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Don’t arm the opposition

Failing to be an up-standing, law-abiding member of the community puts all firefighters at risk

He’s out there right now with scissors in hand, cutting “that” article from the newspaper. And when he’s done, he’ll paste it in a scrapbook with hundreds of others just like it.

You know who he is. He’s the crank who shows up at every municipal meeting to say that the “firefighters are a bunch of shiftless, no-goods who do nothing but sit around the fire station drinking beer, playing cards and getting fat off the tax-payers’ money.” And God help you if he’s on a board, commission or council.

And you know what story has him wound up this time. It’s the one out of Batavia, N.Y. It’s the one where two firefighters were arrested for running a gambling operation, allegedly booking bets while on duty. “See, see,” says Citizen Crank, “I told you so.”

Certainly those two New York firefighters are innocent until proven guilty. And I hope they are innocent. If they are innocent, I assure you that news clipping will not find its way into Citizen Crank’s scrapbook.

But this isn’t about two New York firefighters. This is about consequences.

Had the two accused been plumbers, accountants, jet pilots, bakers or candlestick makers, it is most likely that their profession would not have made the news report, let alone the headline. But make one slip up that media outlets catch a whiff of and it is: “Firefighter Commits Atrocity.”

As firefighters, the public holds us to a higher standard than accountants or candlestick makers. Fair or not, that’s how the game is played.

The problem associated with a firefighter getting caught being bone-headed runs deeper than a public relations black eye for the fire department.

The problem gets serious when Citizen Crank, or worse yet, Commissioner Crank, uses this incident to fan his argument to slash the fire department budget.

And if he gets enough support, to say, deny the chief’s request to replace the department’s badly worn turnout gear or add staff, then everyone’s job just became a bit more dangerous.

Some will argue that publishing this piece adds to Commissioner Crank’s arsenal. Just let the story die, some will say. A valid point, to be sure.

But it is worth the risk of extending the news coverage if it means we can identify a mistake, dissect it and lay a plan to avoid it in the future, something the fire service does quite well.

The first and most important fix is that as firefighters we need to keep our noses clean. We need to behave in our private, nonworking lives as though our children or parents were watching our every move.

And just as important, we need to be on our guard to ensure that we don’t foster a culture within our departments that enables — or worse, encourages — bad behavior. This holds equally true for the scene, the dayroom or the local watering hole.

Consider a group of firefighters having a couple beers off hours. One of the senior firefighters gives the stink eye to and tries to pick fights with anyone in the bar who doesn’t look or dress like him.

If that behavior goes unchecked, it becomes acceptable — especially in the eyes of the younger firefighters. Worse, if it is met with laughs and back slaps, the younger firefighters learn that this behavior is rewarded and a key to acceptance.

Every profession will have a certain percentage of bad actors; that’s life. But the way the fire service has always risen above its adversities is through careful examination and well-planned (and well-executed) corrections. These situations always spur as many questions as answers, and I’m interested in yours; please comment below.

As always, stay safe.

Rick Markley is the former 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 15 years as an editor-in-chief and written numerous articles on firefighting. He can be reached at