‘Professional presence’: Regaining trust and confidence in the fire service

Projecting a professional presence can help negate instances of negative behavior


By Derrick Phillips

In the 300 years that organized firefighting has served our republic, the fire service developed a reputation for being an honorable and valuable profession. It’s no surprise that in a recent poll, firefighters and EMS professionals topped the list of most trusted professions. Unfortunately, the negative behavior exhibited by some members is eroding this long-established public trust in the fire service.

A cursory web search of “fire chief terminated” yielded 23 million results, while a search for “firefighter terminated” yielded 3.4 million results. The negative behaviors cited include poor judgment, and unprofessional, immoral, unethical and illegal actions. Some examples include drinking on the job, sexual harassment, unprofessional and inflammatory social media posts, racism, and illegal behavior such as assault, embezzlement and drug offenses.

Professional presence, in simple terms, is the ability to inspire confidence within the community, among political leaders and within the department.
Professional presence, in simple terms, is the ability to inspire confidence within the community, among political leaders and within the department. (Photo/FDNY)

Some headlines:

Implications of negative behavior

Much like the actions of a few police officers led to a “defund the police” movement, inappropriate behavior by firefighters affects public perception of the fire service, with negative results that include:

  • Increased organizational scrutiny of items such as pension benefits, overtime expenditures, use of department-owned vehicles, staffing levels and other unreported unprofessional behavior;
  • Budget cuts;
  • Lack of support for public safety bond issue initiatives;
  • Loss of public trust in the ability of the department to perform public safety duties;
  • Loss of political will to support the fire department; and
  • More civilian oversight.

But not all is lost. We have a chance to improve our public perception before similar “defund,” civilian oversight and political movements organize against the fire service.

A path forward

Fire service personnel at all levels can take lessons from a concept called professional presence. Professional presence, in simple terms, is the ability to inspire confidence within the community, among political leaders and within the department. To aid in understanding the interpretation of professional presence, let’s think of PRESENCE as a helpful mnemonic in the form of an acronym.

P – Perceptive: Perception is about understanding the environment in which you are working. You do not want to act in a way that discredits yourself or your department or a way that inflames a community issue just because your personal feelings may run counter. This is extremely important in times of civil unrest because you may inadvertently place members of your department in danger as they perform their response duties.

It is also about understanding that as a member of a public agency, you are constantly under scrutiny. Keep in mind that every time you are in public, you are under constant watch and/or recording. Given that there are so many cameras in public spaces (e.g., CCTV, cell phones, news media), you do not want to say or do anything that erodes public trust in your department.

In addition, personal appearance is extremely important to this concept. That means maintaining impeccable grooming and a polished appearance to project the perception of professionalism and integrity.  

R – Responsible: Responsibility comes in many forms, but two are important to this discussion: subjective responsibility and objective responsibility.

Subjective responsibility is nothing more than your responsibility to yourself and those close to you. So consider the potential consequences of embarrassing your family when you engage in inappropriate behavior. In addition, consider how the loss of income would affect your family if you were terminated for such behavior.

Objective responsibility is about being responsible for others. Objective responsibility entails accountability and obligation to citizens, elected officials, superiors and subordinates. Consider how your actions may open you up to disciplinary action, no-confidence votes or loss of public trust in your ability to provide public safety.      

E – Ethical: The ethics model most closely associated with this concept is deontological, or duty-based, ethics. One interpretation of duty-based ethics is always acting in a way that you would like to become a general law or rule. A good source for firefighters is the Firefighter Code of Ethics.

S – Sensitive: Sensitivity in this sense means having a deeper understanding of issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI) and harassment, and how they may negatively affect individuals both within and outside the organization. This concept requires significant work, such as leading by example, setting clear expectations within the organization, holding people accountable for violations and pausing for self-reflection.

E – Empathic: Being empathetic is about being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to see how your behaviors impact them. It is also about understanding what people may be thinking and being able to share their feelings to gain a deeper understanding. Additionally, it is about having concern and supporting your personnel through life’s challenges. 

N – Nuanced: Nuance is about being refined in your interactions with others. It is about eliminating all or nothing thinking and acting. Nuanced thinking involves the elimination of jumping to conclusions, avoiding generalizations and being mindful of developing false dichotomies (e.g., good versus bad, always versus never, right versus wrong) because there are usually gray areas.  

C – Communicative: Being communicative is about engaging in conscious listening to gain an understanding of what the speaker or sender means. (Think of this as listening for understanding versus listening to reply.) People with excellent professional presence are remarkable listeners because they give the sender their full attention, ask great follow-up questions and use their listening skills to discover important ideas and concepts. Additionally, great communicators are adept at building relationships and conveying information to different audiences.

E – Engaging: Being engaging is about opening yourself up to discussions with your peers, subordinates, elected officials and citizens. It is about making yourself available for difficult conversations. Additionally, being engaging allows you to educate stakeholders on departmental operations and your vision for the department. Finally, it is about developing a capacity for making people want to listen and connect with you and your ideas.

Move forward, building trust

I hope that by working on your professional presence and adopting some of the concepts in the acronym, you will avoid the pitfalls that tarnish individuals and organizations. Doing so will set you and your department up for success and build public confidence and trust in your community.

About the Author

Deputy Chief Derrick Phillips is a 28-year veteran of the St. Louis Fire Department, where he serves as Operations Chief for the A-Shift, Administrative Chief, and the Commander of the Office of Homeland Security. He holds a Master of Arts in Security Studies from the Center for Homeland Defense & Security at the Naval Postgraduate School, and a Master of Public Administration from Arkansas State University.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are my own and are not of the official position of my agency.

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