Yesterday we had our firefighter association's annual summer family picnic. In addition to enjoying some eats and letting the kids run amok, the event also serves as an informal retirement celebration for those who moved on over the course of the year. This year was no different and in the case of one of our retirees, he told a pretty funny story about something he and his crew did years ago. No, it didn't involve a bottle rocket in someone's rectum, and no, nobody was hurt. It was genuinely funny and heartfelt, but it made me think of a day when things were a lot simpler.
In fact, as we all began reminiscing (as always happens at events like these), it occurred to a lot of us that the times have required change that has, in some moments, sucked the fun out of the job. I am pretty deadpan anyway and I think most of the newer guys take that as humorless rather than stoicism, but I did make the statement, "Since I have made Chief, I find things aren't as funny as they were when I was a company officer." Hell, they definitely aren't as fun as when I made company officer, but that has been so long ago that I've forgotten what it was like…
I think some present took that in the usual vein. You know; "All you white shirts change when you come off the Line." But I think those of you with some crossed bugles can see it for what it is. The responsibility gets a lot heavier as the brass starts adding up, and the 0300 "Hurricane" for a new firefighter (that would have been acceptable 30 years ago) isn't so amusing when as a chief officer you understand the risk involved: potential injury, potential liability, potential public relations nightmare. So maybe we have changed as we ascend in rank, but it is definitely the change you seek when you realize you are now in charge of a bigger part of the overall picture. Unfortunately, we see daily in the news that there are those at this level who DON'T get that, and this is the danger zone in which trouble occurs.
What is seen as funny by some may be seen as sophomoric to others, but we also must understand that what we think is "funny" might also, in another context, be dangerous or risky not just from a safety standpoint, but for legal reasons. What used to be considered "pranking" a probie is now defined as hazing, which, if the individual can prove, could even set you up for federal civil rights violations. I'm no lawyer, but I know a few, and I'll bet they can tell you plenty of horror stories involving "innocent fun" that evolved into civil or even criminal actions.
I can hear the shouting already about how ridiculous this has become, but listen to me closely: This is the new reality. You don't have to like it, but you'd better understand it and embrace it, because unless you have some sort of magic wand, it isn't going anywhere. This isn't a matter of ignoring it because you don't like it. This is a matter of being a leader who understands your responsibility isn't to be the most senior firefighter but to be the designated adult supervision. If you put on a badge and it has at least one bugle on it, it is your sworn responsibility not just to watch out for your people for their safety, but to watch out for the entity you represent and protect them from liability.
This is a hard decision for some. Do I want to be perceived as the "no fun" guy or do I want to be looked up to as a leader? Only you can make that decision, but when it comes time for it, you need to be all in. There are many reasons for us to be professional other than looking good to the public. Being a professional means we act and lead as an example to others, that our performance in our job is exemplary, and that we conduct ourselves like responsible individuals. There's nothing wrong with having a laugh, but make sure that it isn't at the expense of everything you have worked to create.