The audacity of the badge: Reconciling the confidence and arrogance that comes with the job

Four simple tests can help you determine if your decisions uphold the badge or dishonor it


"Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges!"

This famous line from the 1927 novel and 1948 film “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” provokes some ideas I’d like us to consider today.

In the story, a group of Mexican gold prospectors claiming to be part of the Federales confront American prospectors, who demand to see their badges. The resulting confrontation brings to mind some interactions I’ve witnessed between paid and volunteer firefighters, as well as the news we see routinely stream across our screens about the arrogance of the badge, as members try to use the badge for their personal gain.

The audacity of the badge requires bold and daring acts of fortitude and bravery – not the arrogance and dismissiveness perceived as being above the law. (Photo/Soboba, Calif., Fire Department)
The audacity of the badge requires bold and daring acts of fortitude and bravery – not the arrogance and dismissiveness perceived as being above the law. (Photo/Soboba, Calif., Fire Department)

Badges of honor through the years

Badges have been traced to medieval times when people of importance established medallions or crests to identify their turf, territory or belief system. Those who followed or associated with particular groups would wear that badge to show belonging or loyalty. Eventually, badges were identified as a sign of authority and loyalty to “something higher,” worn over the heart as the highest sign of internalization, and only bestowed after swearing an oath of allegiance to uphold the beliefs.

That translation should hold today as new recruits are sworn in after recruit training. However, it sure seems to me that we’ve lost something in that translation over time. 

Swearing an oath: What it means – and doesn’t mean

Combining both positive and negative connotations, the word audacity combines confidence and arrogance. We should applaud and encourage confidence while condemning the arrogance that many within our ranks assume. While some of the issues of boldness and arrogance may seem to be in the eye of the beholder, many are quite simply ethical choices we make and the resulting consequences.

I’ve participated in many a badge-pinning and swearing-in ceremony over time, only to find those same sworn-in members later on the wrong end of the law or disciplinary process. Nobody should expect perfection; after all, we are human. We SHOULD expect honorability, integrity and loyalty with a strong emphasis on maintaining the public trust, honoring the oath and maintaining a high ethical standard.

Raising that right hand and swearing or affirming an oath to uphold the law of the land is a moment in time that should carry high honor and great weight for each of us. The oath and the badge represent the feeling of having the weight of the world on our shoulders – a responsibility that we should internalize and feel as we carry out our duties. Otherwise, the oath becomes a meaningless moment.

Let’s remember that honor and audacity are NOT synonymous. The honor of wearing the badge does not give you the right to park in the fire lane, to ask for free drinks, to drink and drive, to look the other way during an inspection, or to choose who you help or don’t help. In 38 years, have I been on the end of a free soda or a discounted check? Sure, but never once was that my expectation, my request, nor my acceptance without protest. Never once did I look the other way against a fire code or inspectional duty, but, yes, in my younger days, I DID park in the fire lane with the fire truck; however as I matured, I learned that the appearance of arrogance for the use of a fire lane was not worth the convenience it provided.

4 tests of your badge – and the wall judge

The weight associated with the badge should be much more than a ceremony and an honor. With both ceremony and honor comes responsibility to the people you serve and protect – and I’ll emphasize that the responsibility has NOTHING to do with a paycheck or lack of one.

Please don’t accept the badge if you’re not prepared to accept the responsibility. As a volunteer, there are plenty of other things to volunteer for that don’t require the public’s trust, and as a paid member, there is still a 5% unemployment rate, so there’s plenty of work out there if you aren’t up to the demands on this job.

With this in mind, here are four simple things you can do to weigh whether your actions will be in the best interest of the badge – and remember that the badge represents the law you have been sworn to uphold:

  1. The Washington Post test: How would your actions be portrayed on the front page of the local paper? I’m not talking about an opinion piece; I’m talking about an honest evaluation of what you’ve done. Did you uphold the fire code? Help a community? Enforce a directive? Or are you dismissive of mischievous behavior as raucous “boys-will-be-boys” hazing and rites of passage? The latter is a sign you’re on the wrong side of the oath.
  2. What would your grandmother think? I’m tugging at your familial strings to make a point. And keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be your grandmother. It could be your mentor or idol – someone you look up to. What would they think? If they’d nod their head in agreement and cheer you on, then have at it. If they’d shake their head in disbelief, it’s likely a sign you should step back and have that second thought.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask an opinion: When in doubt, ask for another opinion to help guide you in the decision-making process. Keep in mind, though, that there’s a difference between taking a “pause” to gather more information and the inability to make a decision. In other words, don’t be afraid to ask for an opinion, but don’t be afraid to make a decision.
  4. Is it worth the trouble? In the consideration of NON-emergent things, determine whether what you’re getting ready to do is REALLY worth the blowback you’re likely to get. If for more than one moment you question whether that shortcut is really worth it, then don’t take it.

These four tests have long served as what I call my "wall judge." Recognizing there isn’t ALWAYS the need or availability of someone to ask an opinion, I’ve found a literal spot on my wall that helps me focus on what’s right and not-so-right. In my office, it’s the "Emergency!" poster with Johnny and Roy. For you, it could be the clock, a photo or anything that provides a moment of focus. If that wall judge doesn’t give it a second thought or agrees aggressively, then have at it. If your wall judge gives you the ol’ stink eye or aggressively shakes their head, then rethink – or in the case of the email you just typed, delete, delete, delete.

A challenge to JDTRT

The badge is a symbol of authority that has been granted by oath and is worn over the heart, further symbolizing the badge as the lifeblood of legality and public trust. The public trusts the badge as a representation of your authority and responsibility to do what’s right – whether you are on the clock or not.

The next time you're at the bar wearing your "soul-crusher" fire department T-shirt for all to see, or the next time you decide to park your chief’s vehicle in the fire lane or in front of the “wine and spirits” store, or the next time someone wants you to twist the code for their great-uncle’s best friend, or the next time an elected official wants you to look the other way, I challenge you to Just Do The Right Thing (JDTRT).

The audacity of the badge requires bold and daring acts of fortitude and bravery – NOT the arrogance and dismissiveness perceived as being above the law. You ARE the (fire) law!

How have you seen the audacity of the badge in action? Share your stories in the comments below or at editor@firerescue1.com.

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