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Since the beginning of time this proverbial saying has been commonplace in society. Everyone, at one point, has been told to do something “because I said so”. But where does this come into play in the fire service? When does it become acceptable to use the phrase in an appropriate manor?

Obviously, we can all agree that there are some circumstances that require its use but I believe that they are few and far between. As firefighters I think we have all had that order given and there is a question that arises. It may just be to confirm what is expected of us, not necessarily questioning the order itself.

A good friend of mine and Battalion Chief of a metropolitan fire department once told me a story from early on in his career. The story basically revolved around a new firefighter that was assigned to his station. Timid and green, this young firefighter was nicknamed “Frost” because of his reputation of freezing up during fires.

One night during a commercial structure fire, “Frost” was crawling down a hallway with his officer and a few other firefighters. They encountered a dramatic increase in heat as they pushed into the darkness and finally found the seat of the fire. During the initial attack “Frost” yelled out “I’m getting too hot, we need to back out” to which his officer replied “quit complaining”. As soon as the fire was extinguished and they had begun overhaul “Frost” asked his officer why they couldn’t have backed out, he was met with the simple reply “because I said so”.

After the fire was over and the crews were back at the station, a few of the other firefighters came to “Frost” and acknowledged his attempts to back out. They all agreed with him that they too were concerned about the increasing heat. The lesson I was taught by my friend and mentor was that it’s ok to ask questions and give suggestions as long as they are constructive and will help the overall mission. In return its ok for an officer to rethink their strategies based on input from crews.

Some will say that this was an acceptable use of the phrase and some will question why the officer did not heed the concerns of a firefighter under his control. It’s irrelevant as to the reason why, but what is more important is the lesson taken away from the above situation. “Frost” walked away with the impression that his officer didn’t care what he was sensing or thinking and the officer walked away with the impression that “Frost” was not capable of “taking the heat”. Either way they both lost in my opinion.

“Frost” only lasted a few more fires and one day after returning from Kelly days the crew learned that he had turned in his equipment. Now just for clarification, I believe in the thought that firefighters must often be willing to exceed their comfort level in order to accomplish their mission. Fires are naturally dark, scary, and hot snapshots of hell that we as firefighter, want to go into.

The issue in my opinion is when the comment “because I said so” is thrown out in a split second as a replacement for a sound explanation. Going back to “Frost” and his officer, if the officer had said “stay put, it will cool off” it would have taken roughly the same amount of time to say and the firefighters would have had the reassurance of knowing that their leader understood their concern but ultimately had a bigger plan.

I have personally thrown out “because I said so” on numerous EMS calls as a Paramedic and every time I did, I cringed because I instantly realized that a simple explanation would have kept everyone on the same page.

As a firefighter I have had “because I said so” thrown at me for even the most trivial of questions. Not only did this annoy me as well as my fellow brothers and sisters but it led us to the perception that the person saying it either didn’t know why we were doing something, or because they had a chip on their shoulder. Some of the greatest leaders I have had the opportunity to serve have taken the time to give sound explanations when possible and it did a great deal to build confidence and trust in their requests of us.

Everyone knows that the fire service with very few exceptions is a paramilitary operation in which orders are not questioned and people just do as they are told. But if a question does arise, I challenge all of you to stop for a second and think about why you are doing something and give a sound explanation, I guarantee you that it will be met with open ears and enthusiasm. Just make sure you don’t do it because I said so…

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Comment by Mike France on November 17, 2010 at 1:11pm
i was never fond of this saying either, because it was always said to us when I started in the Fire Service. Simply we followed what we were told to do. But in the age of safety this no longer can be said . It is sort of like the saying '' I am the Chief and that's the way it is''.[ Guilty as Charged] Now specking as a parent i use this term alot with my 3 kids , which again i should not , i should take the time and explain what we want done., but as Jeff stated sometimes it slips but that is what it is.
Comment by Jeff Schwering on November 17, 2010 at 12:56pm
Bro, I'll try to answer this, using my world. First let me say I dislike the phrase, more now as a boss than when I was a Private. I believe I'm far from a weak leader. IMHO. There is unfortunately a time and a place for this phrase. Lazy people that call themselves firefighters need this phrase, period. I enjoy my members asking sensible questions and encourage this to help them become better Firemen. Some are plain lazy, they would be better suited as a greeter at Walmart. They try to take advantange of the attempted mentoring to get out of anything from changing a bulb in the lightbar to laying a line. With these individuals I have no problem saying Do it! I still try to avoid the because I said so, but, if it slips out with these folks so be it.
Be Safe, Jeff!
Comment by Michael Bricault (ret) on November 15, 2010 at 12:01pm
-Any time that I've heard the expression, "Because I said so", I was immediately aware that the person saying it was doing so because they couldn't justify or qualify their actions or orders. That being said, I am also aware that the fire ground is not an acceptable place to be questioning orders unless the one believes there is a safety concern.
-Anyone that has ever served in the military is also very aware that there is a way to ask questions in which the answer must be qualified and not addressed with, "because I said so". Mr. Frost's question should have put the officer on the spot by asking, "shouldn't we have backed out of that situation?" Make the boss qualify his actions and thus turn the question and the actions into a learning experience.
-"Because I said so" is usually the mark of a weak leader; one that I have found is very fond of also saying, "I don't care what they think about me but they will respect my rank". This is the boss that has effectively confused achieving rank with earning respectability. And obviously to those of us with a functioning cerebellum the two terms are obviously mutually exclusive.
-Passing promotional test is not in any way equivalent to earning respect. In fact, one of my close friends that is a captain that fond of saying to Mr."Because I said so" is, "You passed the Captain/Lieutenants/whatever test one day; you are failing it every other day".
-Rank only entitles the holder to give reasonable orders, it does not confer respect in any way. It entitles the rank holder to courtesy which the rank holder and all of us should be extending toward each other anyway, regardless of rank. Calling someone sir or addressing them by their title is a courtesy, a politeness that we should all extend to each other.
-Professional courtesy also works both ways and in no way implies that a higher ranking person can talk down to anyone. The expression is still, "treat others as you would like to be treated".
-Respect is defined as a feeling of admiration toward someone or something. Respect is always earned, it can never be mandated or demanded and that is something Mr. "Because I said so" will probably never understand.

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