‘I solemnly swear to serve … well, actually, it depends’
Whether to respond (or care) based upon who needs our help CANNOT be part of the equation
There are few firefighters who are unfamiliar with this great quote from FDNY’s Edward F. Croker, who served as Chief of the Department from 1899-1911:
“I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a fireman. The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one but we who know the work which the fireman has to do believe that his is a noble calling. Our proudest moment is to save lives. Under the impulse of such thoughts, the nobility of the occupation thrills us and stimulates us to deeds of daring, even of supreme sacrifice.”
Of course, if it was written (and edited!) today, the fireman would be a firefighter and his would be ours and stuff like that. Whatever, that’s not what I am writing about, so relax … or maybe not.
What I am sharing with you today is the power struggle underway in Newbern, Alabama. The town’s first Black mayor, Patrick Braxton – who is also a firefighter – is at war with members of the previous administration, whom Braxton says locked him out of Town Hall. Braxton says after years of racist harassment, he is fed up, and in a federal civil rights lawsuit, he is accusing town officials of conspiring to deny his civil rights and his position because of his race.
[Read the full story: Ala. mayor, FF suing over civil rights violations alleges racist behavior by town’s firefighters.]
Braxton became mayor in 2020. For at least 60 years, there has never been an election in the town. Instead, the position has been treated as a “hand me down” by the small percentage of white residents, according to several residents interviewed by Capital B News. After being the only one to submit qualifying paperwork, Braxton became the mayor.
Now our volunteer fire service has a history of not always “voting” certain people in as members. It was very real in the 50s through around the 80s when the federal government and others stepped in. Then fast-forward to modern times when many volunteer departments are struggling for members.
Some communities have done well and have changed with the times. One of my favorite examples is the Ashburn (Virginia) Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company in Loudoun County outside of Washington, D.C.
I first visited Ashburn in 1987 when it was still a primarily rural farming community. Today, it is one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation. And if you walk into their firehouses, it can look like a meeting of the United Nations. Why does it “look” that way with (what appears to me) every gender, race, nationality, etc., you can imagine? The old-timers. Those farmers made a very intentional decision to ensure that their local fire company welcomed everyone from the community. As I like to ask in so many situations, “What’s best for those who dial 911?” That’s all that matters, right?
Now, back to Newbern. Here’s the firefighter part of that story.
According to Capital B News, Braxton says that two years ago, he was the only volunteer firefighter to respond to a fire near a Black resident’s home. As Braxton worked to extinguish the fire, he says, one of his white colleagues arrived and tried to take the keys to his fire truck to keep him from using it.
In another incident, Braxton heard an emergency dispatch call for a woman experiencing a heart attack. He drove to the firehouse to get the AED, but the locks were changed, so he couldn’t get into the facility. He ran back to his house, grabbed his personal equipment, and drove over to the house, but he didn’t make it in time to save her. Braxton wasn’t able to gain access to the building or equipment until the Hale County Emergency Management Agency director intervened, according to the lawsuit.
“I have been on several house fires by myself,” Braxton said. “They heard the radio and wouldn’t come. I know they heard it because I called dispatch, and dispatch set the tones off three or four times for Newbern because we got a certain (our own) tone.”
As I read the many news pieces on this story, I wondered if this was just a case of what many volunteer fire departments are seeing these days – the lack of staffing, the lack of community interest/recruitment, internal in-fighting (aka “voluntics” – write that new word down) and the lack of response. If that is the case, as I have shared before, it is time for the community to get engaged since hiring people in a poverty-stricken town is probably not going to happen anytime soon.
I can be naive. Those closest to me can attest to that, and I generally see the glass as way over half full, and I think that there’s good in everyone – and I have the scars to prove it. Silly me.
However, when we put up a shed, build a building or whatever it is, and hang a sign that says “Fire Department” and tell people to “dial 911" for our help, we cannot be anything other than a “Fire Department for ALL.” When we start cooking chicken dinners or holding BBQs or boot drives, we ask for funding for some basic level of fire service that is absolutely assumed to serve all. And when we collect taxes, it’s the same: WE are agreeing to provide a service to EVERYONE. But who is “WE” here?
This isn’t a case of staffing challenges; none of these actions could be chalked up to that. And while I obviously wasn’t there and am not a lawyer, it seems pretty clear that something ugly is going on here.
Imagine this: “9-1-1, what is your emergency, and what is your race, please?”
That may sound absurd, but when you think deeply and honestly, while that question is not actually asked, some of “our own” apply a filter, whether consciously or subconsciously, on who we serve. Some don’t like obese people. Some don’t like poor folks. Some dislike the wealthy. Some don’t LGBTQ individuals. Some don’t like people who are disabled or those wearing a turban. Others don’t like people who wear head coverings that look like a beanie or a hijab or have tan, brown, yellow, red, black or white skin. Name it and someone doesn’t like it. And may be we look the other way sometimes, as long as they aren’t one of “our own” – those who are expected to provide service, care and compassion to EVERYONE. That’s who WE are.
As I continue down this “I’m not naive” path, rest assured, I am well aware of some of our own matching some of the above, and odds are, they probably do a good job. They stretch the lines, pull the ceilings, pump the trucks, and throw the ladders. But when I read stories like the situation in Newbern, I have to think that maybe a different kind of “us” would be better. If what the mayor says is true, some of our own are shutting off pumps, avoiding responses, and being selective on the runs based on the neighborhood. I am still having trouble wrapping my head and heart around any of “our own” doing that. Something and someones definitely got lost along the way. Maybe they were that way before joining? Or maybe they became angry and jaded after joining. I don’t know. What I DO know is that as far back as you look in the history of the fire service, the common theme is to help whomever, whenever they call. And we aggressively advertise that.
That’s OUR Code of Ethics.
Did you know that “we” have a code of ethics? That’s right, it’s OURS, and it’s posted on the FEMA and USFA website. Seriously. It is the Firefighter Code of Ethics. Scroll through it and you’ll find this:
“Never discriminate on the basis of race, religion, color, creed, age, marital status, national origin, ancestry, gender, sexual preference, medical condition, or handicap.”
Most will agree that “the world” is crazy these days. Pick an issue and it’s way out there, either way. Things that you used to laugh at are no longer laughable. Things that you thought were important may no longer be. What you used to consider “normal” may have been redefined with a new normal. So when you consider that stuff, there are few things that the average member of our communities can count on anymore. But they MUST be able to count on us.
With all the challenges we are facing in our profession (career or volunteer), responding or not (or caring or not) based upon who needs our help cannot be part of the equation. If it is, then we might as well close up shop and take the sign down so the public has a clear understanding that “we” are not coming.