I have to admit that, despite the holidays and myriad distractions provided by work, friends and family over the past few days, I haven't been able to get this deeply troubling story out of my head since I first saw it.
From reviewing the many readers' comments about this horrible video from China showing several recruit firefighters being repeatedly beaten in an apparent "hazing" ritual, it seems there's almost universal agreement (which is incredibly rare in the U.S. fire service) that such behavior is completely unacceptable.
At the same time, it seems all-too-easy to write this story off as something that would "never happen here," with "here" being the United States.
Is that true? Is there anything we can learn from the actions of the supposed "supervisors," and their victims, in this case?
Now I completely agree that a violent "firefighter on firefighter" incident like this one is a very extreme example — definitely in the U.S. and probably in China, too — of the hazing that, unfortunately, is also part of our own fire service history.
Setting aside the obvious, and difficult to watch, problems demonstrated by the supervisors in this video, perhaps the real question is: why do the recruits keep coming back for more? Why didn't they just lie down and stop taking the abuse? Would it have stopped immediately?
Probably not, but it might have shortened the duration of the beating.
So why did they keep getting up? Is it their "can-do" attitude, shared by firefighters worldwide, gone too far? Is it their quest for acceptance into the group, whatever the personal cost?
Is it their desire to show they are "tough enough" to do the job? Or is it their understanding (real or assumed) that their abusers went through the same treatment and survived to pass it on?
Any of this sound familiar?
Indoctrinating new firefighters in the positive values, traditions and cultural aspects of the fire service is undoubtedly important and part of every recruit school, academy or new firefighter orientation program with which I'm familiar.
At the same time, the power imbalance between supervisors and subordinates in this setting, and others, creates a very fine line between "hazing," in its many forms, and behaviors that might be considered "acceptable" within the dominant group and/or organizational culture, but from an outside perspective are seen as problematic at best, and reprehensible — as in this example — at the worst.
It's something to think about.
About the author
With more than two decades in the field, Chief Adam K. Thiel — FireRescue1's editorial advisor — is an active fire chief in the National Capital Region and a former state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chief Thiel's operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.
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