Our Ambition: Exposed in the Light of Integrity

Well, fill the cup….its been a while. I’ve been on a leave of absence, learning more about life. Its that time for me I think. I’ve been all grown up for a bit now, but still feel young at heart and life has its way of dragging you into reality.

I returned to duty just in time. We’ve been hoppin’. Between mutual aid and fires of our own, there hasn’t been a week in the past month that we haven’t been fightin’ fire somewhere and I gotta say, it does much good for morale, in spite of the effect it has on the fire prevention stats. Good firemen like to be firemen and they like doing what they do. Not much different from being in the Corps, I’d say. We were always dressed up lookin’ for a fight, because that’s what we were taught to do. Hmmmm, ..there’s a theme for another article there somewhere….another time.

It isn't often that the general public can clearly understand the work that we do on their behalf. It is up to us to show them. Photo by S. Bender.

My good brother, Rob, asked me what I would write about next and I have struggled to find time since my return home to put pen to paper. But I finally stumbled upon it yesterday. Sit and poor yourself a strong cup, I’ll allow I’ve been wanderin’ here and there but I’m fixin’ to get serious.  Now bear with me, brother.   I got somethin’ to say, but it’ll take a minute to get around the tailboard and start a lead out.  First we need to get a little situational awareness.  Like the old fireman always says, “Before you lay line, make sure you know where you want to put it down…”

Since the assault on public employees began in Wisconsin this year, it has become obvious to many that a scapegoat has been chosen for our nations economic woes. If you’re a union brother, I’m sure you’ve heard from various publications and union reps that we are under attack for our pensions and the call is out to fight back. The General President used the term “Insidious Legislation” to describe how the right-wing of our government has begun a war of annihilation on the IAFF and other unions and the left-wing has just stood aside or even jumped in to get their own licks in. It would appear that we, the public servant and our terrifyingly evil pensions are at fault for the economic crisis and we need to bend over the wagon wheel for our whipping. It is being put in warfare terms to get our attention and I believe, rightly so. Most of us have traded high wages for a stable income and retirement, just like teachers, police and the other members of society’s apparatus. Apparently, those who like to work in the private sector and amass large fortunes, need more meat to grind and we are it. There are some very well paid firemen.  But not that many.  I am ready and willing to fight, not because they want to take from me, but because they are taking from my wife and children. Like all the union brothers, my heart is enraged at this attack on what even now is barely enough to keep us solvent in our old age, ..should we make it that far. We are all aware of the other insidious killer, lurking at every corner in our profession, cancer and stress.  Yeah, they don’t want to pay for that either.  So wear your mask, …anyway, I”m getting off point..

There is more to this than just how evil politicians are.  There are, as always, two sides to every story.   I’ve been a fireman for twenty years. I came on the job in the Spring of 91. I wasn’t full-time, but paid per call, so I was not union. Later, as a full-time federal firefighter, I chose not to be union. Experiences with UAW in my youth really made my stomach crawl. I did not define “Brotherhood” the way they did. I didn’t become a union member until this last year, when the rest of my brothers and I finally joined the IAFF. And I have to say, its been a much better experience than I expected, and my hat is off to the Local officers that assisted us with that change. The IAFF has shown itself to be a reputable organization in our territory.  But I also believe that there is a need for a self-assessment here.  Labor has a bad reputation for good reason, it has often gotten greedy and way out of line.  I do not believe that the IAFF is that way as a rule, but you can’t always pick your family members.  We need to defeat Labor’s greedy rap.  A little integrity is warranted here. Before the battle, let us examine ourselves and as humble and loyal public servants, let us search for any faults and expose them to the light, so that the public can see that we truly are servants, deserving our coveted pensions. I’m talking about having integrity in our profession. As a Leatherhead, this is something I can speak loudly about and with authority, for as the president of a local chapter of the Society of Leatherheads, it is my duty to speak out about such things among my membership and the Brotherhood.

"In the moment of truth, do not be found wanting" My good brothers in Snohomish Co. keep at perfection on a daily basis. Photo by author.

Are we a justifiable target for this attack? Why attack the public servant? What is the gain? Who is driving this? Well, you know as well as I do there are plenty of angry blogs and news articles and special interest editorials out there to fill us in on the details. Maybe there isn’t a good reason for it.  But as a fireman, a brother, as a sister, union or non-union, what have you done lately to prevent such attacks? By and large, most firefighters are good stewards of the public trust, but there is a contingent of those who don’t have a clue and we need to own them as our own, because it is up to us be good stewards of life in the public house.  The lazy and careless need to be reined in, the youthful ignorance curbed and corrected.  The greedy exposed for what they are.  Whether union or not, we are all representatives of our chosen profession and for some, our passion.   We need to own up to our faults where we find them and show our younger members, and some times our older ones, what it means to truly be men and women of integrity.  I am constantly learning from my Chief.  He constantly sets the example.  Can that be said of you?  He is no longer part of labor, he is management, but he is our biggest fan and knows that it is all tied together, management, labor, performance and service.  It has to be protected.  People like us fall down when our integrity is neglected.

