‘Ego eats brains’: Chief Brunacini’s lesson underscores the problem with dirty gear

Does dirty gear really show how capable a firefighter you really are?


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Ego can be dangerous. It can cloud judgment, narrow perspective and foster an image-focused mindset.

“America’s Fire Chief,” the late-Alan Brunacini, would say “ego eats brains,” underscoring the need for firefighters to be humble public servants focused on their crew and the community, not the hero-worship associated with the fire service.

His words certainly apply to firefighters’ approach to dirty gear. Some still resist the shift to an increased focus on health and safety issues, entrenched in the “it won’t happen to me” mentality. Some embrace the dirty gear look to uphold a certain firefighter image. Whatever the reasoning, the logic is flawed.

With cancer now the leading cause of death among firefighters, it’s time to reevaluate what it means to be a proud firefighter.
With cancer now the leading cause of death among firefighters, it’s time to reevaluate what it means to be a proud firefighter. (Photo/Spokane Fire Department)

FireRescue1’s “Dirty Helmet Syndrome” special coverage series highlights the challenges associated with a culture shift of this nature to better understand how firefighters perceive the “dirty helmet” look. And we posed these questions to fire service leaders. Here’s what we learned:

Will a dirty helmet show how capable a firefighter you really are? Will a clean helmet set an example? 

Linda Willing, a retired career fire officer, shared her thoughts on the issue:

When I was a young firefighter in the 1980s, how dirty your bunker gear was indicated how much fire you had experienced. It was a badge of honor to have filthy bunker gear, but it was also a matter of necessity, as we had no way to practically clean our gear and no alternate gear to use when ours became contaminated, soaked or damaged.

Thankfully, times have changed. Now many departments have strict policies about the care and cleaning of protective gear. More departments are supplying multiple sets of gear to members so they are never forced to continue using gear that has been contaminated.

These positive changes have come about for several reasons. There is now solid research that shows the dangers associated with residual contaminants on protective gear. But more importantly, the culture has changed, and this is a function of leadership. When department leaders, both formal and informal, refuse to go along with the dirty gear equals awesome firefighter standard, everyone can begin to change perspective to one that is safer for all.

I recently posted a photo of myself and another firefighter taken at a training exercise in the early 1980s. The bunker gear we were wearing was absolutely filthy. The first comment from a current firefighter was horror and disbelief we would use gear in that condition. That’s progress.

Phil Stittleburg, fire chief and past chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council, shared his perspective:

There was so much that we didn’t know, back in “the good old days” and a lot that we still don’t. What we did know for sure, though, was that the guy (back then, it was almost certainly a guy) with the dirtiest gear was the toughest, bravest, best firefighter on the department.

At this point, we’ve pretty much gotten past all of that, but we’re left with a new problem: How does the alpha male or female mark their territory now? Maybe it will be by wearing the most faded gear, showing they still do the hardest and dirtiest work, so their gear needs the most frequent laundering.

I’m not sure what the real answer is, but I’m pretty sure about this part: The dirty gear was a badge of honor. It actually served a purpose. It bestowed an informal mark of distinction on the wearer. It signified achievement that was recognized by the rest of the department. You could actually see whom you’d count on in a pinch.

We still need the alpha males and females. They are often the informal leaders and are important, if not critical, to group effectiveness. What we also need is a way to let them mark their territory that doesn’t involve killing themselves.

Jason Caughey, the fire chief of Laramie County Fire District #2 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, shared his department’s approach:

As our organizations evolve to meet our communities’ needs, the American fire service finds itself in an identity crisis. For most organizations, the number of working fires in comparison to the number of medical, vehicle accidents and service calls has greatly been reduced. We find ourselves being challenged to hold on to what we believe is our identity – the salty identity.

At the same time, we are asking our communities and state to recognize that cancer is a major threat to the health of our members. Our behavior of not wearing our SCBA on every fire, not washing our gear after ever fire or having a second set of gear contradicts the fact that we have identified the cancer risk associated with fires.

So why do we need the badge of honor? The salty gear or burnt helmet? As Chief Brunacini would say “ego eats brains.” Our ego or need to have a “sexy cool” image is, for many, more important than our long-term health. 

Note: We want to hear from you, the FireRescue1 community, as well. Share your perspective on the image associated with dirty gear in the comments below

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