As a firefighter and officer, I was always amazed by how much people in the community trusted us. We would show up in the fire truck, and they would welcome us into their homes, answer the most personal questions, and allow us unsupervised access to their children and most valuable possessions.
In my entire emergency services career, I only ever had one bad experience when a citizen falsely accused firefighters of wrongdoing at an emergency scene. In virtually every other instance, we were given respect and unquestioning trust just for being firefighters.
Trust is a critical component of getting the job done as an emergency services provider. On a medical call, a person must believe that the responding firefighter holds to professional standards, the same as doctors do.
Only with this assumption in place will a person feel comfortable answering personal questions and allowing physical contact from a complete stranger. Victims of fire must believe that firefighters are doing their best to protect and preserve their property as best they can, while never being tempted to pocket something valuable they might find among the ashes.
When trust breaks down
If this high level of trust breaks down, firefighters are in trouble. In an environment of suspicion or disrespect, citizens will not cooperate with the fire department, they will not allow access to their homes or their businesses, and they will even look for ways to undermine the mission that the fire department pursues.
This breakdown of trust does not happen very often with fire departments, but it does happen. Once trust is lost, it is very difficult to rebuild.
Therefore, it is clearly in the fire department's and every individual firefighter's best interests to maintain as high a level of trust and professionalism within the community as possible. In this context, it was very disturbing to read the recent news story about the firefighter from California who was accused of having sex repeatedly while on duty at the fire station.
The comments attached to this story on the FireRescue1 website were split about 50-50, with half saying that the guy should be fired and the other half responding as if he were some sort of hero. This isn't the first time that sex on duty in fire stations has been news. High profile incidents in several states have led to discipline and discharge of fire department members.
I was teaching a class in California a few years ago when one of these stories was in the news, and one of the students in the class said, "Well, what's the big deal anyway? If it's consensual, who cares?"
In response, I asked him if he would be okay with going to the dentist and knowing that the dental hygienist was having sex in the backroom between cleanings. Or knowing that the person preparing his food at the deli counter just had a quickie in the cooler before waiting on him. He admitted that he was not comfortable with these scenarios. Why not, I asked him. "Because they' re getting paid to work, not have sex," he replied. Exactly.
You expect your doctor or your lawyer or your minister or even the person working at the grocery store to adhere to certain professional standards while at work. Because you believe they meet these standards, you trust them to provide you with competent, professional services, and you do not question their authority to do so.
You don't insist that the deli clerk wash her hands while you're watching — you assume her hands are clean, or you would shop elsewhere.
In business, trusting relationships must be built. You rely on recommendations or experience to put your trust in someone in a professional sense. But in the fire service, that trust is assumed. Firefighters don't really have to earn it.
People in general trust firefighters just because of who they are. Firefighters are the good guys — selfless, brave people who put service to others ahead of their own needs.
Such trust is an incredible gift, and it is yours to lose. Whenever firefighters make the news for doing something stupid, a little of that inherent trust and esteem are lost. When firefighters defend their right to do whatever they want while being paid and supported by the citizens of their communities, they do real damage not only to their own reputations, but also to the reputations of firefighters generally.
Someone once said "leadership is getting results in a way that inspires trust." When firefighters violate that trust, they are giving up their right to lead. And that is serious.