It all started in 2016, with one National Football League (NFL) employee. This employee wanted to make a statement about his personal concerns on a controversial topic. He chose to take a knee during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States of America. Of course, the news media sensationalized this form of peaceful protest, and soon other employees (aka players) started to join in. As the controversy grew, the President of the United States chimed in, calling it a “disgusting display” and called for the players who protest in this manner to be fired. The issue then escalated, urged on by the media, which began displaying the fanatical fringes of both sides in the growing controversy.
Not For Long?
In October 2017, in the middle of the NFL season, the NFL commissioner finally sat down with owners, players, and union representatives to discuss the controversy. However, in the end there was no decision, no compromise, and no apparent show of leadership. What there was, by all accounts of those present, was a positive and constructive means of opening a dialogue between all the concerned parties. Bottom line: They started talking and listening to each other’s concerns. This, of course, is a valuable labor/management arrangement. Unfortunately, it did nothing to end the issue—as no formal decision was made—so how long will the controversy still linger?
There are probably many reasons (some admittedly unknown by this author) and still others that may be guessed at from outside the closed door of that NFL meeting that allow the controversy to continue. In addition to the monetary fallout with fans, sponsors, and stadiums, there are union and contractual issues, political issues, people worried about their careers, and concerns of offending the masses on both sides of the controversy. These concerns do not sound much different than many of the issues that may confront any company officer, in any fire company, in any firehouse, in any fire department, anywhere across this great country. So, what can a fire company officer learn from this issue?
No Further Losses
Firefighting cannot always be a democracy. Often, especially in times of emergency response, there must be dictatorships. At the scene of a fire or an emergency, the incident commander and company officers must give orders and directions, make decisions (that may be, or become, unpopular), and strive to control the emergency in the most expedient and safest way possible given the situation.
One poignant example of this necessary dictatorship occurred in Worcester, Massachusetts, on December 2, 1999. More than 40 firefighters battled to subdue an advanced fire in a vacant, six-story, cold storage warehouse. Two firefighters entered the building to search for a homeless couple reported to be living inside. As the two firefighters conducted their search, the fire quickly and dramatically intensified. The two became lost and started running dangerously low on air. Several other firefighters entered the building to search for the first two, only to be found in the same predicament and disoriented in the black, hot smoke. The dense smoke, fueled by the 18-inch-thick petroleum-based and tar lining of the cold storage meat lockers, poured into the single stairway and throughout each of the floors of the windowless structure; it was impossible to see.
District Chief Mike McNamee made an extremely difficult decision: As the Maydays and radio transmissions of the now four trapped members ceased, McNamee ordered everyone out of the building. Physically standing in the doorway, he would not allow any more of the brave and willing firefighters on scene to enter. He knew there were four firefighters who had already been lost; he was not willing to lose any more. Ultimately, an additional two firefighters who had previously entered as a rescue team, for a total of six, were killed in the intense and stubborn fire. McNamee’s unpopular (at the time) and extremely difficult decision no doubt saved the lives of an additional untold number of firefighters that night.
In our profession, after the emergency has been brought under control and mitigated, we critique the actions and decisions made, we discuss the good and the bad, we learn what we can for the next time, and we move on—hopefully. The idea is that, when confronted with a controversial issue, decisions must be made—not knee-jerk reactions but well-reasoned, carefully measured, and educated decisions.
Navigating Formal Leadership
One definition of formal leadership is “a person exercising authority conferred on him by the organization, pursuant to the individual’s position in that organization.” An example of formal leadership is the ability of a company president to exert control over employees, which is based on his status as president of the company.
In the case of the NFL, the commissioner’s decision not to make a decision is, well, a decision! This laissez faire type of management style amounts to a wavering and noncommittal stance, where the leader may very well cost himself, the league, some players, owners, and corporate sponsors millions of dollars. Careers, reputations, and historical record books will certainly be altered in the wake of this controversy.
Had the NFL commissioner come out of that meeting with an agreement or, better yet, a decisive policy on the national anthem (perhaps with options for the players), the controversy would be over and the media would have nothing to chew on. Additionally, the veterans who serve or gave their lives for this country and the fans and sponsors would all rest easier.
As a company officer off the emergency scene/fireground, we must be able to make decisions. It is easy to procrastinate making a decision when the topic is touchy, uncomfortable, controversial, or potentially confrontational. In some instances, the situation may be a “no-win” where, no matter what the decision, someone is going to be disappointed, hurt, or left on the short end of the stick. That is life. That is management. That is why not everyone can be a successful fire company officer.