Ask yourself a question or two. Are you visibly tending to the image you present to the public? In what ways do you show John Q. that you are money well spent.  Now I love ya, brother.  I really do, but does that sticker on your window really reflect the sentiment we’re trying to achieve here?  “I fight what you fear!”  Really?  I live in the rugged northland, there are plenty of hard core residents here that could give a damn.  Such things only piss them off.  Many view fire departments as an expense the government foists upon them and which they would be better off without.  Fear?  Don’t be pathetic, they don’t fear fire, if they did they’d support us more and make a big deal about us. You wonder why you can get the mil rate raised?  Have you controlled your drivers on the road?  Do they drive the apparatus like demons, pushing the public out of the way?  And, your young bucks, do they  waltz around the fireground acting like kings of the hill? God’s gift to our community?  Our actions speak volumes.

How about that other sticker, you know, the one that loudly illustrates your department or IAFF affiliation, does it actually say  “I have a bad ass truck and drive like this is my fire engine!”.  Think about it.  Do you really drive your POV like you’re representing the rest of the Brotherhood?  I hope you do, your days of freedom are over when  you take this job, you represent all of us.

Settle down, now.. I”m not trying to get you mad or assault your sense of pride, but these are some small examples of ways in which we erode our credibility as public servants.  When someone is afraid, when fear affects their choices, they seek shelter, they close a gate, lock the door.  If society is afraid of crime, it calls the guard dog, our faithful friends in the patrol car.  When they fear fire, they call us and this they do in the heat of the moment, but collectively as a society, would prefer not to have to rely on us. 

Chief Edward Croker. Photo borrowed from the text of FE Firefighter Handbook. Used without permission.

But as Chief Croker reminded the officials of New York City a hundred years ago:

We strive to preserve from destruction the wealth of the world, which is the product of the industry of men, necessary for the comfort of both the rich and the poor. We are the defenders from fire of the art which has beautified the world, the product of the genius of men and the means of the refinement of mankind.”

Unfortunately for society, they have not found an escape from this need to have us nearby.  But fact or not, this does not keep them from looking for ways to remove the burden, or at least lessen it.  These famous words of Chief Croker’s were spoken in defense of the fire service.   He was standing up to defend his profession and justify its expense. 

Our “ambition” should be to live out the chief’s words in reality, even a hundred years later.  The public needs to see this, needs to believe in this too, so that we can have their support.  It doesn’t matter how strong the labor movement is, and maybe it thought itself strong enough to rest on its laurels, if we don’t conduct ourselves as professional men and women of integrity, we sacrifice our best friends in this fight.  The firehouse neighbors.  It is they who will defend us, they who see us each day, they who bring their children to us to believe in someone safe and good, it is they who will cast votes to defend us, or neglect us.  What are you doing in the streets of your servanthood?  Offending or serving?

Please, don’t get me wrong here, I’m not accusing, but asking all of us to examine ourselves and to put things in order.  I’m not announcing another list of 15 career saving behaviors to keep the public happy!  I’m asking you to take a second glance. You cannot win an ethical fight when you are stained.  And we are naturally stained as all men are, so we must strive to minimize, don’t leave low hanging fruit for the assailants to pick and display to the public.  What is it that the public sees?  A bunch of overpaid adrenaline junkies?  A red medic car load of jaded paragods?  When the public meets you, are you working or are you in your shorts and badass firefighter shirt, eating protein drinks and checkin in on Facebook or E*trade?  Is the firehouse looking its best?  Does it reflect your attitude?

"Old 16, first out in the Big House" Photo by author.

