The Oath

“My fundamental duty is to serve humanity…”

We all stood. “All rise and raise your right hand”..The clatter of the old wooden auditorium seats clapped and banged as the entire academy stood as one. “Repeat after me..”, said the Chief officer in attendance. The thunder of male voices rang through the auditorium. Our families sat behind us, listening proudly. We were now sworn to our duty. That was back in 1991. I still remember it like it was yesterday.

“I do solemnly swear….”

My first house.  Circa 1992.  Brand new Pierce coming on line as E221.  Photo by Author.

My first house. Circa 1992. Brand new Pierce coming on line as E221. Photo taken with a real camera, using actual film on a roll.  This took some actual skill.  Not so good for selfies..Photo by Author.

I still remember the feeling of the badge being pinned on my Class B shirt. I was now, officially at least, in the eyes of the County of Orange, a fireman.  Man, ..I did not have any clue what I was committing to.  What a nube…I understood the words and how serious it was, I didn’t understand the cost.  Nor did I understand at the time, what it meant to commit to such a thing.  In my mind, I was still a Marine, and this was just a job to fill the void in my life after leaving the Corps.  But within a year, on an April night in L.A., I experienced first hand what it meant.  The King Riots taught me a thing or two, the riots took me from being a firefighter, and led me down the path of parallel lines to being a fireman.

“…preserve life and property from the elements of fire and disaster..”

Chief Croker, much quoted with his famous words about his, “one ambition” also stated, a little less famously that a fireman’s great act of bravery was taking his oath. That after this had been done, all else was his duty. This quote has paled in popularity with all of the 9/11 hoorahing that has gone on for years. In essence, it states truth. You hear older firemen say it often, “I was just doing my job”. Not so exciting, but truly humble and fitting of the public servant.

“I serve the people…”

Iron men.  Back in the day the oath did not come with great pay and benefits.  Not without earning it.  ©Michael Dick.  Used by permission.  http://www.fdnysbravest.com/

Iron men. Back in the day the oath did not come with great pay and benefits. Not without earning it. ©Michael Dick. Used by permission. http://www.fdnysbravest.com/

In this day and age of self glorification on Facebook and YouTube, the idea that a public servant maintain a humble attitude and do his or her duty regardless of cost, is not so exciting. It is far more thrilling and “Like” producing to grandly display our bravery and feel the rush of pride as all our one thousand “friends” comment on how brave we all are and how proud they all are of our performance and selfless dedication.

Did you take an oath for your badge? Were you sworn to your duty as a firefighter?

I hope you were. Personally, I still believe that an oath is worth taking. For we do hold an office, appointed by an authority. Even though much of the time it may seem to be just another job, it carries with it as we are all well aware, the same inherent hazards that confront the police and the military. The idea that you may need to give your life in service of the public trust. That you may be called upon to suffer in the performance of that trust. You may be called upon to go beyond the normal bounds of your duties in keeping that trust. Therefore, it has long been regarded as an “oath” worthy position.  It might be valid to add here that to “suffer” in the performance of duty is not limited to death.  “Laying down your life” can take many forms.

But in recent times, as with all things of deep, but slightly intangible meaning, the value placed on taking an oath for your badge has slipped by the way. Like that of wearing a uniform shirt, ..for crying out loud, you could get a work injury having to button all those buttons.

My daily oath.  Some don't like wearin' a badge.  Makes 'em act like its High Noon and someone is gunnin' for them.  To me it is a reminder of my oath.  Photo by author.

My daily oath. Some don’t like wearin’ a badge. Makes ’em act like its High Noon and someone is gunnin’ for them. To me it is a reminder of my oath. Photo by author.

I’ve taken two oaths in my life. One to uphold the Constitution, as a United States Marine. The second was to uphold the Constitution and to serve the public, of which I am just as proud, was my oath as a fireman. Both acts reflect the very essence of the life I have long committed myself and my family to. A life of service to the public and my country. But before I get too puffed up, I have to be realistic, there have been many times when I have lost sight of those words I pledged. I am no angelic being. I am not a perfect man. Having taken the oath, I am held accountable to my conscience. And that is the point of it.

