market our organization; we have to "sell" our product.  In short, we as a fire service, at the national, state, regional, and local levels, do all the things we have to do to survive, because if you hadn't noticed, we are at war.

War sounds a little dramatic, but I'm really trying to awaken you to what is occurring, and being nicey-nice about it doesn't seem to be working.  As an unscientific gauge to why it isn't working, I took a little look around the internet.

Let me begin by pointing out that I have no issues with the sites I am speaking of; their authors have done an extraordinary job of finding their market niche and giving the people what they want.  That is rule number one in business.  So using that business logic, the demographic I am going after here, no exclusions intended, are 25-34 year old white males (Sorry, but those are the numbers).  Why those numbers, you ask?  Good question; the people I am trying to reach are those who overwhelmingly prefer the sugary snack of scantily clad women in fire apparel, lots of fire pictures, and tough, adrenaline filled talk.  

I already have a readership of enlightened men and women who think outside of their positions and who prefer reading about concepts that will help them lead others.  The demographic that is affecting the change in the fire service, however, are those 25-34 year old white males who refuse to put down the toys, stop bitching, and realize that this job isn't day care for teenagers anymore.  That demographic I speak of is the demographic of the American Fire Service, and coincidentally, the one that everyone dances around when they are trying to elevate our traditions above being endless cannon fodder for the fires we fight.

Yes, there are many of you reading this who might take exception to this and frankly, I am you, so stop whining.  I have been and in a way, still am one of those people.  But above that, however, I took the stance that I would be visionary and forward-thinking in my approach to this blog, and I would seek ways to lead and improve our industry so that we could continue on into the future.  And being honest, the approaches that many of you/us are taking will doom our tradition if we don't wake up and evolve.

The short-sighted approach that many firefighters seem to take is that we are a necessary evil.  "If you don't like it, tough, because there will always be fires and you will always need us."  "We are the only show in town."  "We don't need to be nice because if we aren't, who are you going to call?" If we behave like a bunch of frat boys, we are saying, the community will look past our antics and realize we are providing a service that they can't afford to replace with a new model.

Well, I have news for you all.  That new model is being trotted out everywhere.  Communities across this country are overwhelmingly sick and tired of the liability of having juveniles running things at the company levels.  The chiefs they hire are people with education, people with a business acumen, people who are aware that they have to make hard decisions to rein in spending.  They will do it regardless of whether you agree with them or not; remember how "wildly popular" Iacocca and Welch were at their companies when they came in, cut the fat, and fired people?  If you don't, it's because most of you in that 25-34 year old demographic were infants then. But what YOU know of these guys is that they turned around companies who were near failure and brought them back into power.  Well, if you think your fire chiefs haven't read anything on these guys, then you are delusional.

I hear tales from my friends who aren't chief officers about what the "chiefs" are doing to the fire service all the time.  I tell them that it isn't what the chiefs are doing to the fire service, but what the economy, education, technology and the political will of the elected is doing to the fire service.  We are simply managing the changes, and if you don't like it, well, there's not much we can do about it, is there?  We can agree to resist change that will affect safety and efficiency, but the arguments thrown up by the unions and the firefighters are widely unconvincing: "People will die if we close this station." Well, they might and they might not.  "Firefighters will die if this staffing isn't maintained."  Well, again, they might and they might not.  The reality is that to counter these proposals, you need facts.  Provable, verifiable, scientific facts.  Some people are striving to provide those facts.  Overwhelmingly, however, YOU are not, everytime you scoff at the need for documenting, researching, or validating as being "desk jockey" material. And that's a whole blog post in itself.

Why don't you chew on this for a few days and tell me what you think?  Trust me, there is much more I plan to say, but I'll probably have to break it down a little.  If you are truly the apathetic individuals I speak of, I'm pretty sure there will just be stunned silence.  Or you may just tune me out after seeing there's more than one paragraph and go back to the titty blogs.  Either way, it's not what I do to make things continue on, it's what YOU do.  I'm nearing the end of MY career and I have lots of great memories.  But whether you have memories like those or not depends on what you are willing to do to change things.


  • Scott says:

    It's good to hear from someone who isn't spouting all the feel good bs. Keep it coming. We have a whole generation of entitled people to enlighten.

  • Fire Critic says:


    I agree with you whole-heartedly. I imagine that you hit your mark with many and the rest you were just preaching to the choir. 

    I really liked the second to last paragraph. I think it would be great to go in depth on that alone. 

    What I have seen is the "bean counters", "desk jockeys", or whatever you call them are the ones who hold the data that needs to be examined. I don't know how easy it is to get a hold of it in our City or others. I do know that those are the same numbers which are turned into statistics to say what certain people want. Those statistics are typically the ones that are used to close stations, get rid of staffing, brownout, blackout, or many other things that effect us. 

