Brotherhood Redux

By Jason Zigmont  

My last column on brotherhood definitely hit a sore nerve with some. The fact that there were two pages of comments and the article was one of the most forwarded of the month shows that the article must ring true in some departments. The loss of brotherhood seems to be an issue both volunteer and career departments can agree on — a rarity in itself. Responses ranged from brotherhood being dead and buried, to phenomenal examples of brotherhood being alive and well. Looking at the causes of both good and bad examples may provide a framework for improving brotherhood throughout the fire service.

The good examples of brotherhood such as the "Bald for our Brother Program" are amazing but may be overshadowed by negative examples ranging from simple distrust to personal attacks. Quantitatively the responses definitely had more negative examples, but this may be due to the fact that departments and their members often just like to complain. While the good and bad examples of brotherhood are interesting, it is just as interesting that the lack of brotherhood seems to be blamed equally on individuals, the organization and even the society as a whole.

While every brotherhood is made up of individuals and each puts in their own level of commitment, to say that it is any individual or group of individuals' fault for brotherhood failing is a bit of a stretch. Over our entire membership or fire career we have all probably been mistreated by a fellow firefighter, maybe even gotten into a heated fight or two with other members, but that incident or firefighter does not represent the entire fire service. The fire service naturally attracts strong personalities, which can attract disagreements — the key is how we respond to them and not letting issues fester. Small fights can rip apart a department when those involved try to enlist the rest of the department to their side, causing a major rift that may have started over something as small as a misunderstood statement.

Fire departments have always been a reflection of the area they serve, and therefore have had a wide mix of individuals. Age, ethnicity, race, and religion should not matter when it comes to the brotherhood of firefighters. When departments start fighting between the "dinosaurs" and "robots" or making it personal, cliques form and it turns into a bad episode of a high school sitcom. There will always be different generations in the fire service, but maybe we all need to remember we were young and new once, and the older generation thought we were useless and had no work ethic.

Time keeps coming up as a recurring theme of why brotherhood is dying, but I still say you make time for what you enjoy. Members may complain about the time commitments, but that is because they do not enjoy the time they are spending at the department. Members will find time to respond to a working structure fire, but may be "busy" for the cleanup or fundraisers. Part of this may be the nature of being a volunteer fire department, but we always need to make time for a brother in need. That need may not be a burning house, but it is important to our fellow firefighters, so we need to be there for them. We also need to understand when our members absolutely cannot make time for the fire service. Volunteering is cyclical, and we all go through periods of time where our life is overwhelming and we need to spend less time at the department. A true brotherhood would understand this, rather than try to kick members out when they can't "meet their commitments."

The last common thread in the lack of brotherhood seems to be a combination of a lack of leadership and improper leadership. Leadership problems are not only tied to the lack of brotherhood, but also recruitment and retention issues and the health of the department overall. It is cliché, but true, that leaders need to lead by example. If our leaders are not truly concerned about each and every one of their members, it shows. Lack of leadership, or a "bad" leader can kill a department in just a matter of years so the issue goes far beyond the death of the brotherhood.

Together, we can address all of the issues identified that destroy a sense of brotherhood. We all need to take personal responsibility to act rather than blaming others. Nobody is perfect, but together we can build a better department and fire service as a whole.

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