Every fire department I’ve ever seen has a uniform. With that uniform come rules and standards regarding its appearance and the manner in which it is worn. Nobody hands out a uniform and says, “Here, wear this however you want.” There is something to be said for uniformity of appearance and presenting a professional image to the public. I care what I look like to the public. YOU should care what you look like. But more important than how we look, we should all care how we ACT.
Do we act like professional firemen, or just firefighters who showed up to simply fill that uniform for the shift? In my short career, I have seen MANY more memos and guidelines come out regarding the uniformity of appearance than the uniformity of performance. My department has a number of guidelines in our employee manual dedicated to the description of the uniform and rules regarding its wear. That same 4” thick employee manual has about 15 times more print informing the reader about our performance standards on the emergency scene. From standard fireground assignments and tasks to high rise fires to special operations- nearly every scenario is written down with a framework to guide response and decision making. Yet, where is the true importance placed on a daily basis? Where do your leadership and command staff stress uniformity?
Let’s look at the fireground. If your department assigns RIT on fire calls, to whom is that assignment given? In many departments, RIT usually goes to the crew that is the poorest performer. A great portion of the fire service has a habit of giving a low-frequency, high-risk job to the “worst” company on the scene. Why? Because we want to put people to work who will actually WORK. We want the most effective crews in place where they will BE the most effective. If we put a “bad” crew inside, we know from experience that the job will be harder for everyone else, and we may have to assign more hands to a task that another crew could do by themselves. Who wants to pick up the slack for a crew that is prone to getting hurt? Or is lazy? Or just plain has no idea what they’re doing?
Why is this the case? Why do we ALLOW poorly performing crews to continue to be poor performers? Why do we put a huge emphasis on making sure everyone looks the same, but so little importance is assigned to doing the job with the same level of proficiency as the crew to the right and to the left? I have seen people written up for improper wearing of the uniform. I have NEVER seen anyone disciplined for throwing a ladder to a window and leaving two rungs inside the room and an intact sash, curtains, and blinds in the way. I have NEVER seen anyone disciplined for breaking windows willy-nilly without coordinating ventilation with fire attack. I have NEVER seen anyone disciplined for leaving a dull, unusable chain on a chain saw. Or for poor apparatus placement. Or pulling the wrong line for the fire.
We basically condone all these errors when we place a higher importance on uniformity of appearance than uniformity of performance. Sometimes getting an underperforming crew up to par is a simple matter of training. Sometimes the problem is more complex. Company leadership, motivation, and physical capabilities all factor in at times. But we have to start somewhere. We have to, at some point, realize that our proficiency on the emergency scene is a MUCH better indicator of professionalism than our appearance when we get groceries for dinner. Our departments have to get our crews to a level of performance uniformity that promotes fireground unity. Maybe when we’ve made sure that our operations are up to standards across the board, we can look at who’s wearing the wrong station T-shirt, or whose boots aren’t shiny enough, or who wore white socks instead of navy or black.