As 21st century firefighters, we need to do our job smarter and with a high moral aptitude. (Photo by John Cetrino.)
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 months, I shared 40 of my dos and don’ts, and here are the final 10 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.
#41: Family cluster at the station.
A fire department family has a very unique bond. Unless you have been in one, you cannot know it. The family cluster provides for its own in many special ways. Things are talked about and acted on that we wouldn’t do with our personal families. Our station family will help with critical incident stress management for members who have been working on scene at a crisis.
Our work family cluster helps us deal with those emotions and get us back to our personal families. Stay strong for each other and help each other always. We do not want to see any more firefighter suicides.
#42: Profanity at the station.
In 1975, when I started my career, the language around the firehouse was obnoxious to say the least. Every other word seemed to be a cuss word. Profanity in conversation seemed to go hand and hand with our job. Well, I am happy to say that over the past 30 years, there has been a great adjustment for the better. There is much less profanity, and I believe it is a shift in the family dynamics, respect given is respect earned, and more of our folks continuing their education levels. All of these initiatives help to achieve that goal to lower the usage of profanity around the home and fire station. We have to watch what we say and how we say it!
#43: Obscene gestures on and off duty.
In metro Atlanta (GA), an engine operator driving his engine company through town was “accidentally” cut off by a driver switching lanes. His immediate response was to show the car driver how he felt about that and flipped him off. Needless to say, the engine operator had to apologize and was reprimanded as a result of the complaint file by the other driver. Whether you are driving your engine company or your personal pickup truck, act smart and don’t make any gestures.
#44: Ethical behavior when out purchasing items.
Always use good ethical business behavior when you are out purchasing anything. Never, ever take anything for free. Wearing your uniform and driving up in your engine do not provide free access to all you need. In the supermarket, you must pay the same prices as the customers in line with you. Some business owners and managers will want to give you a discount because you are a firefighter but, while free and discounted items sound like nice gestures, it is unethical for us to accept. Other citizens who witness this may not say anything right then but will possibly talk about how they felt it was wrong for us to get a deal while they had to pay full price. When offered a deal, reply: “We really appreciate your offer; however, our department policy doesn’t allow for it.”
#45: Use of your position for favors.
This topic is a killer. If you get in the habit of using your position to obtain favors from people, then you have put yourself in that unethical, immoral category. I know chief officers who would always make sure they wore their work uniforms when they went shopping for anything, especially for items like a house or car; looking at private schools and colleges with their children; and for services like roofers, painters, electricians, and plumbers. What starts out to sound like a great idea, even to your family members, can end up disastrous.
As a rule of thumb, never show up representing your department in uniform if you are purchasing personal items. This will keep everyone on the same ethical page.
#46: Borrowing/stealing items from your department.
It is a general bad habit to take or borrow anything from your station. Taking pencils, pens, and paper; using the copier machine for personal needs; or taking tools, equipment, or even a truck for your personal use will put you in the category of being unethical. We all need to purchase our own items for our personal use. The work items and equipment are for work jobs and use. Make good choices. Purchase your own items, and then you won’t have to look over your shoulder wondering.
#47: Fire department-assigned take-home vehicles.
The topic of who gets to take home a department vehicle when they are off duty has caused much discussion and even arguments within the department. Some departments have strict rules where only the fire chief will be allowed to take his department-assigned vehicle home. The chief of the department is for all intents and purposes the only one who will need to have access to all his gear and radio equipment, including computers, in the event of a manmade or natural disaster/incident.
The on-duty suppression folks already have all their apparatus, vehicles, and equipment with them at their station. Fire marshal, fire arson investigator, fire prevention officer, and public information officer are positions that use a non-first response vehicle that needs to arrive within the designated response time to an incident. That’s not to say that they won’t be needed at the call, but those who are assigned to these positions and vehicles can drive to their stations to pick them up and respond to the incident from there. Most departments will not include these people and their vehicles as part of their list of emergency vehicles needed to handle an emergency.
