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.
Over the past two months, I shared 20 of my dos and don’ts, and here are 10 more to add to your pocket guide. This series should be used as a daily reminder of the things we should and shouldn’t do to respect and serve our community.
#21: Personal hygiene and overall cleanliness.
Hygiene is about being healthy; it is a system of principles for preserving health and cleanliness. We all know how important it is that we keep ourselves healthy and clean, and not only is it a department requirement but also a professional requirement for all firefighters.
We all have worked with someone who may not have taken that concept to heart and may have been on the edge of both. It is in all our best interest that we maintain this standard as one of those high standards. After all, we are professionals, and our customers expect us to show up that way.
- Don’t show up for duty unshaven with your uniform wrinkled.
- Don’t be offensive to your coworkers by how you smell.
- Don’t leave your personal mess for someone else to clean up.
- Don’t leave your food and dishes out for someone else to clean.
- Don’t leave trash in your apparatus.
- Do report for duty clean and ready to handle your business.
- Do make sure your hair on your head and face meets department regulations.
- Do ensure your uniform is clean and pressed and your shoes are shined.
- Do ensure your hands are clean and ready for gloves.
- Do brush your teeth and use mouthwash.
#22: Work and dress uniforms.
A uniform reminds you that you are in fact what you are wearing. It should always remind us how much it means to us and to those we serve what an honor it is to be a firefighter.
- Don’t disrespect your dress uniform by not wearing it clean, pressed, and complete as stated above.
- Do wear the Class A uniform with pride; it always makes us feel proud. Our Class A dress uniform allows us to display our rank, and most departments also display years of service. In addition, we display our badge, name tag, and all ribbons/commendations of awards on our chest. On the lapels, some will wear their bugle rank insignia. Your ensemble should be complete with hat, dress shirt and tie, coat, dress slacks, dark socks, and shined shoes.
The work uniform has been made extremely durable over the past 10 years. Do keep your work uniform clean at all times, especially between EMS responses. Most department’s infectious disease control policies require the changing or washing of uniforms if any contaminants were present.
- Don’t bring your work uniform home and place it in your personal washer and dryer machines. You never know for sure what sort of contaminants you may have picked up on your uniform over a 24-hour period. Most departments now have washing machines and dryers at each station so you can wash your uniform at the station.
- Don’t wear your department uniform if you are working another part-time department or ambulance company job. Each department or company should supply its own uniforms.
#23: Use of alcohol and/or drugs on or off duty.
It’s not a secret that firefighters may on occasion get together and have a social drink or two after a shift or when they are off duty. That being said, there have been many bad choices made by some to drink heavily the night before a morning shift starts that leaves the drinkers over the legal limit or actually drunk while they are on duty. Over the years, there have been some firefighters who have started to use prescription pain medication or illegal drugs. The use of any of these substances can become habit forming and addictive.
It almost sounds insane that firefighters would show up under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but it happens. When we see firefighters acting out of control or see a behavior that is not representative of a professional firefighter, we ask: “What is going on here?”
When you ask those firefighters why, you get many reasons and excuses. For all these issues, they try and reduce the pain by drinking or using one kind of drug or another. These symptoms occur in many other work professionals; however, they are often not responsible for life-saving efforts. When you are a firefighter on duty and assigned any position, you need to be 100% on task mentally, emotionally, morally, and physically to perform your duties in saving lives and property. Being under the influence of any altering substance is unacceptable. If you are involved in this behavioral pattern and activity, I would strongly suggest you seek assistance in-house or outside your workplace before something very bad happens.
#24: Gambling at the fire station on or off duty.
Gambling is not an activity that is sanctioned and supported by your fire department senior staff. Over my fire service career, I saw gambling occur in fire stations in the form of football, baseball, basketball, and even NASCAR racing boards. This type of gambling can start off as a friendly game of chance. Of course, anytime winning or losing any amounts of money is in play, human behaviors show up also.
Even though it seems like just friendly bets, when someone loses money on a game bet, the stress level is increased dramatically. I have heard verbal arguments get out of control that have led to physical confrontations, which will only lead to one of those career-limiting or -ending moves.
If you and your crew members do gamble in-house, I would suggest you stop. If you must compete, have the bets involve something other than money. For example, if my team wins then you handle the food or wash the dishes. The least money lost the better.
#25: Pornography at the fire station.
I know you may be saying, “Alright chief, enough with the pornography prevention lessons!” I wish I didn’t feel compelled to cover so many topics relating to it, but unfortunately it is the number one vice that challenges our firefighters to remain morally sound and morally courageous while on duty.
Today, it is so easy to get online and access free porn sites. Back in the 1970s, you would see a plethora of pornographic material around the firehouse. This was in a time that porn was not considered as immoral as it has become. It has become so destructive that department management had to have legal departments write special orders, directives, and operational memorandums on the nonaccess or keeping of pornographic material in print or electronically.
