Lately I’ve been thinking about how the fire service is perceived and whether firefighters take advantage of public perception and/or take public perception for granted. Perception is relative, right? It’s in the eye of the beholder. What kind of impression do you think we as firefighters set on the public we serve?
Firefighting is a noble profession, but not everyone can do it. It takes special men and women to be firefighters. They must have courage, strength, integrity, commitment, and other attributes. Above all, they must understand their duty to act and be willing to put their lives in jeopardy to save others. These are the quality traits people have come to recognize and expect in firefighters. With qualities like this, it’s no surprise firefighters are often perceived by the public as being good people, just for being firefighters.
Firefighters are dependable. We respond when customers call, whether an emergency or a public service to provide assistance. People bring their kids to the fire station to let us show them around. They invite us to their birthdays and neighborhood block parties. They want us in their parades. We provide public education to school aged children to teach them about fire safety and to help them adjust to firefighters in full personal protective gear, so they won’t be scared of firefighters. People invite us into their homes and businesses daily. As firefighters, we build a relationship, based on trust, with those we serve.
However, when firefighters make headlines for inappropriate behaviors, the positive perception of all of us is chipped away. When firefighters act arrogant or superior to others, the positive perception is chipped away. When firefighters make poor decisions and do stupid things, the positive perception is chipped away. When firefighters neglect their duty to act or give the appearance of a cover-up, the positive perception is chipped away. Everything a firefighter says, what they wear, what they do, or what they post on social media reflects on them as individuals, on their fire departments and the fire service as a whole, and on the members they serve with. It is imperative and expected that firefighters behave and act accordingly.
This week, a fire captain and his department were in the headlines regarding a fire incident that occurred a couple months back in which an elderly woman died. Accusations, speculation, and judgements have been made that the fire captain failed to take appropriate actions to save the woman, who was on the phone and speaking with a 911 operator upon their arrival. The 911 audio recording confirms this. Crews were on scene and aware an occupant was still inside. The woman remained on the phone with the 911 operator for approximately another 20 minutes, all the while being reassured the fire department was on scene and would be coming to rescue her.
To add insult to injury, instead of making an aggressive push to rescue the occupant, who was reportedly five feet from an entry door, the officer decided to pull out his phone, record some video footage, and post it on Snapchat. The occupant, who should have, and in my opinion, could have been saved, died while waiting to be rescued. She trusted the firefighters. She trusted the 911 operator who reassured her firefighters were on scene and would be coming in to get her.
My perception of this incident, at the moment, is it was an epic failure of a duty to act, not to mention the inappropriate and callus action of the fire captain to video and engage on social media, while a woman’s life hung in the balance. This circumstance is unacceptable on so many levels, creates a very negative public perception, and tears at the fibers of public trust we work so hard to gain.
During the recent press conference regarding this incident, in which the fire chief had months to prepare for, he did not provide me with the confidence his department did everything they could to save the woman’s life. His answers were lacking, he appeared defensive and emotional at times, and when the county manager threw in the race card, I got the impression of a cover-up and damage control to limit their liability and embarrassment. Perception is everything!
Also this week, I read an article about a volunteer firefighter with Down syndrome who left his department because he was being bullied by other firefighters. Seriously! Imagine an individual with Down syndrome, who looks up to a noble profession and the people in that profession, and aspires to be like them. Like us! Imagine him beating the odds with Down syndrome to successfully become a volunteer firefighter, only to be ridiculed and bullied by the very people (firefighters) he admired. It’s appalling!
Firefighters are supposed to come to the rescue of others, not be the reason others need rescuing. Where were the others who witnessed this abuse and harassment? Who was aware and chose to participate in or condone this behavior rather than immediately stop it and report it. Shame on all of you! What does this do to public perception of firefighters?
In social media, specifically firefighter blogs, I see example after example of firefighters using foul language and bashing other firefighters because they may disagree with their way of thinking. Say “Transitional Attack” in the wrong forum and you’ll be verbally attacked as if you cursed someone’s mother. Everyone has a microphone in social media and their not afraid to use it. I’m all for being outspoken and questioning, but to be blatantly disrespectful to others just because they may have a differing opinion is wrong. Why is it so hard for people to simply listen and consider another person’s opinion or perspective? Regardless of what someone else thinks, it doesn’t take away from what you believe, so what’s the harm? We have the opportunity to learn from each other, but this doesn’t happen when egos and disrespect lead the conversations.