 What is the public seeing?  Sometimes they aren’t even aware they are seeing it until it is time to tally the accounts.  Are you whinning about cleaning the rig or do you clean it as a demonstration of your stewardship?  Even an old piece can be a display of good stewardship through hard service.  Guard your honor in this and teach your brothers and sisters to display their servanthood proudly.  Our intent should be to fill the storeroom with good marks that outweigh whatever may be found deficient.  This means that when the owner comes home, the servant is not found wanting.  We are the servants.  The nice folks or the whacko at the door to the fire house are the owners, treat him or her with respect due, whether you feel it or not.  You may have justifiably cynical thoughts about the average member of the public, we all do from time to time, but a servant doesn’t show his feelings to the master of the house.  He keeps his opinions to himself and serves the one who pays him unless asked to give his opinion.  You may point out that the concept of public servant is outdated, and I will counter to you then that if it is no longer relevant, than neither are we.  We can be done away with.  We need to re-educate the public, through performance and self-discipline how valuable public service is.  And we cannot ever forget that if we take too much from the public, they will resent us, it is the natural order of things.

"No hot Joe and hotcakes this morning!" Photo by D. Waisenan

A few years back, I could have punched this guy.  He stood outside his favorite pancake joint on a -40 Sunday morning, wishing for his usual plate of jacks and coffee.  They weren’t going to be forthcoming, the place was just four walls and a lot of soot.  He was pissed.  “No joe?  No cakes?  Why do we even pay for you people!”  My company was in that place, having been up all night fighting the fire.  We had been given the joyful task of crawling through debris and knee deep water to find the incoming utility water shut off.  It was -40, the guys are frozen, questionable live loads overhead, trying to get this water shut off to keep the church next door from flooding and this guy is giving us grief over his lost pancakes.  He didn’t know that we hadn’t been called until twenty minutes after the fire was discovered over the grease pit kitchen, he didn’t know how our companies had risked themselves to save the neighborhood iconic greasy spoon.  He didn’t stop to think how many of us could have been killed trying to save his precious pancakes.  All he had for us that cold morning was venom.  I wanted to punch that guy.  I wanted to call him every name in the book and tear him apart.  My boys were freezing out there, without sleep all night, now struggling to save this guy’s own church from flooding and he’s pissin’ on us.  My battalion saw it coming, and sent me back into the wrecked building.  He quietly walked the man back to the church parking lot and did his best to represent us without letting his own anger show.  Both the boss and I are church going men too.  I really respected his self-control on behalf of the department that morning.

Integrity means that the public servant withholds his anger and hatred and withholds his right to sling back.  Ed Croker did us an eternal favor by displaying a calm, professional demeanor and thinking through what he had to say to place his profession in the best light possible and we must do the same, every day.  The public often mis-reads our intentions and when we aren’t paying attention, we often send the wrong message.  Situational awareness lacking.  You have to tend to this job, treat it with respect.  Wear your uniform like the servant you are and treat your equipment and houses with care, for they belong to the owner, …not you.  And when we have been frivolous and irreverent in the good times, we will pay for it in the hard times.  Build public respect through humble, dedicated service.  Treat every member of the public like your boss and then, when you stand before them on election day you may have earned their respect and favor. After all, you are a servant.  Don’t like that?  Well, …I hear they’s plenty jobs on Wall Street where a lack of service is always welcome.


  • Wee Gillan says:

    Well worth the wait Brother, you serve as a Braw example of the iconic image we all worked hard to be part of. Thanks ..I owe ya another

    • Brother, your viewpoint is guaranteed a little skewed..bein’ already warped into my evil mindset! But I appreciate your enthusiasm as always! Love ya, ya crazy Scot!

  • Schreck says:

    It’s time to step up or step out. Firefighters have enjoyed the benefits that have come from an adoring public and many have takin’ advantage, forgotten that we made a promise to serve and that we in-fact work for the public. As you so appropriately pointed out brother, for those that are a member of the big johnson fire department, you fight what we fear and leave ‘em wet it’s time to step out. We need to stop asking each other what we think of firefighters and start asking your community what their perception is. The public calls us on perhaps the worst day of their life, to handle a problem that they have no control over. The least they can expect is a well trained force of professionals and it starts with everyone of us. Individually we have the power to make change, act like the professionals we are. Wear the uniform with pride, respect the service even when some within do not deserve respect. We as a service need to remember it’s only our house to keep and maintain but belongs to the people of the community. The engine needs to be cleaned and maintained because it is their equipment that has been entrusted to us in order for us to do our job safely, quickly and efficiently. Even the toilet should be maintained and kept to military standards just in case a member of the public (our employers) should ever need to use it. Being a member of this service is a calling, a privilege and above all a responsibility. We need to stop saying and acting like we are owed anything because 343 Brothers made the ultimate sacrifice. Again in short step up or step out.
    Be safe Brothers and stay low

    • Steve,

      Your dead to rights, brother! Thanks so much for the comments. That’s just it, it isn’t about us, its about them. My favorite quote is “I am not here for me, I am here for we, and we are here for them”. That is how we should operate.

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