What is an oath? My old copy of Webster’s Collegiate states that it is “a ritualistic declaration, typically based on an appeal to God or a god, (I personally only believe in one) or to some revered person or object, that one will speak the truth, keep a promise, remain faithful etc.” Essentially, the act of swearing to keep your word, by taking action to do what you said you would do.  That seems relatively straight forward, especially given the fact that we are often paid to do what we said we would do. I find it ironic that in an age where truth is considered relative to your personal interpenetration, that the act of taking an oath is considered relatively passe or naive. Even inconvenient. But there is a great deal of accountability in an oath taken and although this might be an age of relative truth, you Jake, will be held to a higher standard when the chips are cashed in and there really won’t be any relativity involved.  With all of the pathetically poor examples of integrity before us, from our societies leadership specifically, it is very hard at times to articulate why that oath is so important.

This harkens back to the parallel lines I wrote about last time.  The third line of Character.  Character in the way we perform our duty.  WE have a duty, …clear to see.  It is to be ready, at all times to serve the public and if as an officer, to serve those who serve the public.  It is to always pursue excellence, so that we may serve them better.  It is to pass this knowledge on to those coming behind us.   It is to serve them all our days, even when they turn their backs on us.  In carrying out your duties, you may pay a stiff price, brother and sister.  You may pay a stiff price.  So may you always feel that badge, poking your chest.  May it remind you of what you swore to do, even when you haven’t had a good run in a long while, the chief and the mayor are acting like mutts and you hate the guy who commented on the newspaper article about lazy firefighters who don’t earn their pay.

“My duty is to the people”..

Lt. Richard Nappi.  Career Firefighter a17-Year veteran with FDNY and a Farmingville Fire Dept. volunteer.  April 16th, 2012.

Lt. Richard Nappi. Career Firefighter a17-Year veteran with FDNY and a Farmingville Fire Dept. volunteer and Fraternal Leatherhead to the core.   Died in the Line of Duty, April 16th, 2012.

Lt. Rich Nappi, Engine 237, FDNY paid the ultimate sacrifice two years ago, April 16th 2012.  I dedicate this little note to his memory.  He and I didn’t know each other real well, but well enough to clink a glass, he’d yank my mustache, I’d cuss him under my breath.  He kinda brought out my hostile side.  But I learned a thing or two from that little big man.  As the F.O.O.L.S. official “Minister of Tact and Decorum” he taught me to toughen my armor East Coast style, widened my perspective, and when I realized he walked out of the WTC alive, I gave him a wide berth.  But Rich was also known by those who worked and served with him as devoted to the Brotherhood in a way that puts many of us to shame.  Rich was all in.  He was all Leatherhead, and they loved him.

Honor all of those who have taken their oath, their moment, that one act of bravery.  Everything else was their duty.  Goodnight, Nappi.  Sleep well.

FTM-PTB-RFB

Leather Forever!  —109

21 Comments

  • Andy Mejia says:

    Awesome article – one that should be posted (and read) by every entry level academy to firehouse throughout the country…. Every class I teach, there’s a “throw back” slide or two on The Oath… Even though we must never forget…. we must also never forget where we came from and what we got ourselves into. Thanks for posting this.! AJM

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Andy,

      Glad you felt that way about it. So many people find the idea of a badge oath a threat or a waste of time. I admit, it can be taken to extremes. But that is a topic for another time. Thanks for commenting!

  • scott birkemose says:

    I’m glad someone finally says it like it is. great article

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Hey Scott,

      Glad you found it worth your time and I thank you for your kind words. Its always good to know we are not alone out there. Others serve as we do, quietly, keeping our pledge even as the world around us changes and no longer seems to value the pledge we made. Keep the Faith, Brother!

  • Richard Sparks says:

    I personally feel that an oath is more important than ever. In this age of skewed morality, most have no idea what honor truly is. Years ago when I started, I didn’t have to take an oath. But as soon as I told my father (a Para-Rescueman in Vietnam) he told me what it really meant. He asked about the oath, and explained I didn’t have to stand in front of someone to take one. He said “An oath is not where you are, but who you are. The oath is just a series of words. They mean nothing without your unwavering integrity.” This was also when he first started to open up about the things he had gone through. We are in a rare fraternity, a brotherhood most will never understand. The “oath” starts within ourselves.