Those firefighters who started using station computers for porn found themselves disciplined, and some were even terminated. Others thought they could bring in their personal laptop, smartphone, or tablet and access it that way. Some governments won’t allow their members to bring in personal computer equipment and allow them to have a cellphone with the clear instructions that if they are caught viewing pornography they will be disciplined in accordance with department policy.
#26: Video camera usage at the fire station on and off duty.
I remember when the monitor-mounted video camera first came out. Many people were very excited, but others couldn’t figure out how to use it or set it up. Like anything new in technology, it took a while before it became so easy and integrated into our computers, smartphones, and tablets.
This easy accessibility is great if you keep everything in line with good moral and ethical behavior, but problems crop up when someone decides to drop his moral guard and start recording someone in personal situations. Unfortunately, chiefs spend a lot of their day with personnel directors and legal council meetings to deal with these issues.
This is unacceptable behavior both personally and professionally. If you are doing this at the station or home, STOP!
#27: Smartphone use for texting/sexting.
Before we actually had such easy access to video cameras with our smartphones, we all relied on using our cellphones to text a message. What everyone quickly realized was that you could say just about anything you wanted to your coworker, friend, or family member, and when I say anything I mean things that are considered immoral and sexually explicit in all aspects. You can now say things to someone else that you would never say in person unless you were already in an approved intimate relationship.
This type of texting has become known as “sexting,” and it has gotten out of control. So many marriages and other relationships have been damaged or destroyed by the use of smartphone sexting. If you are conducting yourself like this while on duty, you will most likely be caught and called out on it and face discipline. If this is occurring with one of your crew members, have him stop immediately and seek alternatives like counseling.
#28: Picture taking at the fire station.
This is a topic that has had some play around the country over the past several years. You wouldn’t think that taking a few pictures of outside and inside the station, or of your fire apparatus, even of your mascot Sparky the fire dog would cause any problems for you at the station. Well, it shouldn’t as long as the pictures were just of those individual items and no human enhancements.
I think you get my point. If your department has never had an incident where a member took pictures of himself or others that were inappropriate in front of your apparatus or station then you are one of the fortunate ones. This offense is not taken lightly by the chief, city manager, mayor, city council members, your family members, and of course the tax-paying community citizen.
When these images show up on social media an investigation ensues, and usually someone will come out with the information needed to put an end to the case. The member will be reprimanded and could be terminated. In addition, the station officer, who might have had nothing to do with it, could be disciplined also. After all, the company officers are ultimately responsible for all their personnel while on duty.
These types of incidents are destructive to all parties involved, including the house family and personal family members. Remain morally courageous and professional at all times. When I say these things, believe me, you don’t want to have to go through all the aftermath. Something that started off fun and that you thought was no big deal could be disastrous.
#29: Outside visitors at the fire station.
We all know that on occasion some of our vendors/suppliers will stop by the station to show you the latest technology tool, equipment, system, or service that will help you be safer and more effective at your job. That is always appreciated. But what can also happen during that visit is someone could say something or do something that is out of line, which could upset both the vendor and the department member or come across as a sexual innuendo or even sexual harassment.
I am aware of cases where a vendor has said something to a female member that crossed the line. During my career, I often had vendors want to give us a token of their appreciation if we would consider them on the upcoming bid for an item or equipment that they sell.
The first instance is sexual harassment, which needs to be investigated, and the second is a valid case of unethical business practices, of which we all need to stay clear. Stay awake and aware of what is happening around you at all times. When in doubt, refer that vendor to the chief’s office for all business activity.
#30: Family members at the firehouse.
We are all proud of what we do and where we do it. Our “firehouse” is called that for a specific reason, because it is our second home where we will spend much of our time. Because of the amount of time we spend at the firehouse, our families miss us and want to see us during our 24-hour shifts. They are all proud of us and want to see us working and even bring a friend or two to the station to see their parent’s fire station and fire truck.
This is great for us when we are on duty; however, we have to respect our department’s rules and regulations governing visits. We all know that if there is a policy or directive covering a topic, it is because something happened to someone on a visit. Keep this in mind when your family visits the station while you are on duty. If you follow department rules, all should go well and everyone will have a great day.
Stay tuned for 10 more tips in part four of this series.
Stan Tarnowski, chief (ret.), began his career in 1975 with the Boston (MA) Logan International Airport Fire Department serving in multiple operational and administrative positions. In metro Atlanta, Georgia, he served as chief, 911 and EMA director in Union City, deputy and suppression chief at the Georgia State Fire Academy, and chief of training at the Henry County Fire Department. Tarnowski received his associate’s degree in fire science in 1976 from Bunker Hill Community College, has several public safety certifications, and is an NPQ Board Certified Level 4 fire instructor. He is the president of Firesafe Consulting Group.