Negotiating Final Leverage
A friend of mine was a captain in a busy urban fire company. He was beating his head against the proverbial wall getting members to wear the proper department uniforms in this high-profile and photo-rich area. In the summer months especially, the members took to wearing T-shirts rather than the regulation station wear provided by the department. Despite the every-so-often push from chief officers to enforce the uniform policy, the members would ultimately revert to wearing the unsanctioned T-shirts. The station commander had to decide. Although the officer knew the rules and regulations (and made them clear to every one of his members), he believed in wearing the proper uniforms, and he always did wear them, in hopes of setting the example. Unfortunately, in light of the reality of the members wearing T-shirts, this was a fight the officer saw as a losing battle.
He decided to make a compromise. He told the other officers working under him that this new policy was nonnegotiable, and any offenders would be held to task for failure to follow the department uniform policy. The compromise was that, if the members were going to wear nonregulation T-shirts, the shirts had to be dark blue in color, in good shape (not faded, no holes/tears/rips/etc.), and from their own department (no outside department shirts would be allowed). Short of that, a strict adherence to the department uniform policy was expected. Offending members would be punished.
The compromise worked. The members saw the benefit to adhering to the compromise (otherwise they’d be made to wear the regulation uniform). The commander passed the issue up the chain of command, asking for a review of the current uniforms and policy (with two solutions), and everyone went on to the more important jobs of firefighting. Currently, the policies are under review, and the department is considering regulation T-shirts to be worn during the summer months.
Here was a management decision, a compromise, and a policy that all could live by—a Negotiated, Fair, Legacy. Perhaps the worst thing that can be done in these situations (exemplified by the NFL commissioner) is to make no decision and allow the issue to fester. Even if the decision made is dead wrong, it will provide a pause in the situation and allow those involved, especially the decision makers, to adjust, update, or tweak their position if necessary.
Not the First Litigation
Last year was not the first time this topic has presented itself in professional sports. In fact, during the 1994-95 basketball season, the National Basketball Association (NBA) compromised with Denver Nugget player Mohammed Abdul-Rauf, who decided not to stand for the national anthem. The NBA offered the player a compromise: He could stay in the locker room during the anthem; he refused. So, the NBA suspended him for one game (a loss of $31,707.00) and decided they would apply the same punishment for each successive infraction. Two days later, the player reached an agreement with the NBA where he would stand during the anthem; however, he was allowed to bow his head, close his eyes, and pray.
National Flag, Line of Conduct
Many other sports and paramilitary institutions have been able to stand clear of the kneeling protest and not alienate employees, the public, players, fans, and sponsors. One example is the Fire Department of New York’s Rules and Regulations of the Uniformed Force. On this subject, it is clear and unequivocal. Members in uniform shall salute the National Color as it passes or is passed on all occasions. It further states that members shall show respect for the national anthem outdoors and in uniform, whenever and wherever the national anthem is played. At the first note, members shall stand at attention, face the music or flag, and salute until the last note of the music is sounded. Indoors, members shall stand at attention and face the music or flag. They shall not salute unless ordered to present arms.
In the above regulation, the word “shall” is used rather than the word “should” (as in the current NFL policy) to show respect for the United States flag and our national anthem. It is not meant to take away from individual members’ rights of freedom of speech; rather, it acknowledges the very ideals and sacrifices made that led to the adoption of those rights. Those personal rights and the history behind them can be protested, demonstrated against, or questioned at almost any other time. As company officers, acknowledging the right of members to protest, demonstrate, or question policies, procedures, etc., is guaranteed by the United States Constitution and probably the constitution of your given state. However, adopted bylaws and rules and regulations of your organization may limit those displays while in uniform or acting as a representative of your company or while acting in the capacity of your department.
Negotiating, Facing The Music, and Living With Your Decisions
Making decisions isn’t always easy or comfortable for a fire company officer. Just remember, all too often the heartache (and stress) you suffer while contemplating a decision will often be greater than the pain of actually making the decision.
Stephen Marsar, EFO, MA, is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and battalion chief in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). He is also a former chief and commissioner of the Bellmore (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. Marsar teaches extensively at the FDNY and Nassau County (NY) Fire and EMS academies, and he’s an adjunct professor at the Nassau County Community College. He has a master’s degree in homeland defense and security from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School as well as a bachelor’s degree in fire science and emergency services administration from SUNY Empire State College. Marsar graduated with honors from the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and is a National Roll of Honor inductee.