Is it more important to our egos we be right instead of just getting along with each other? Some firefighters seem to think they are the only ones in the chat room, when in reality there are civilians who take interest in our profession and follow firefighter blogs. They witness firefighters being nasty to firefighters, and even to them. Many can assume firefighter vocabularies only consist of four letter words. How do you suppose this influences their perception of firefighters?
Many departments have put in place SOPs addressing social media, and in some cases, firefighters have been disciplined for their inappropriate comments in social media, even while being off the job. Our fire department organizations understand that firefighters have a responsibility to represent their selves appropriately while on duty and off, because they are a reflection of their department and the fire service.
You are not just a firefighter at work; you are a firefighter all the time. You are most likely to come to the aid of someone when they need it, whether on duty or off. The public looks up to you just for being a firefighter. They trust you just for being a firefighter. They put their lives in your arms just for being a firefighter. We should never let them down. They are the reason we are able to be firefighters. We do it for them!
So ask yourself if you are worthy of being a firefighter? Are you upholding the high standards people come to expect of their public servants? When off duty, do you forget you are still a firefighter and act stupid at the bar or in the chat room? Are you the bully! Some of us don’t deserve the right to be called firefighters. To real firefighters, it’s not enough to wear the uniform; you have to pay your dues to earn the right to wear the uniform.
For those firefighters who represent our profession well on a daily basis, whether paid or volunteer, on duty or off duty, thank you for your service. It’s often difficult to be held to higher standards, to take the high road when our human nature would rather influence us to take the low road, but you fight the temptation and do what’s right. You are the ones who build and maintain public trust. You are the ones that influence society to perceive firefighters in a positive light. You are the ones, who are not immune to making mistakes, but rather learn from your mistakes and commit to being and doing better each day. With that responsibility, it is your duty to weed out the garbage among us and to do the right thing when it’s the right thing to do. It is through your leadership that positive perceptions are made by those we serve. Firefighters should never take public trust for granted and never take advantage of those who trust in us.
This article is intended to be two-fold on my part. One, it allowed me to vent my frustrations regarding the behavior of some bad seeds within the fire service and two, to bring attention to this inappropriate behavior so others will think better, will do better, and will be better firefighters.
I used to think society would be a better place if we all treated each other like human beings, but I’ve learned it’s not enough to be human. Our dogs often get treated better than people. To be human is to be lazy and to take the path of least resistance, the easy way. It’s basic human nature.
To wear the title firefighter implies you’ve gone beyond simply being human. You don’t become a firefighter by taking the easy road. You are among those in society who strive for more and work to meet the high standards that govern us as firefighters. It is not enough to gain public trust just because you get to wear the uniform. It’s not enough to be perceived positively by the public just because you get to wear the uniform. The public grants you this kind of respect out of their goodness and the general impression they have of firefighters. It’s almost a given, but that respect needs to be earned daily, not because you get to wear the uniform, but because you earn the right to wear the uniform and to maintain a positive public perception.
Live up to the title of firefighter by earning the positive perception of those entrusted in your care, and always respect and commit to your duty to act. If you can’t do that, leave the firefighting profession and go get yourself a job. Firefighters are not above everyone else, but we should reflect high standards that cause others to perceive us as being better than the average human being.
NICK J. SALAMEH is a 36 year veteran of the fire service. He was a Fire/Emergency Medical Services Captain II and previous Training Program Manager for the Arlington County (VA) Fire Department, with which he served 31 years. He is a former Chair of the Northern Virginia Fire Departments Training Committee and was a former volunteer firefighter for the Fairfax County, VA Fire and Rescue Department, Bailey’s Crossroads Fire Station 10. Nick is a contributor to Fire Engineering www.fireengineering.com and Stop Believing Start Knowing (SBSK), https://www.facebook.com/StopBelievingStartKnowing/.