Fire chiefs and wisely chosen battles

Not allowing firefighters to buy commemorative badges is a fight not worth having and distracts focus from event preparation


Anyone who has raised children learned quickly that some rules are nonnegotiable. The use of seatbelts in vehicles is a good example.

Yet few of us respond well to dictatorship-style rule — children are exceptionally good at making that known. And so parents look for opportunities to concede on rules and relinquish control where it doesn't adversely impact the prime objective of ushering their young to healthy adulthood.

Lifting the ban on sodas for special occasions was a parenting concession I made, albeit with gritted teeth.

The same can be said for almost any form of leadership. Good leaders pick their spots on where to bend for the sake of morale.

San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White had such an opportunity gift wrapped and delivered, but failed to take it.

The Bay Area will host this year's Super Bowl and we all know that major events take a great toll on emergency-response agencies. The months of planning and additional strain on resources are compounded even more by the rash of terror attacks that have to be taken into account.

The NFL sanctioned a commemorative badge that first responders can buy for $125 — their money, not municipal money. (Frankly, the NFL should have given them the badges.)

Chief Hayes-White refused to let her department participate in the commemorative badges. Her reasoning has to do with a sporting event not rising to the importance of altering the uniform.

As you can imagine, the firefighters are as mad as toddlers denied dessert.

Even someone like me who doesn't place much stock in symbolism and likes football can see her point. She's right; the Super Bowl is an overinflated commercial venture. Some agencies are not letting their members wear the badges and won't issue them until after the game.

But this is a soda issue, not a seatbelt issue. It's one where conceding would have cost her little and holding firm will further deepen the lines of dislike for her by the rank and file.

Remember, those lines already run fairly deep. Just more than a year ago, firefighters were pushing to have her removed from her post.

And there's the rub. Was this decision about denying the firefighters something because it is bad for the department or because it is something firefighters want?

I know how it appears. It appears to be a vindictive act — almost childish.

One bad decision doesn't make a bad leader. Sticking to a bad decision is, however, telling.

Continuing this fight has no upside for the chief or the department. It will sap energy that needs to be applied to preparing for a very big event.

The best course of action would be for Chief Hayes-White to grit her teeth and let the firefighters have their Super Bowl soda.

About the author

Rick Markley is editor-in-chief of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief, a volunteer firefighter and fire investigator. He serves on the board of directors of and is actively involved with the International Fire Relief Mission, a humanitarian aid organization that delivers unused fire and EMS equipment to firefighters in developing countries. He holds a bachelor's degree in communications and a master's of fine arts. He has logged more than 10 years as an editor-in-chief and written numerous articles on firefighting. He can be reached at Rick.Markley@FireRescue1.com.

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  2. Labor Issues
  3. Fire-EMS
  4. Fire Department Management
  5. Leadership
  6. Exclusives
  7. Super Bowl

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