Few issues can spin a coffee table up as quickly as a discussion about departmental citations. The number of opinions is matched by the number of people sitting around the table. Put on a helmet and shoulder pads and then ask the question, “When is it appropriate to recognize members for their heroism?” There will be those who answer immediately: never. Firefighters, they will assert, have already performed the greatest act of courage in becoming firefighters … everything else is in the line of duty.
Others around the table might articulate another position: Recognizing individuals for an act of bravery is tantamount to reinforcing the positive attributes that we want our members to exhibit. Further, when so little tangible can be done for firefighters to adequately reflect the depth of esteem that the public holds them in, why not extend some visual reflection of lives saved and exemplary performance praised? The fire chief should have the discretion to recognize individuals who contribute significantly to the mission of the organization. Such recognition can serve as a visual reminder to others in the same organization that hard work and perseverance in effort are celebrated formally.
For those who have served in the military and witnessed truly heroic acts of bravery, usually connected to the loss of life of brothers in arms, there is a certain humility that is difficult to express in words. And yet, the military has the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest honor for members of the armed forces whose sacrifices so move the spirit as to demand recognition. Medal of Honor recipients speak about the tremendous weight that comes with wearing the physical embodiment of their acts and yet they do so with grace and pride, knowing that they are not representing their own actions but the actions of all members of the military who never made it home and whose similar bravery did not get recognized.
The danger in any such effort occurs when the concept of recognition is taken to its extreme, producing Russian generals who boast a chest full of ribbons and medals and betray the very core of heroism. In this era of giving every kid a trophy for participating so no one gets their feelings hurt, there is grave danger in cheapening the entire effort so greatly as to make the value of any medal or ribbon functionally zero or, worse, insult and denigrate the acts of truly valiant individuals.
We are not civilians whose acts of heroism are all the more incredible when you consider that they could have simply turned and walked away from the circumstances that catapulted them into a moment of what must have been tremendous fear. Courage, it is said, is not the absence of fear, rather it is action in the face of fear, and such civilians are truly courageous. There are also instances when firefighters risk their lives in such a way to warrant formal recognition, although such men and women never serve with that intent. Most of us have never known what it is like to risk our lives in such a way that when we emerged from the event on the other side-and found ourselves still alive-we were genuinely surprised.
We should have ceremonies to honor our brethren. We call those among us who affirm our core values a firefighter’s firefighter. We should issue citations for genuine bravery. We should not issue citations of bravery for being the member of a crew that staffed a bull roast, hung around the station for 20 years, or any of the other myriad actions that, while certainly worthy of our thanks, do not compare to those rare instances of immeasurable risk and reward in a life saved. Recognizing individual or group effort for no-risk actions cheapens the very essence of why we are here, and we are better than that-or we should be.