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How personal conviction can serve the greater good in public safety

It’s critical we maintain strong convictions that define who we are and what we do to better serve our community

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Individual convictions have a hugely powerful influence, on ourselves and others. Convictions keep us on a straight and consistent path. Preferences, on the other hand, are choices we make based on our desires.

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I recently listened to a sermon by Dr. Charles Stanley on convictions and preferences. As I listened, it reminded me that when it comes to public safety, policies are a lot like convictions. They provide us standards and principles to protect, guide, motivate and help us to work in a safe, fair and equitable manner. Preferences, on the other hand, often lead to problems and the circumvention of policy and conviction.

The Importance of Convictions

Individual convictions have a hugely powerful influence, on ourselves and others. Convictions keep us on a straight and consistent path. Preferences, on the other hand, are choices we make based on our desires. Preferences may change from day to day as we come under outside influences or people. They are neither straight nor consistent.

Some may claim our convictions are a private matter. In reality, they are constantly on display for all to see. We live them out each day with our words and actions. Whether on duty or off duty, if you are a public servant, we are looked upon as “on duty, all the time.” The fact is, public safety personnel are held to a higher standard than the rest of the public. It’s critical we maintain strong convictions that define who we are and what we do to better serve our community. This is for our safety and wellbeing as much as it is to provide the best possible public service.

Convictions vs. Preferences

This is not to say that we should seek to rid ourselves of preferences. That would be impossible. Instead, we must recognize that we have preferences and they are constantly at work in our decision-making. What gets us into trouble is when we mistake our convictions for preferences, and vice versa.

Let’s face it: People constantly arrive at justifications for doing what’s easy and brings a quick reward—and it often doesn’t end well! Preferences, again, change with the circumstances. Peer pressure, fatigue, hunger, lust, a sense of injury, jealousy—all and more are powerful motivators to do what comes easiest and what will provide immediate gratification.

Convictions, conversely, stand up to temptation. They are rock solid and define who you are as a person. To violate a conviction is recognized immediately as a betrayal of who we are.

And, again, I think there’s a parallel here with departmental policy. All staff must have confidence in policies set by the agency. They must be so thoroughly convinced of its absolute truth and guidance that they are willing to take a stand regardless of the consequences in following that policy through. While policies aren’t laws, they are in a sense more powerful than law: professional and moral lanes of acceptable conduct held within ourselves.

This is why training is so important. Good training describes the how and why of what we do as first responders. You drill on the required skills until they become second nature. Good policy will often allow for discretion, while suggesting best-case outcomes. That’s good. Discretion allows the first responder leeway in interpreting and acting upon the totality of conditions they are facing in the service of a greater good. On the other hand, other policies are lines in the sand. You simply don’t cross them no matter what else is going on.

Characteristics of a Person with Convictions

So, if policies are like convictions, how do we train our first responders to better adhere to policy? Here I am going to look directly to Dr. Stanley, who inspired this column.

  • A sense of purpose: We know where we are headed and walk a definite path to get there by rejecting preferences that can harm us or others, or might get us in trouble. Instead of going with the crowd or seeking profit or pleasure, we follow convictions. Do your personnel have a sense of overarching purpose in all that they do?
  • Trust: This is the strength that enables us to live out our convictions without compromise. It is what our agency expects as well as our community. Do your personnel have trust in their community and agency?
  • Courage: It’s easy to stand for our convictions when we are among like-minded people in our organization. But if we are surrounded by those who think and live by preferences, who are narrow-minded and foolish, we need courage to stand by our convictions. Are your personnel courageous in standing up for what’s right, even if unpopular under certain circumstances?
  • Big-picture thinking: Before surrendering our convictions or denying what we honestly believe, we must look ahead to see the long-term effects of compromise at work and in our lives and in those who watch or listen to us. Do your personnel think beyond the present circumstances and problem solve with an eye to the greater good?

Causes of Compromise of Our Convictions

There are many reasons people compromise their convictions in favor of their preferences, just as there are many reasons people will give for disobeying policy. It can be unpopular to do what’s right, at times. It might require more time or more effort, and standing up for convictions can open up a first responder to criticism or outright rejection. Nevertheless, our priority must be public service—and this must be reflected both in our convictions held at the individual level and also in our policy at the agency level. It’s who we are and it’s what we do, and nothing less will suffice.

Sam DiGiovanna is a 35-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as fire chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, California. DiGiovanna also serves as executive vice president of fire operations for Cordico, which provides access to critical mental health information and resources to help those on the front lines best take care of themselves and ensure they are best prepared to serve others. Cordico was acquired by Lexipol in 2020.