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Richard,

      Your father was speakin’ truth, pure and simple. For much of society, an oath is just a series of words. Swearing on the Bible, serving our country, getting married for the second time, ..becoming citizens. Our word is given and so often it is taken lightly. Anyone can raise their right hand and say whatever they’re required to say. Your father is right, unwavering integrity is what makes it an oath. And an oath carries the expectation that it will be honored. Many in our society will shame or forsake their oath, …but let it not be us.

      • Sprinklerman says:

        Ben,
        As one who was required to take an oath several times, (various fire service positions and my marriage vows) what you have said here is as important as what you provided in your article. This says it all; “an oath carries the expectation that it will be honored.”

  • Joe Crowshaw says:

    Ben,
    This article is a short but powerful read, thanks for getting it right.

    Stay low in smoke,
    Joe

  • H Babler says:

    Cap,
    Great words as usual, I was blessed with the opportunity to take an oath, it was a spine tingling moment. There I was swearing to protect the citizens of my city. I think that on this job it’s easy to think that the oath only applies to the runs we like, the big fires or mvc’s etc. However like you say it’s our day to day actions that show who we really are. Do we have perseverance are we willing to the extra mile on the mundane call at 0230 ? My generation is blamed for a lot of issues both within the fire service and without in my mind some things are legitimate and some are not. Where we have failed and continue to fail is in not treating this career like the calling that it is. We are called the fire service for a reason we are called to serve people no matter how mundane or sill the call may be in our eyes. The oath is my constant reminder of the fact that I want to serve the citizens of my city I want to help them when they need help. I took that oath in front of my family, friends, brothers and most importantly my God. I fully intend to follow through with my end of the bargain. Thanks again Cap!

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Always great to hear from you, brother! Unfortunately, not everyone gets to take an oath for their badge. Sometimes its dug out of a desk drawer and flung at you..

  • Bobby Halton says:

    Loved every word agreed with every word thank you for sharing beautifully done!

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Thank you Chief! I am truly humbled, and honored. I missed not being at the Brotherhood Bash this year, I would have enjoyed seeing you again. If you go to FRI, keep a look out for me, we’ll escape and toss one back! I’ll buy!

  • Mike Bastedo says:

    I started in EMS years ago, and took a decade off from EMS. I just found my home as a volunteer fireman last year, after feeling my “day job” was not fulfilling enough. I got a chill and a huge rush when I took my oath, because a man’s word means something if he’s worth anything at all, and I meant every word of that oath.
    Omnum Cedunt Domum Brother.
    FF Bastedo, Snyder FD, Amherst, NY

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Hey Brother Mike, so glad you have returned to the fold! We have the most honored of professions! I remember the feeling I had the morning after the L.A. Riots. I was plain dumbstruck as I realized there was no other job for me. I would never be content again any time a red rig ran by. Its a good feeling to take that oath!

      Keep The Faith! Ben

  • Don Forsyth says:

    Wow! I think you have done a fantastic job of trying to explain to the new generation of firefighter, what those who have gone before them felt in their heart, when they also competed against thousands of others to earn the right to call themselves Firemen! It is amazing how today’s generation feels like it’s ok while on duty to run to the store to purchase personal items, car parts, and just about anything that has nothing to do with the Job for which they are being paid to be on duty for. It also amazes me how many of today’s generation do just the minimum amount of work possible to be able to get back to the station and to their personal agenda. I am amazed how there is no desire to spend one minute of their own time without being paid to learn more about the job that can kill them each and every single time the bell goes off. There seems to be no concern for the property of others, at the station, or more importantly, of those on the calls to which they respond.

    I am really scratching my head to determine when and where our paths may have crossed. I’m sure they must have! I did 42 years at OCFA with the exact philosophy you have explained here, and still today keep performing my duty to train and educate those who come after me, in just what you’re talking about in this article. Brother, you hit this topic right on the head, keeping our oath, honor, service and our conscience at the forefront of every little thing we do, and hopefully do everything to the absolute best of our ability in order to provide the best service possible, even if it means going that extra mile for those we serve.

