After serving three decades as a firefighter who progressed through the ranks to become a fire chief, I thought this may be the time to share my thoughts on how all firefighters and officers can better serve—not necessarily from a physical command perspective but from a personal character perspective. I call it leading from the front—regardless of your rank—through daily conduct that is morally and ethically sound.
Being a firefighter in any community is an honor, and the responsibility should be of great importance to you at all times. Having said that, this series’ subtitle, a pocket guide to safety, refers to the safety of your integrity, ethics, morals, and overall ability to make sound, mature, and responsible decisions in everything you do—both on the job and off.
When we become firefighters, the public places their trust in us—trust that we know how to do our job, that we will always do our job to the best of our ability, and that we will do our job with impartiality. When we fail to uphold any one of those promises, we break that sacred trust. And once that trust is broken, it can be very difficult—if not impossible—to regain.
This series should be used as a daily reminder of the things we should and shouldn’t do to respect and serve our community.
#1: Be Kind
I am sure that you can remember times when you were not kind or gracious to a family member or friend. We all can do a better job with this very essential human characteristic, especially as firefighters, where the root of our existence depends on our ability to show kindness and compassion in the face of tragedy.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself every day to make sure you are being the kindest you can be.
- Sympathetic to the needs of others?
- Gentle and benevolent, especially for those who can do nothing for me?
- Patient and understanding?
- Gracious and agreeable?
- Pleasant to be around?
- Morally sound?
I’m confident that if you review this short list before you start your day, you will be amazed by how much better you feel. And I’m sure that those people around you will feel it as well!
#2: Station Duties
No job is too big or too small. I remember my first station cleaning detail when I was with the Logan Airport Fire Department in 1975. I had just been appointed to the job, and here I was being assigned to clean the men’s locker room. Wow, what was I thinking? I thought becoming a firefighter was supposed to be glorious, glamorous, sexy, and heroic and here I was, with a bucket, mop, and toothbrush in my hand scrubbing urinals and toilets.
Well, I guess I did okay. Almost 40 years later, I managed to clean enough bathrooms and make enough good decisions to earn me three chief officer positions. I say that to bring to light that every job we do in the fire service is vital and important to the success of the organization. If you pay attention to detail on the small assignments, like cleaning, then it is almost a guarantee that the bigger tasks will be handled as well. Paying attention to detail and having pride in all work are honorable traits.
#3: Fire Station Relationships
Learn to work and play well with others.
Many of us didn’t know it when we were sworn into our departments that our lives were about to change forever. With that said, when you become a professional firefighter, you quickly become accustomed to living and working in a new, sometimes challenging environment.
My suggestion is to build stable relationships with everyone you are assigned. If you do have differences with someone on your shift, sit down, get it out in the open, and resolve it immediately. These work relationships are critical to the overall mission of your department and the safety of all.
If there is a problem or tension, ask yourself:
- What happened to start this off?
- How much was fueled by me?
Then set a time to discuss the issues with your coworker, and come to an agreement and resolve the problem. Be humble while doing so, and always shake hands as a gesture of solidarity.
- Would I talk to my spouse or significant other the way I do to my coworkers?
- Would my parents and children be pleased with me in how I act and talk with my coworkers?
- Is there anything I can be doing at work that will strengthen the respect my coworkers have for me?
- If you take a few minutes before every shift starts and ask these simple questions with your answers, you will be amazed how much better your day will go because you will be in command of yourself and be accountable.
#4: Home Behavior
At home you are expected to be respectful to your family. You are looked up to because not only are you a spouse or a parent but you are also a professional firefighter, which carries additional responsibilities. If you are acting out of character (e.g., drinking too much alcohol, yelling), that behavior must stop now.
Watching sexually explicit movies or television programs is not a good mannerism and can be a sign of sexual addiction. If you smoke or chew tobacco, that does not provide your children with a healthy environment or the proper self-image you want for them. Children are taught at school that smoking, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, and looking at sexually explicit material are not healthy for anyone. So, if you are acting out at home with any of these vices, you are not creating a healthy and respectful family environment. You must lead by example!
When you are off duty and at home, ask yourself these questions:
- Would I be drinking alcohol, chewing tobacco, or viewing sexually explicit media while I was conducting a tour of the station for a group of our neighborhood citizens?
- Would I be yelling at my partner or children if my grandparents were standing next to me?
- Would I be cursing or talking foul about a neighbor if that neighbor was standing in front of me and my family?
If you are a professional firefighter, you should be able to answer “No” to each one of the questions. How you act at home carries over to how you will be acting at the station and vice versa. You have to set your personal guidelines and live by them.
#5: Public Behavior
In reality, this topic shouldn’t even have to be discussed, but there have been too many instances where firefighters both on and off duty have acted in a way that is not in the best interest of integrity to themselves or their department.
When you are sworn in as a professional firefighter, you are saying, “I will act in accordance with respectful professionalism.” You have now become an ambassador of that organization. When people see you out in public, and you are wearing the city’s name on your person, you become accountable for all your actions. If you act out inappropriately, you will be called on it. Instead of worrying about how you will defend your actions, just do the right thing and choose wisely. Be professional!
Think about the following when you are out with the public:
- I am an ambassador to my department and the city. Am I acting as a professional?
- Will my family be proud of how I carry myself? Am I a mentor to children?
