Firefighters, flip remarks and public trust

Life comes down to the small things, and seemingly small, off-handed comments to the public can undermine their trust and support

I recently witnessed the following exchange outside of a fire station.

Three firefighters, including an officer, were standing on the front ramp at the station when a woman who was walking by paused and approached them. "Why is the flag at half-mast?" she asked them.

The officer responded in a sarcastic tone, "Because I guess the president finally decided it was time to lower it for the guys who were killed in Chattanooga last week."

The woman walked on. I could not see her reaction. But I was clear in what my reaction was.

Bad form, guys. Unprofessional. Wrong.

  • Did this fire officer have a right to express his personal opinion about the president during this brief exchange with a member of his service community?
  • Is such speech covered under the First Amendment?
  • Are personal Facebook posts that relate to a fire department issue or event covered under the First Amendment?
  • Does a firefighter have the right to fly a Confederate flag from an official fire vehicle during a parade?

Can v. Should
Across the United States, lawyers are making a lot of money researching and litigating such questions. The case law is extensive and evolving in this area, but one principle is clear. People who are at work or are representing their employer do not have absolute First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.

Some limits may apply in private life as well. And in many legal areas such as this, volunteers who are officially representing an organization may be held to the same standards.

But more important and beyond technical legal considerations is the issue of professionalism.

Of course this officer was entitled to have his own personal opinion about the presidency or anything else. But to express that opinion in response to a simple question undermined that officer's professionalism.

It also disrespected those service members who died in the line of duty. And it set a bad example for the other firefighters who witnessed the encounter.

Cause and effect
When asked, "Why is the flag at half-mast?" the only appropriate and respectful response would be, "In honor of the service members who died in the line of duty last week in Chattanooga." That was the reason the flag was lowered, and to bring in any other issue diminishes the focus on those who gave their lives and are thus honored.

It is hard to know why this officer responded as he did. Was he under the impression that the woman who asked had a similar opinion about the president and was therefore trying to empathize with her?

This is unlikely, since she appeared to be a complete stranger to him. He would have no way of knowing how his comment would affect her.

Did he simply not care what effect his comment had on the woman — if she agreed, great, and if she was offended, well — too bad? Did he feel he had a right to express his opinion even beyond the need to provide professional service to the community?

Or did he make the comment for the benefit of the other firefighters who were standing with him, a shared joke among them perhaps?

Lasting impressions
Regardless of whether this was his intention, his comment would certainly have the effect of demonstrating to his crew that the expression of such personal opinions in this manner is OK. Conversely, the comment might have had the effect of alienating a crew member who did not agree with the sentiment or find its expression appropriate under the circumstances.

And isn't this much ado about nothing? What difference does it make if a firefighter makes a sarcastic comment about the president to someone in the community? Who really cares?

Maybe no one.

Or maybe that woman went home and told her family, "When I asked a firefighter about the flag today, he came back at me with some smart remark about the president." And maybe they'll remember that impression the next time the fire department has a bond issue up for a vote, or are sponsoring a program for kids that this family may choose to participate in or not.

How do most people make decisions in their lives?

They make them based on personal experience, and often in the context of very small things. If one firefighter behaves in an unprofessional manner, there can be a ripple effect far beyond one small comment made.

Firefighters depend on the relationship of trust with all members of the community in order to do their jobs. When that trust is undermined, the job gets harder and fire departments are less effective.

To maintain that trust, all firefighters must understand that small things matter. 

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