    Keep up the great work. I’m not sure how I got to your article, so please let me know how I insure I get to read each and every single article you write, brother! If you’re interested, I still send out emails that contain great pieces, videos, or great learning tidbits based on real life incidents where we all can learn from the mistakes of others, so we insure we do not have to suffer through what others have had to suffer due to mistakes in our business. I call the group my good stuff group who receive these, and if you’d like added, just let me know.

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Brother Don,

      I love work you do with the website. Our past as firemen is so vivid and alive, we cannot let it pass into oblivion! Thank you for your comments and the encouragement! I promise you I will never lower the bar. A woman my father worked with once told him that when he had passed away there would be no gentlemen left in the world. (I think she had a miserable guy for a husband)…My Dad replied, “No, I have two sons…” So I would like to add, for every one of us that’s out there in the fire service, we are duplicating and giving every effort to shape and mold and capture the hearts of those we lead. I promise you, sir, we will not give up on this generation!

      I’m very honored that you took the time to write! Please add me to your list! lepompier@acsalaska.net or bdfleagle@gmail.com

      Leather Forever, Ben

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Don, I was a small fry back in OCFA, I’m sure we crossed paths, but I would not have attracted much attention. I worked at 21’s from October of 1990 until 1995. I was a Paid Call Firefighter. Tom Connors was one of the Engine captains on the paid side, and Daryl Helwig (sp?)on Truck 21. I saw Tom again back in 2006 when I stopped in for a visit. He was working at the new training center then. Your name seems familiar too. Cameron Spicer hired me and I Doug Calvert was my PCF captain for a bit. I graduated from the 10th PCF Academy. It was a hard working crowd and I was young and immature, but I learned a lot from them and I owe my career to their hard driving attitude. I certainly would not be the fireman that I am without 21’s. I normally was on E221, but I went up to the riots on Engine 21 that night, I filled the extra seat and cannot now remember the names but I do remember that the driver and captain were regulars at 21’s and they always had a good word for me and a friendly smile afterword. The captain made Battalion not long after and his name started with a D. He looked after me from time to time. Long time ago. But thanks for the encouraging words and for the dedication you served with for so long.

  • Don Forsyth says:

    Wow, I think you’ve really hit the target on this one brother! After 42 years with OCFA, and still teaching and writing, and educating within the fire service, I too believe that many of today’s generation do not have a clue how these character traits you write about are what the entire fire service history is built on. Most who came before them in years past felt the honor, pride and belief that the words within the oath was the most important part of how they performed their work within the fire service and lead their lives.

    Today’s generation doesn’t see one bit of issue with running to the store while on duty to purchase personal items, personal car parts, or just about anything even though it has nothing to do with the job they are being paid to do, while on duty. Many do just the minimum effort necessary to complete a call, and return to the station and their personal agenda, or personal business endeavors while on duty. It is beginning to seem like many of today’s firefighters have no conscience, no desire to do their best, and most have no desire to spend one minute of their own time learning about this job that can kill them each and every single time the bell goes off, without being paid to do so, yet many want to promote and have the expectation of being an officers, who as you say, have the lives of their subordinates in the hands, and on their shoulders each and every shift on duty. Many have no idea what that responsibility really entails.

    Keep up the great work brother doing your best to share this fantastic philosophy you have, and know that when the day comes as you talked about, you know well that you did your absolute best!

    If you’re interested I have an email distribution list, to which I send periodically, good articles, good learning pieces, videos, and items that help us all learn so we don’t have to suffer the consequences of those before us, who have suffered so much due to mistakes. If you’d like to receive those, let me know.

    Again, great article sharing a great philosophy, that I wish all Firefighters had, my friend!

    Retired, but never done

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  • Roland says:

    Another great article Captain….and so true. I print out a lot of your stuff and give it to my EMS trainees and talk to them about what you mean.

    Many of them do get it……some I have to work on. But as one part of the 1st responder team we should constantly be aware of the oath we all take in the profession of saving lives and property.

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