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9/11: Why we must look forward

It is critical that the fire service regain the respect and admiration it had following 9/11

As we recognize the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it is important to realize how different our world is compared to what it was on Sept. 10, 2001.

The American fire service rode a wave of support from the American public. And since that time, we have experienced a riptide effect of that support being pulled away from us into the depths of a turbulent sea.

On that single day, the sacrifices of 343 members from the Fire Department of New York became the rally cry of emergency responders from coast to coast, border to border. And certainly those sacrifices continue with the additional loss of members from the health effects from working on the pile, those who never returned from injuries sustained, and even the mental collapse of those members who were unable to cope.

But the most troubling effect for any department, is the loss of the spotlight that was cast upon us.

Let’s face it, departments around the United States benefited from the terrorist events of 9/11. Our budgets increased, in many cases our staffing increased, and grant funding became available to purchase equipment to do things that would have never been dreamed possible prior to 9/11.

All of this was done in the name of emergency preparedness, terrorism response, and homeland security.

Our new enemy
So here we are, 11 years later. Sure, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden have been brought to justice in their rightful way. But, there will be others. However, there is a much more dangerous enemy that demands our vigilance, and that is ourselves.

It would be easy for us to take that recognition that we once enjoyed and turn it into a toxic attitude toward those who use to be in our corner, specifically elected officials and the public. Replacing fire apparatus, buying new equipment and compensating our responders accordingly was a common practice the months following 9/11. But within a few years, building community centers, libraries and parks became the priority.

And in the last year we have seen station closures, lay-offs, reduction of pension plans among other benefits, and a reduced level of appreciation that once existed. While we depend on our chiefs and our local IAFF representatives to push our case forward, we often are met with denial, rejection, and utter disappointment.

Avoid toxicity
From that, the toxic attitude can begin to boil resulting in negative comments and harmful actions. That only complicates matters because as I alluded to in my June 2011 column, the public can form a very toxic attitude about us in return, only resulting in a lose-lose situation and loss of public trust.

We must be vigilant in our actions and behaviors even when they are not related to our work environment. Social media has put us under the microscope.

As soon as we have a member of the fire service get out of balance with his or her actions, generally self-inflicted, it can be found on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or a blog somewhere on the Internet within minutes. This is something that we were not dealing with shortly after 9/11.

When we have a member arrested for a crime, the media always tends to focus on “a firefighter was arrested.” How often do you see, “The suspect of the DUI is also a Wal-Mart associate?”

You’ll hardly ever see that, but why? The answer is simple; we have public trust. And when we do something stupid, we lose that public trust and it is not easily earned back.

Self policing
So think about every time you put on that fire department T-shirt and head out to a bar somewhere, somebody’s always watching. Think about when you are speeding down the road or doing something unlawful in your vehicle with the fire department prestige license plate, somebody’s always watching.

Think about every time you post on a social media site or blog, you are a representative of your department, and somebody’s always watching. We can use the freedom of speech defense, but it doesn’t change public perception or trust.

Look at how many people were upset over the Rescue Me television series because of the way it portrayed firefighters. But we have people doing some of that crazy stuff every day.

When I look back at what 9/11 means to me today, I understand that we have numerous challenges ahead of us. The sacrifices that were made by the members of FDNY should never be forgotten nor taken for granted.

It means that we must remain vigilant in maintaining the trust and admiration of the public. It means we have the responsibility of educating the public and our elected officials as to what we do for the community and what our value is.

In these challenging economic times, more than ever we must demonstrate our effectiveness, versatility and efficiency. The American fire service is proud and strong and nobody is willing to do what we do.

We must find a way to market our profession back to the level of admiration of post 9/11. Remember, every incident we respond to and public encounter is an opportunity to initiate reputation management.

Billy D. Hayes retired as fire chief for the City of Onalaska, Wisconsin, in 2020. He previously served as the fire marshal for the University of South Alabama, vice president of university relations for Columbia Southern University, the director of community affairs for the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department, and as the fire chief and emergency management coordinator for the City of Riverdale, Georgia. He is a graduate of Georgia Military College and Columbia Southern University, the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and has a certificate in local government management from the University of Georgia. Hayes is a past president of the Metro Atlanta Fire Chiefs Association and past chairman of the board for the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation. He authored the Public Fire and Life Safety Education chapter of “The Fire Chief’s Handbook” (7th Edition). Hayes is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Hayes on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.