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Firefighter attitudes: Someone’s always watching

When you begin airing your dirty laundry through casual conversations, on the blogs, or on your own personal social media site, be careful because you never know who is watching

Returning home on a flight from a recent conference, I encountered an incident that really got me thinking: What do our customers think of us and what have we done to impact that?

I have been a loyal customer of AirTran for a long time and I travel enough that I have earned and maintained Elite status with them for the past few years.

Similar to the perks that other airlines offer for their loyal customers, it means I usually ride in business class, pick my seats, get free flights, etc. I chose AirTran because they have low rates, go to most of the destinations I need, and, more importantly, they have always provided excellent customer service. In fact, they are among the best in the airline industry.

As some of you may know, Southwest Airlines and AirTran recently merged. While it will take a while for things to transition, AirTran will become Southwest and follow their model, which includes no select seating or business class.

Even though they, too, are known for excellent customer service and low rates, I’m not a fan of their “cattle call” boarding process and the fact that many of the perks of AirTran’s Elite status will be gone. Am I spoiled? Absolutely! The amount I travel — and being away from my family so often — means I do enjoy some pampering to ease the stress.

So where am I going with this?

As I referenced earlier, I was on a flight home to Pensacola, Fla. I was sitting in business class and noticed that the flight attendant was wearing a Southwest /AirTran lanyard.

I asked him when things would start transitioning and commented that I hated to lose AirTran to Southwest’s model with no select seat assignments and, more importantly, no Business Class. Well, here is where it took a twist.

His response to me, “Yes, but it’s going to be better for us!” Caught off guard, I responded, “Excuse me?” He responded once again, “It’s going to be better for us employees.”

I responded back, “Well I hope so. I know you deserve it. But what about us, your customers?” To that, he had no response.

As I was sitting in seat 1C, which is right up front and next to the galley, I overheard him continue talking to the other flight attendant about the raise he was going to get, the medical insurance benefits he would get, and the increase in his 401K he would get.

I made eye contact with the other attendant and I could tell he, too, was getting uncomfortable with the boasting that the other attendant was supplying.

This was a major disappointment to me as a customer because I had never encountered something like this before from an AirTran employee. I truly felt like I had been betrayed and was unappreciated.

It was clear that this particular flight attendant didn’t care about customer service — a key component of his job — and became engrossed in the, “What’s in it for me?” attitude.

So what does this have to do with the fire service?

As this epic economic downturn is hitting almost every jurisdiction in one way or another, fire and emergency services departments are feeling the pinch more than ever before.

Reduced staffing, pay raise freezes, increased costs for health coverage, potential negative modifications to pensions — I could go on and on, but you get the point.

The public sentiment that the fire service enjoyed early post 9/11 is long since gone, even now on the tenth anniversary. Much of the debate about the reductions and how it specifically applies to public safety has attracted the attention of the public and is being played out in the media through print, television, and the Internet.

Honestly, firefighters, EMTs, and law enforcement deserve every benefit they have earned and enjoyed, and more so. You risk your lives, miss time with your families, put your bodies and minds through incredible stress, and shorten your life span more than most normal citizens.

That is the choice you made for the professions you love, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be compensated accordingly. However, with so many of your citizens losing their homes, jobs, and vehicles, and families generally struggling day in and day out, public servants must be very careful in how you present your case in the reductions you face.

Labor and management should work closely together to find solutions and compromises that can best satisfy both parties. A strategy of how it will be best achieved and communicated to the public should be developed and factual information with circumstantial outcomes is the best way to accomplish this.

Scare tactics over what the cutbacks could mean seldom work and only puts everyone in a less than desirable situation. The fire service must do a better job at selling its message of how important it is to the community. Too often, it waits on the sidelines watching the world go by, and when it begins losing its seat at the bargaining table, everyone wonders why. The fire service must be in front of the event in place of just responding to it.

What you don’t want to happen is what the AirTran flight attendant did, and lose sight of the need to be professional and only focus on themselves.

The public, our customers, depend on us in their worst emergencies. Most people will never call 911 in their lives, so don’t let their first experience with you be a negative one.

So, when you begin airing your dirty laundry through casual conversations, on the blogs, or on your own personal social media, be careful because you never know who is listening or who is watching.

But rest assured, somebody is. Just go to the Internet and find an assortment of stories of where fire service members do things that jeopardize public trust.

Back to AirTran … as I am writing this submission, I am sitting in Business Class on a flight from Washington, DC to St. Louis on AirTran.

I still support them and realize that it was only one flight attendant that was displaying unprofessional behavior. I will continue to fly them until I see it fit to begin switching to another airline to regain the benefits I currently enjoy.

But the impact that one flight attendant had on me still weighs on my mind as I ask if they all feel that way. So, take time to think about what your customers, the public, thinks about you. Don’t be the one negative flight attendant that destroys public trust for the entire fire service.

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.