    When our Chief uses those statistics, the Council listens and accepts them. When we have used some of the data in the past to provide another glimpse at the data…it is glanced over and thrown out. 

  • Brian T says:

    I agree with what you are saying. The tax payer is our customer. We have to market ourselves so they know and understand what we do, so when we go in and ask for a tax increase they approve it. We are also expected to behave in a way that does not bring discredit to our dept or or service. Well "I" expect everyone to act this way anyways. You put on a uniform everyday, don't act a fool. Be professional. In and out of uniform. People know if you are a FF. some small towns have decals, you wear a hoodie out in town off shift, etc. This gets harder when you get down to a volunteer unit. If the community, doesn't see you as a valuable asset, then they will get rid of you.
     Every FF should be able to articulate what they do in a way the public understands so when he runs across one of these naysayers he can attempt to change their mind. But the chief especially needs to be able to communicate these needs. 
    I think depts should be showcasing their runs on FB (social media outlet) saying look what we did here! This is good. 
    Lastly it isn't just about the emergency calls. What does your dept do in the community? Do they help with parades? Do they volunteer somewhere? Does your crew go down on a day off an help at a soup kitchen? Like it or not these are all public relation events. As long as the community sees us in a good light, the tide of battle is surging our direction, and that's good. 

  • Chief,
    It is unfortunate that everything in our country has become a "business" because that typically means money before people. I believe the Volunteer Fire Service has a message for the career guys and that is altruism and sacrafice. Volunteers don't have "customers," they have Citizens [caps on purpose]. As a vital service to their communities, they go out and serve humanity at the sacrafice and risk to their own health and safety. Too much of what you address here is the concept of the "paycheck player" mentality. What is happening is our communities want "career" firefighters to become professionals.
    Professionals seek excellence in their vocations. Yes, vocation is a theological term for "calling." There are some who believe they have earned their place by paying their dues, and others of us who live in gratitude for the honor to serve our Citizens in meaningful ways. Professionals are not only dedicated, but they often do services for people without an expectation of compensation. Professionals are life-long students of their discipline and learning is a work that is never complete. Professionals understand that their mission transcends the advanced market exchange. Professionals don't work to act in ways that are recognized as "professional" [which typically means calculating, under control, respectable, etc.] rather they simply embody professionalism in their styles of life.
    The claim to fame for the demographic to whom you speak, fails to recognize that behind all the machismo and bravado is insecurity. In watching a documentary on Seal Team 6, I recognized that these soldiers are the scholar-practitioners of national defense. One member of the team described how they are expert-learners who have mastered the ability to study and become experts in foreign weapon systems, infrastructure, communications, etc., over night. This is so that they can be deployed and fight with excellence to meet the terms of their missions. Not only do they have the intellectual acuity of a scientist, but they have the physical strength and dexterity of an Olympian.
    The suburban firefighter of the 21st Century must be an emergency services provider generalist. We face haz-mats, varieties of technical rescues, fires large and small, and most of all, emergency medicine in a time when too many in our country have no other healthcare options. "A Jack of all trades; Master of none" is what you'll hear from the mediocre who hides behind a firefighting tattoo, lifted 4 x 4 pick up, and abrasive countenance. Seal Team 6 are an example of what people can do when they dedicate their lives to being professionals. I used them as an aspirational model rather than an exemplar of what we in the civilian public safety agencies can be. They of course have resources that the suburbs of the USA will never be able to afford.
    At the "white skirt" level of management, the resources that come into the fire service depend on things like data, argument, and evaluation. These things create anxiety for the un- or under-educated rank and file firefighter because sometimes on the output side of research come the results we don't want to acknowledge. Firefighters don't die of low staffing levels as often as they do because they are fat and don't wear seat-belts. Too many seek to sustain mediocrity because to be expected to progress "should" come only when with a pay increase. You are on the mark when you say that the emotional pleas and slippery slope warnings about people dying due to budget cuts have been worn out. We need to add value to our work in tangible and intangible ways by professionalizing the career departments. Firefighters that avoid "book learnin'" only do so because they just haven't developed the proficiencies needed to learn well and efficiently. Your reference to education is key, but can be skimmed over too quickly.
    Higher education's mission is to help students learn how to learn. It has turned into another "job credential," but one who gets and education and not just a diploma, has tools at his or her disposal to adapt and overcome the changes in the field. These tools are "nothing" to one who has not come to recognize them or understand how to use them. A degree in fire and emergency services (e.g., FESHE) or any other related degree, is not there to simply provide more "stuff" of firefighting, but use the content subject matters of the degree to exercise intellectual tools of critical thinking, analysis, innovation, and communications. In other words, to become master learners so that we can evolve with the ever-changing needs of a modern society and its Citizenry.
    Our mission is to serve Citizens. If we do so with passion, fortitude, and finesse, we will not need "marketing campaigns" full of propaganda. We can simply operate in the transparency that most Citizens want from their government and their will be no need to hide behind the Maltese Cross and American Flag. We won't need the photo images of firefighter funerals to garner the public's adoration or support. When we are committed, engaged, and tireless about pursuing excellence in our minds, bodies, and spirits, then we can call ourselves professional firefighters.

