How to maintain firefighting tradition and reputation

Fire service reputation and tradition can be at cross purposes; yet, outdated practices can be sacrificed for reputation without hurting tradition


By Norvin Collins

Easy access to the Internet and social media means the activities of firefighters — from probationary firefighters to chiefs — across the country and world are making top stories. What was once only a local story can become a global story in minutes.

The arguably flawless reputation we once had is being tarnished by the behavior of a few misguided firefighters. The public trusts firefighters with their lives and property, and in return, we must hold ourselves to the highest standards.

We see examples daily of people outside our industry who behave badly and the behavior blows over with little damage to reputation. We, on the other hand, have more at stake in a damaged reputation. The leadership of the fire service today has to balance the public perception with individual freedoms of the membership.

Many behaviors that were once accepted are no longer viewed in the same light. Some departments have forgone many long-held traditions to appease the public and improve service. While other departments have held fast to what happens in the firehouse is none of the public's business.

Balancing needs
We must find the medium point in this debate to be successful for the membership, the department and those who we are sworn to protect. This is not easily done and there is no "one size fits all" answer.

However, we can create a balance that holds the public trust while maintaining the camaraderie of the fire service. We must strike this balance because if the community doesn't trust us, we are unable to protect those needing our help.

You may be thinking, why should I care or what can I do to change tradition? These are both very good questions. Think back to when you were confronted with a situation where the membership's wants were in direct conflict with the residents' expectations.

What did you do? Did you tell the membership no or allow the behavior to continue?

Are there practices that continue today that are holdovers from times past that don't meet current accepted expectations of the fire service or the public? If we are being honest, the answer to this question is yes.

Eliminate bad traditions
Long-held traditions are hard to change because they are an integral part of the fire service culture. There are examples both inside and outside the service that illustrate this point.

National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, as well as many other groups, have striven to reduce line-of-duty deaths and injuries. Yet, year after year we continue to incur deaths and injuries at rates too high. We know that seatbelt use and a zero tolerance to alcohol use in the firehouse are good practices, however ….

A friend did a ride along at one of our nation's largest departments. As luck would have it, a working structure fire hit during his time. They responded within the standard time for a career department and effectively extinguished the fire.

Following overhaul, the crews returned to quarters; it was a multi-company house. Upon arriving at the station, the crews were diligent about restoring all equipment into full, clean, serviceable status. The lieutenant passed around a cold beverage to each member; one was even offered to my friend.

Sound familiar?

There's more to the story.

Soberest one drives
As the crew was leaving the station, there were firefighters still getting into proper gear. With the engine leaving the station, these members needed to run down the street and jump onto a moving apparatus to respond.

Once they got on board, none of the responders wore their seatbelts. The firefighters continued to put on their air-packs and get prepared to fight fire. The cold beverage, which was in a soda can with the tops cut off, was actually beer.

When my friend declined the beverage, he was asked, "You mean when you get back from a working fire your officer doesn't buy everyone a beer, and you'd work for an - - - - - - - like that?"

The discussion went on to understand what happens if another fire comes in after consuming the beer and the chauffeur is drunk.

The response?

The least intoxicated firefighter drives the apparatus to the call, the officer puts the pump in gear, they lean the chauffeur against the pump panel, and they crew goes to fight fire. This was the culture of this organization.

No means no
This isn't something that only happens at a career department. One of the questions asked of me when interviewing for my current chief's position was how would I handle a volunteer responding to the scene under the influence.

I answered that I had zero tolerance for that behavior. I would stop his or her activity, not let them drive and take appropriate disciplinary action.

I had a gut feeling this question was not asked simply because they wanted to see how the candidates would respond. After receiving the position, I asked the board member who posed that question about the story behind it.

I was informed that there was a long-standing volunteer who had been responding as such for some time. Upon further investigation, I found that this was not a systemic issue, but that of the individual.

We tried to get him help and change his behavior. However, we were unsuccessful. He is no longer a member of the department.

Expectant mother
There are many traditions that we should absolutely maintain; however, some must change. As leaders, we need to understand the impact the reputation we have as a service and how that reputation is impacted when our members don't live up to the expectations of "Mrs. Smith."

The trust civilians have in the fire service is pretty phenomenal. We can all remember interactions with civilians who obviously view us as extremely trustworthy. Take this simple example, for instance.

A fire crew responded to a motor vehicle crash and assisted in transporting a critical patient to the hospital. While restoring the apparatus in the hospital parking lot, the firefighters, ambulance paramedics, a couple nurses and a doctor were standing immediately outside the emergency room entrance.

A car came into the parking lot at a rapid rate of speed. The car stopped and a frantic mother jumped out with an apneic child. With wild eyes, she looked at the group.

Who do you suppose she gave the child to?

She handed the child to the firefighter saying, "Help my baby. I need to get her sister in the car," and went back to car leaving the child in the arms of the firefighter. Not the nurses, and not the doctor. That kind of action speaks powerfully of the trust we are held.

Fishbowl world
I did a recent scan of articles on firefighters. It was saddening that it took me 10 articles to find a positive story. There were stories about firefighters arrested for DUI, embezzlement, and others; in simple terms, conduct unbecoming.

There was no common thread of consistency between the behavior or a stereotype of who the stories were about. It wasn't all career or all volunteer firefighters or chiefs at fault.

I don't believe for a moment that any of the firefighters or chiefs initially set out to disrespect the service or hurt our reputation. But in the end, they did.

In times past, before the proliferation and ease of finding information, we probably wouldn't have read many of these stories. This is the reality of today's electronic age. We can't control what stories are told about us, but we can control our own behavior.

If there is doubt about performing an act, firefighters must ask themselves how would the actions look if they were the front-page headline the top story on the evening news. Chances are, if the actions are bad enough, that's where they'll wind up.

Low-hanging fruit
Can we still hold to many of our traditions while simultaneously maintaining a strong reputation? I think we can if we hold to leadership and not "likership."

As leaders, we are obligated to ask the hard questions and make the, sometimes, unpopular decisions. So, start with the preverbal low-hanging fruit.

Some of that fruit is talking to the membership about comportment or a code of conduct. Remind our members that we are in the public eye 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It doesn't matter if we are career or volunteer; when a story comes out, good or bad, we will be identified as firefighters.

Another low-hanging fruit item is eliminating practices considered poor by most of the service, such as alcohol in the firehouse. The time is long past where this type of behavior can be condoned.

For departments that still maintain this practice, changing it may be received poorly. Don't miss making the right decision for fear of not being liked.

Do what is best for the organization and the individuals for the long run not the friendliness today. As time passes, they will thank you for it.

Keep traditions like the strong values of brotherhood and sisterhood. Stay in tune with the trends for safety like the studies from NIST and UL. Most importantly, lead with integrity.

We can keep our traditions intact while maintaining our reputation. 

About the author

Chief Collins was named Sauvie Island (Ore.) Fire District's first paid fire chief in January 2011. He previously served as division chief for Tualatin Valley (Ore.) Fire and Rescue, Oregon's second largest fire department, where he worked since 1994. Additionally, he served as the district's volunteer coordinator for five years overseeing the volunteer operations. Chief Collins is on the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Volunteer and Combination Officers Section board of directors. He holds a master's degree in psychology, a bachelor's degree in fire administration and completed the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program. 

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Get FIRE CHIEF in your inbox

Thanks! You've been successfully signed up for the Fire Chief Newsletter!

Copyright © 2019 FireRescue1.com. All rights reserved.