In 2017, two Navy combat ships crashed into other ships—in the middle of the ocean. Now the ocean is pretty big, so you have to ask yourself: What set of circumstances could have aligned in such a way as to result in two of the most sophisticated war ships in the entire U.S. fleet literally colliding with other commercial ships, resulting in the deaths of naval personnel? It would be easy to point a finger or jump to conclusions, as many did in the days and weeks following the collisions. The cacophony of criticisms, accusations, and counter-accusations drowned out the fact that Americans, individuals wearing our nation’s uniform of defense, were killed. Although neither captain was at the helm at the time of the crash, both were ultimately relieved of command, their naval careers effectively ended by the actions, inactions, or systematic failures of their subordinate personnel.
In early 2018, Michigan State University has found itself in the exact same position that Penn State was in only a few years ago in 2011. At the time, I suspect that the leadership of most major universities either were, or should have been, engaged in a concerted effort to look introspectively at their own organizations for similar vulnerabilities. Sadly, I am not certain that the events in 2011, or those in 2018, will result in the kind of systemic change required to avoid repeating history. The presidents of both Penn State and Michigan State have been forced to resign—all in the name of protecting their reputation and the unending revenue associated with being two of the largest universities in the country. In the greatest paradox of all, their attempts to insulate their organizations from disgrace only accentuated it when it was revealed.
Lessons To Be Learned
It would be easy to dismiss these events as aberrations. After all, there are literally thousands of universities and colleges in the United States, just as the U.S. Navy owns and operates more than 430 active ships in its fleet. There are also more than 30,000 fire departments in America today and within our community, on a nearly daily basis, we are witness to negative story after negative story after negative story. These are not new stories; rather, they are the same story told over and over and over again. The only thing that seems to change is the patch. Instead of pointing a finger at the “organization of the day” suffering the humiliation of public excoriation, perhaps the most prudent and frankly responsible action to take is to ask the following question: “Could that happen here, in our organization?” If the answer to that question is yes, the next question should be, “What the hell are we doing about it?”
There are firehouses all over this country where derogatory words like faggot, dike, and nigger are used with the same regularity as any other word. Too often, individuals targeted by these cancerous words remain silent in the name of “getting along.” More critically, those who are not the target of such ignorance (who themselves may be offended by hearing them stated) also remain silent for the exact same reason. Such hate and bigotry should not belong in our fire service or in our society; however, our fire service is a microcosm of society, so it is up to us to control that part of society that we can control.
Enough Is Enough
If you are a company officer, it is spectacularly simple: Don’t allow this. Your feeble attempts at excuses or, worse, your silence represents complicity. And this is true, regardless of the color of your skin or your identified gender. No one gets to claim the moral high ground when it comes to issues of equality and appropriate behavior within the fire service. Only through never-ending engagement within your company will you be able to root out and eliminate the ignorance and hatred that attend such conduct.
Chief officers and, particularly, fire chiefs must also remain directly engaged with their organizations. Metro-sized departments make this increasingly challenging, but it is amazing that time and again, chiefs appear to lose their jobs over two preventable issues: human resource failures and mismanagement of finances. Core values are meaningless if members within an organization are allowed to conduct themselves in a way that is incongruous with the stated values they are supposed to be championing.
The only way to avoid repeating history is to learn from it. Perhaps we will start doing a better job, if we intend to leave the fire service better than we found it. We’ll see ….