Considering the coverage of the retired firefighter seen shouting ‘white power’

Why fire service affiliation is often included in reports on unrelated incidents – and why it matters

When it turned out that a man shouting “white power” in a video from a recent parade was a retired Miami-Dade firefighter, the department chose to issue an official statement about the man’s actions.

“The statement made by a longtime retired employee does not reflect Miami-Dade Fire Rescue's core values of integrity and respect for the diverse and multi-cultural community we serve,” the department stated. “This retired employee acted as a private citizen and his views and actions are NOT representative of who we are or what we stand for.” 

Some people think that the department would have been better off staying silent regarding the incident. They pointed out that the man was retired, and not an official spokesman for the department. They talked about free speech and political correctness. They said it was unfair that someone should be identified as a firefighter when clearly acting as a private citizen.

Perhaps it should not matter that this man was a retired firefighter. But in some ways, it does.

Why should one individual firefighter’s actions have an effect on how the fire service is perceived in general? The answer is simple: The fire service is not about individuals. It is about teams of people who share a common mission and culture, and who show up as a group to perform an essential function. For that function to be performed, whether it be fire suppression, EMS, rescue or any of the other critical incidents that firefighters respond to, there must be an assumption of trust between those who call for help and those who arrive to give it.

Trust is the currency by which the fire service operates. If the public does not trust you, they won’t let you into their home. They won’t give you accurate information about what happened. They won’t call you in the first place. This is already happening with some law enforcement agencies, to the detriment of those agencies and the public that they serve.

When someone calls the fire department, they are not calling Ryan from Station 3. They are calling “the firefighters,” and in some cases, they don’t even know where they are coming from, nor do they care. All they want are trustworthy, capable people to help them at the worst moment on their worst day.

In the vast majority of cases, this relationship of trust functions beautifully. It is nearly sacred. People generally love firefighters. Children wave to them as they drive by, many dreaming to be a firefighter someday.

A fire department should not be held responsible for the actions of one of its members who is long retired. It’s not even fair to hold an organization responsible for the aberrant actions of a single current member. But the fact is that fire service affiliation is often included when reporting on unrelated incidents.

I’ve heard people complain, “If an accountant or a plumber does something stupid or illegal, people don’t automatically assume that all accountants or plumbers are bad as a result. The press doesn’t even report on someone’s occupation unless they’re a police officer or firefighter.”

It’s true. But even though accountants and plumbers and any number of other occupations require a certain level of trust to do their jobs, it does not come close to what is demanded by the emergency services. And let’s be clear; it’s not just public safety. The media reports occupations when the actions involve other highly trusted professionals, like doctors and teachers.

All those who enter the emergency services must understand that everything they do publicly reflects on the organization they are part of and the service they provide. Those who are not OK with that, who want to have unfettered ability to express themselves on social media, who want to maintain affiliations with groups that are counter to the mission of the organization they are part of, well, those people might want to reconsider pursuing a career or vocation in emergency service.

Firefighters have a greater responsibility when it comes to maintaining the public trust that is necessary to do the job. Sometimes this responsibility may feel like a burden and an infringement on individual rights. But firefighters receive benefits for accepting this responsibility as well, far beyond the first responder discount at the hardware store or having someone thank you for your service 10 years post-retirement.

Firefighters are part of an elite corps of people who are held in the highest esteem and trust by the public generally, not for who they are as individuals, but for what they do as members of a team and an organization. Few other professions come with such assumed trust and regard.

The actions of individuals can damage this trust, and if that trust is lost, all is lost.

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