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Stories of the the snake oil salesman have throughout history conjured vivid images of nefarious characters who traveled from town to town peddling to anyone who would listen to a wide range of elixirs claiming to cure all that ails you.

These traveling salesmen would often use deception and planted audience members who would attest to their products value. This tactic often aided in creating a buying frenzy.

The snake oil salesman could never stay long in any one place as the unsuspecting customers would soon learn these panaceas were nothing more than a simple fraud.
Unfortunately, they had already lost their money before coming to this realization.

At the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago, entrepreneur Clark Stanley often known as the ‘Rattle Snake King’ actually cut open a live snake and boiled it in front of the gathering fair goers.

He immediately sold many bottles of his ‘Stanley’s Snake Oil’ to the possessed crowd. Unfortunately, the product was very different than the original snake oils that had been brought to the United States by Chinese rail road workers.

The Chinese Snake Oil was made of oils from the Chinese Water Snake and naturally possessed some healing capability, most likely due to the ability of its omega 3 acids to aid in reducing inflammation.

The products that were now being peddled across America however were anything but medicinal.

Eventually the truth caught up to Stanley and it was determined his product actually contained no snake oil at all. He was eventually fined $20.00 by the government for violating the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

In his case the government said he ‘misbranded’ his product and ‘falsely and fraudulently represented it as a remedy for all pain.’

By applying the story of Clark Stanley to the modern fire service we can highlight a group of individuals who’s actions serve only to poison it’s members and their mission.

As in most any aspect of life there are those that are the real deal and those who would like you to think they are.

These snake oil salesmen will seek to infiltrate an organization and glean from it anything and everything that will benefit themselves before the truth comes out.

The snake oil salesman is nothing new to the fire service and we’ve seen them manifest at all levels from firefighter to fire officer. And we’re all familiar with those peddling useless products that do little more than make the seller rich.

No matter how the snake oil salesman attempts to infiltrate your organization he or she will at the heart of their efforts do little more than attack the core values of your department and in the end move on leaving a path of destruction and damage to your organization’s reputation.

Core values are an integral part of any departments mission and reputation. These values are the foundation upon which everything your department does should be built and are second only to the safety of your personnel.

The Business Dictionary defines core values as the principle or principles that guide an organization’s internal conduct as well as it’s relationship with the external world.

Some examples of core values are: Courage, Honor, Trust, Dedication, Commitment, Responsibility, Pride, Respect and Integrity.

So by simply reading those words you can see how the snake oil salesman would not be a person who embodies their true meaning.

In the fire service the snake oil and it’s purveyors are certainly a cancer that we must quickly identify and eradicate with in our organizations.

If given the opportunity to peddle their wares these people will attempt to win favor by dazzling and mesmerizing members of your organization with their traveling medicine show.

The term traveling medicine show works well here because these are often the people we see traveling from organization to organization never lasting very long before they are forced to move on.

It’s fairly easy to spot these shady characters for some. For others it might not be as easy to realize they are being manipulated or used by someone simply seeking some sort of personal benefit or ego feeding satisfaction.

We all seek some level of self actualization or benefit in everything we do and for the vast majority of members the core values run deeply within our very being.

For the snake oil salesman however their pitch is most often used to feed their ever hungry and growing egos.

As with anything in life there are those who will tread on the edge of what is seen as acceptable behavior within our departments as well as within society in general.

Unfortunately, it only takes one of these such characters to tarnish or ruin the reputation of an organization.

In a few moments their actions can ruin the efforts of many and forever change the image of a department.

Now more than ever before, it is of vital importance that departments keep a sharp eye out for such individuals or groups of individuals and prevent them from having the opportunity to do damage to an organization and it’s reputation.

Our society is more litigious than it has been at any time in history. With that being said we should ensure that our departments are functioning at their best at all times.

Creating a solid set of core values on which to base how your department will operate is of vital importance. 

Creating this set of values is often much easier than ensuring that everyone will live by them, however.

As our culture evolves the lines of what is acceptable and what is not are sometimes blurred, making them difficult for some members to actually see.

That is where the snake oil salesman will attempt to make their move.

If an organization has groups or factions that are moving in different directions it will be difficult at best for those members to come together as a team to move the department forward.

The group will end up stationary and very often in conflict.
As we know internal conflict and strife will prevent an organization from effectively providing it’s services to the community.

The snake oil salesman will very adeptly exploit these conflicts and create further division within an organization.

They will seize any opportunity to gather power by dazzling members with all the right answers and solutions to the issues they present as ailing the department.

Those issues are very often pointed out to be at the hand of the current leadership and their policies, programs and agendas.

Having a strong, effective and cohesive leadership team in place dilutes the elixir of the snake oil salesman within any organization.

Of course there will always be differences of opinion or philosophy within all organizations including within the ranks of the leadership cadre.

The organizations that will thrive however are the ones whose leaders are able to come to a common ground for the betterment of the department despite their differences.

Realizing that the leaders must function as a cohesive team is vital to the good health of any organization.
Keeping the snake oil salesman at bay in a department will always be a challenge.

However, if the leaders create a solid list of core values and work to instill them at every level of the organization, there will be no place for the salesman to peddle his snake oil.

Core values and team work are the antithesis of the snake oil salesman in the fire service.

It takes everyone in an organization to embrace these values and to instill them within everyone who come through your door.

It is the responsibility of each and every member to embrace the organizations core values and to live by them in everything that they do.

Be strong, put petty differences aside and work together to carry out the department’s mission with integrity and honor.

If you can be successful at this the snake oils salesman will realize their smoke and mirrors show will not work in your organization and will slither on their way.

Stay safe… 

Lt. Bastinelli

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Comment by Brian Bastinelli on April 27, 2014 at 8:33am

Nathan, thanks for your response to the article.  It was written with a bit of ambiguity. That was done so because there area a variety of types of organizations that provide emergency services from volunteer to career, rural to urban. 

The way this type of person would manifest in those various organizations would certainly be different in each case. So there would be some need to take the general principles of the article and apply them to the situation that each individual faces. 

For example, in a career department a potential manifestation could be a newly hired chief from another area.  For many departments this works out just fine. But we also know there are those who are looking for jobs far from home to get away from the issues that have developed around them at their original department. 

We’ve either heard or lived the horror stories of those who present great resumes and tout past accomplishments only to be hired and then learn that there was a fair amount of embellishment to their history and that their actual abilities are far from what was purveyed. 

In the volunteer world many departments have had to deal with members who have come from other departments because they were removed from office or left after running through the department’s money, making bad decisions, destroying moral or operating with a poor moral compass. 

These people tend to move from organization leaving a path of destruction much like that of a tornado. 

The list of the ways that these types of people can damage an organization can go on and on. There are departments and firefighters across the country that have their own stories of encounters with the snake oil salesman. 

The key point is however to establish and live by a set of core values for your organization. As I mentioned in the article, core values are the exact opposite of what these guys represent. 

Keeping an organization rooted in those values will help to keep these characters from bringing their destructive behavior to an organization or from allowing them to gain a foot hold. 

Thanks again for taking the time to read the article and join the discussion.

Comment by Nathan Adler on April 26, 2014 at 10:25pm

I for one, would have appreciated an actual example, a specific reference to who is being thought of as a snake oil salesman. Maybe shedding light on which part of the fire service was being peddled against. Which individual or organization are we being warned against? Maybe it just speaks to each of us in different ways. That was a pretty ambiguous story.

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