  • Tony Araujo says:

    Excellent piece. I’m a first time reader of your blog and not a fire professional but have, over the last year, become somewhat knowledgeable in a very small segment of your profession.
    A year ago a local reporter released the results of a previously secret report on response time performance at our fire department (one of the top five in North America). The results were embarrassing to the department but my interest was only peaked when I heard our fire chief’s response to the media criticism that ensued. Only “more money, more stations, more trucks and more people” would reduce response times, according to the Chief.
    Unfortunately for the Chief, I discovered that three years previous, he had committed to our City Council, to reduce turnouts by a substantial 64 seconds, by 2012, and to accomplish this safety and productivity improvement with “no more money, no more stations, no more trucks and no more people”. I also discovered that the simple renewal of this commitment each year, was the full extent of the work actually done by the department to achieve this turnout goal.
    So what does a customer of “the only show in town” do when faced with this hoax? I complained to the politicians and to the media. The politicians were justifiably afraid of the firefighters union who brag that “they are a force to be reckoned with in any election” and proudly display a list of councilors who are “committed to achieve the Union’s objectives” while the media seemed to prefer the simple narratives like “closing stations will cost lives”. The internet age allows everyone to be a publisher, so I set up a website to educate my neighbors (allsecondscount.ca) of what I had learned.
    A few weeks later, the Deputy Chief decided to retire and then a few days later the Chief followed his deputy out the door. It was probably just a coincidence, but more change was coming to the department. Three months later the Acting Chief announced that total response times had been reduced by a full 30 seconds, for the first 6 months of the year. This was significant because the department had accomplished this improvement while short 127 firefighters from the official complement and with 5 apparatus (of 128) on average out of service every day. This year also marked a record low in fire fatalities in our city, a statistic that has been in decline for decades.
    The new Chief wants to make these productivity gains permanent by removing the already vacant positions and by acknowledging that the department has been getting by for years without 5 trucks. Additionally he wants to close a station where travel time last year was 192 seconds (90th percentile) and where the remaining resources can still provide better than NFPA 1710 travel time performance. He’s committed to addressing any negative impact on response times with improvements in alarm handling and turnout times. Predictably, the “professional” firefighters association is claiming that residents and firefighters might die.
    Those “25-34 year old white males” that you refer to, prefer to “shoot this messenger” instead of dealing with the message. This messenger is referred to as a “firefighter hater” because he doesn’t "respect" the firefighting profession.
    In engineering, which I’m more familiar than firefighting, professional respect should never allow a professional to disregard factual information. All engineers learn about the Quebec Bridge Disaster as the example where hubris and ego prevailed over questioning of the facts. On August 29, 1907, seventy-five men died in one accident because some professionals were afraid to question the facts and thereby show disrespect to another professional who had a bigger reputation.
    Respect for men and women who put their lives on the line in the course of their jobs comes naturally, but respect for professionals who prefer to use fear over facts, that’s a different story.

  • Tony,

    Let me begin by thanking you for reading.  All too often people see the title of the blog and think it is a "fire only" blog and really, it is more about issues we all face but with some fire service relationship.

    Unfortunately, we all in this currently horrible economy need to do more with less.  And trust me, there is certainly a difference between the amount of work I can get done on a fireground with four personnel vs. three on a company.  And two is simply unsafe and unacceptable.  But your point is well taken: we have too many individuals, who, put in the place of defending a budget or other recommendation, simply trot out the emotional reactions to the opposition and completely fail to show quantitatively where these increases (or simply maintaining) will be beneficial to the civilian population.

    The union locals in many situations have not done much in the way of proactive engagement to head this off at the pass and instead, the relationship between the community, taxpayer advocates, elected officials, and the firefighters becomes pretty antagonistic.  On the other hand, while I have never worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, they, to me, were a positive example of how to manage these issues creatively and cooperatively throughout the 1980's, and the labor-management partnership they had is one that really should be considered by many.  Of course, I have the luxury of being an outsider and perhaps a PFD member would disagree with me, but…

    There is a lot of defensiveness from the firefighters because frankly, there are a lot of politicians who want to embrace them for the good they bring to the community, but when we can point out that failing to cover some of our needs may result in community problems, they like to hide from that.

    However, I can't even adequately discuss the great points you bring up in one comment, so perhaps I'll address your points in my next post.  It is definitely appropriate and something that everyone needs to hear and understand.  Again, even if they don't like it…

    Please feel free to continue reading and commenting.  I appreciate the feedback!


    [Edited: Saw some typos and clarifications]

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