- I am accountable for everything I say and do.
- I will be held accountable and be disciplined if I choose improperly.
- What would my family think of me if they saw me out in public with my coworkers when I’m off duty?
Make the right choices, and your success will continue.
#6: Socializing with Fellow Firefighters
Once you become part of a firefighting family, you are part of it for life. Your comrades become an extension of your immediate family. You know that when they are needed for anything, they are there for you. There are few other professions whose members provide for this kind of care and understanding for each other.
Because of this bond, you don’t want to do anything that will damage your relationships.
- Always be kind and act respectable.
- Talk about your kids and sports.
- Talk about school and what fire science classes you are taking.
- Talk about your hobbies and what you are doing now.
- Share any good news that affects you or your family.
- Ask advice on any topics that are mainstream.
- Strive to be a peacekeeper.
- Absolutely no sexual overtones or innuendos during your casual conversation.
- Do not make any negative comments about someone’s weight or looks.
- Avoid talking about money and politics.
- Do not take anything said for granted. Always go to the source for clarification.
- Do not get verbally angry or abusive.
- Do not use foul language.
- Do not purposefully hurt someone’s feelings.
#7: Using Fire Station and Personal Computers
I know that when computers started being issued to our departments our bosses were excited because we all would now be able to write organized reports, build spreadsheets, develop presentations, and become “statistic gathering machines.” All the things that go on during daily, monthly, and yearly activities would be compiled and used to build a case for all new programs needed to successfully operate our departments.
That being said, managers at the time had no idea what impact the Internet would have on us. The Internet has certainly provided us all with a personal connection to the world’s information, and all from the privacy and comfort of your home or office.
But this easy access has brought about certain problems. One problem that arose out of having computers was the access to pornographic material in the fire stations. There was more “information” than anyone could fathom. And it wasn’t long after the start of computers in the firehouse that we saw more and more officers—and firefighters—accessing pornographic Web sites. Unfortunately, hundreds of firefighters have been subjected to disciplinary actions, including termination, for accessing pornographic material while on duty.
- Do not ever use a department-issued computer of any kind to look at inappropriate material.
- Do not use your personal desktop computer, smartphone, tablet, etc., to take and/or send naked pictures of yourself or coworkers.
- Do not download any material that contains photographs of any individual who can be considered by law enforcement to be under the age of 18 years old.
- Work with computers. Use them for all your work assignments. These tools allow us to complete projects that in the past would not have been done as efficiently and effectively.
- Use your personal computers of all types for what is good in life, but use them wisely.
#8: Out in Public
Those “oops” moments: I bet as soon as you read this title, it immediately brought up a past situation that you remember happening while you were out somewhere and something happened that made you say “oops.” The good thing for us is that an oops moment will usually only bring an embarrassing moment where your face turns red, you apologize, and you go on about your business.
- Do not smoke or use spit tobacco, especially spitting in a cup or bottle. We have all known for many years now just how much of a health hazard tobacco use is and how it contributes to cancer and other illnesses.
- Do not use foul or coarse language.
- Do not make any negative gestures to anyone while you are driving down the road. You already know that “all eyes” are on us as soon as we leave the station.
- Do not act like you are better than others or entitled.
- Of course, everyone makes mistakes. Take responsibility for your mistake and you will feel better, and your crew and department will save face.
- Behave in a humble manner! Everyone already admires firefighters; it is not necessary to show off in any way.
- Be kind.
- You may be saying, “Come on chief, why be so strict?” I say, we are held to a higher standard and we can’t just talk the talk, we have to walk the walk.
#9: Talking on your personal or station phone
This applies to those who are both on duty and off duty while at the fire station.
- Do not stop by the fire station to conduct your personal business. You are putting your career in jeopardy when you conduct personal business while using city phones. This is a conflict of interest and crosses the line of ethical behavior expected of municipal employees.
- Do not use the “house phone” for any personal calls that you wouldn’t want your spouse or significant other or your children to hear. In every fire station, the walls have ears. You can be assured that what you are saying on the phone, no matter if it is completely legitimate or not, will be heard by someone in the station and then repeated.
- Use your own phone for personal and private business calls. This is the best course of action. Period. Use your personal car or truck for private conversations if you are on the road, and of course home is the most secure place. Keep your personal life on the phone just that—personal!
#10: Practical jokes and “horseplay”
I know for a fact that this topic already has you smiling and laughing thinking back on a practical joke that someone pulled on someone else at the station. This practical joking, also known as hazing in some instances, occurs on a regular basis. As much as this seems to provide entertainment, there are some practical jokes or hazing that can be devastating to one’s career.
You may be saying, “Chief, what’s the big deal?” The big deal is that when we start disrespecting our own we lose respect for ourselves and our integrity diminishes.
- Do not plan, be a part of, or execute any practical jokes. What may be funny to you may not be funny to another firefighter on your crew. People’s lives and jobs are on the line every day.
- Treat all your brothers and sisters in the fire service with ultimate respect, whether they just came on the job or are ready to retire. Help one another with all matters pertinent to good work ethics and a positive environment.
- Look out for each other at all times.
As a firefighter, you have been given an opportunity to be there for each other. Stopping a situation from happening is as heroic as knocking down a room fire with a victim rescue. Do the right thing!
Stay tuned for 10 more tips in part two of this series.