We have all heard stories of incidents occurring during off-duty hours where the assigned driver of these nonemergency response vehicles had to explain a situation that occurred off duty while they were driving their department vehicle, including incidents such as accidents; driving under the influence; or being seen leaving a dance club, taking the family to the mall, or going out to a restaurant. Use sound judgment.
#48: Being out of your response territory.
We all have situations that come up in our personal lives while we are on our 24-hour tour that may need our attention. You also may need to handle a detail or check on something that one of your engine company members is concerned about, but if you handle any of them you will be out of your assigned response area.
Doing something outside of your response area may appear OK on the surface until you have to answer to your chief, or a citizen, why it took you so much longer to get to their fire or medical call. It is imperative that we follow department suppression operations policies. Think before you act.
#49: Conducting community outreach in your station neighborhoods.
Having served in the northeast and the southeast, there is one thing I know for sure: Your fire station neighbors love having you there. If yours are like many, they will drop off pies, cakes, casseroles, cupcakes, and all sorts of goodies out of the blue. Now, that is what I call a good neighbor relationship. When it comes to addressing neighborhood interface, efforts should include the following:
Don’t keep all your stations closed up like no one is home. If you are a volunteer department and no one is supposed to be home, then that is fine. If you are a career, full-time department, that is very different.
Don’t send the message to your neighbors that you are only interested in them if they have an emergency.
Do keep your station doors open and actually feel free to stand or even sit out front of your stations and wave to your neighbors like you would in your own home neighborhoods. Let’s face it, citizens pay taxes and the tax base in your city pays for salaries and benefits as well as your operating equipment. If they see you being open and friendly, they will feel better about paying their taxes and may even give an extra donation to your department.
Do one thing to get to know your neighbors. We sponsored a cookout at one of our multifamily structure neighborhoods, with no pool, on one of those 95 to 100 degree days. We then laid up the 100-foot aerial and played off the 750-gpm monitor hovering over the basketball court for a couple hours. The community and the media loved us for that. Be creative and win!
#50: Interfacing with your operational counterparts.
It’s never an easy task to get all public safety groups to agree and operate together and play nice all the time. This could mean both off duty and on duty, working incidents, and in the conference room planning budgets. The other departments could be public works, electrical, streets, code enforcement, etc. Everyone wants to be in charge. Does this sound familiar to you?
- Don’t start a war with your police department, especially if it also controls the 911 communications center.
- Don’t try to play the city manager against any one department in an effort to look good in front of him.
- Do be friendly toward all departments that operate within your organization’s structure.
- Do play nice when at meetings with other department members. That means get along, be polite, and stay professional.
- Do share all the information you may have on an upcoming event or a potential incident. Trust is everything when it comes to public safety, so act accordingly.
- Do act mature and responsible in everything you do. It will pay off in the short and long run.
- Do be kind.
Embracing 50 Dos and Don’ts
Every once in a while, we all have to stop and examine how we conduct ourselves in everything we do and every way we do it, in and out of the public and family eyes, on the job and off. This has happened to me, so I had a chance to reevaluate how I was conducting my moral and professional business. Sometimes I didn’t like what I saw in myself and had to make changes. After my public sector fire service retirement, I saw that life would continue to throw us those curveballs and provide temptations that would have us making choices. You can make the right ones or the wrong ones; I made a few of each.
I was able to finish a fire service career with some 30 years of personal and professional experiences that led me to write these top 50 dos and don’ts that I consider important enough to share with you. Some appear to be common sense while others are more complex and of a delicate nature, but I have seen firefighters lose sight of their goals and make minor errors in choice that can lead to disaster, up to and including the termination of a career.
As 21st century firefighters, we need to do our job smarter and with a high moral aptitude. Every day, we learn of another firefighter, lieutenant, captain, or chief officer being reprimanded and even terminated for conduct unbecoming. If we choose the wrong way, we will have to serve out our punishment.
I ask you to conduct a mental/moral check when you are reviewing these top 50 topics and see how you fare. Be honest when doing it, as only you will know the true answers to the questions. If you are not happy with what you see or how you feel, then this is the time to make changes in your life. If you don’t change behaviors that could be considered destructive, then the cycle will continue and your daily situation will grow worse. You can make a difference in your life right now.