Professionalism is a very common adjective used in the sphere of the modern fire service. It is a word that is taken in a myriad of contexts and used to describe (or sometimes denounce) much of what we do as firefighters. As the emphasis of service shifts in importance to all aspects of our modern-day society, the fire service is no different. Many fire departments and organizations, in keeping with current demands of society, are identifying needs to stay on pace with such standards of service. As such, many departments place a great emphasis on professionalism (or at least the ideal of professionalism) in the delivery of those services; nobody wants to be referred to as “amateur” or “unskilled”. Thusly, recognition as a professional has become today’s gold-standard in the modern workforce. It demonstrates not only a competence, but a confidence in ones’ craft. But there is a difference in acting professional and being professional.
It should be noted, that professionalism in the fire service, is not inherent along the simple dividing lines of volunteer versus career firefighters; there are a great many volunteer firefighters in our service who exude professionalism, just as there are many career firefighters who do not.
It is another side effect of our modern society that the term “professional” may be thrown around too liberally, particularly, within the aforementioned sphere of our fire service. We as an industry have found a tendency, in our much bemoaned “everyone-gets-a-trophy-there-are-no-winners-or-losers-world”, to submit to that hypocrisy that we so loath. In the interest of putting our best face in the public eye, we unhesitatingly and unapologetically describe our departments and our firefighters as “professional” regardless of whether or not they earn the right to the description. While it cannot be disagreed that there is a measure of confidence-building in the portrayal of a given department in this manner, the blanket statement that everyone in our department is “a professional” can not only be seen as a blatant fallacy, but can also be taken as an insult to those who continually develop in an attempt to attain a truly professional measure of competence and confidence in their work.
True professionalism begins with personal and professional accountability. The key characteristic of this accountability is that it must be self-taught, self-monitored, and self-enforced. Captain Mark Von Appen of the Palo Alto (CA) Fire Department says that “Nobody’s coming to make us great. Excellence is our responsibility.” Firefighters make conscious or subconscious decisions every day to establish themselves as professionals. Professional firefighters prepare their rigs, their PPE, and their tools for any job they might be called upon to perform. Professional firefighters dress in full personal protective equipment for each job they are called to. Professional firefighters get off the rig ready to work with their assigned tools. Professional firefighters understand the “why’s” of the job, not just the “how’s”. Firefighters unable or unwilling to perform these simple pieces of their job are just as simply not professionals. Chief and company officers can instruct a firefighter on a task and hold them accountable to the results, but this measure of accountability is applied broadly and to both the amateur and professional alike. Where the professional firefighter’s measure of accountability differentiates from the amateur, is their willingness to own that high standard of self-accountability.
It is not a professional firefighter, who puts accountability for a job poorly done on somebody else. Professional firefighters don’t make excuses, they work toward a solution.
A professional firefighter makes the decision to do the job the right way, regardless of whether or not that right way is the easiest; to carry oneself with integrity both in the company of our brother and sister firefighters, and in the protection of the general citizenry of our communities. It is an all too common occurrence in our industry of problem-solvers that an individual’s decisions are made based on what’s easiest or most popular, and not necessarily what’s right. That is not the quality of a professional firefighter. A professional firefighter strives for excellence in all aspects of the job.
Professional firefighters have the profound understanding that they are not the first priority in our industry. The motto of the Anchorage (AK) Fire Department (used also by Firefighter Aaron Fields of Seattle) is “I am not here for me. I am here for we, and we are here for them.” Truly professional firefighters live this mantra in every aspect of their job. Firefighter Nick Ledin, of the Eau Claire (WI) Fire Department says that in the big picture, everything we do should be for THEM. With respect and loyalty, true professionals strive to protect and uphold WE, while training hours upon hours for the betterment of serving THEM. None of this is to say that a firefighter should ignore the risk of death or dismemberment in the performance of duty. Professional firefighters, equipped with the understanding that the citizen comes first, the company second, and self last, do not have a desire for self-harm or to throw their own lives away. A professional firefighter is armed with a deep understanding of risk assessment that is required to make that “go or no-go” decision to perform a true act of heroism, or the situational awareness that is required to perform the right way when the lives of those they’ve sworn to protect depend on them. And when truly heroic acts are performed in service to THEM, it is never ME who gets the recognition; it is always WE.
A colleague of mine asked me recently “How do you define a professional fire department? Are big city departments like the FDNY or LACoFD professionals just because they’re big, career departments?” My answer is no. They are professionals because they get off their rigs turned out with tools for a job. They preach and practice readiness at all times. They are professionals because, despite the volume of work that they see, they continually train to do that work better. They are professionals because when you see them out and about, they call you “brother” or “sister”. Their firefighters understand and epitomize them before we, and we before me. They are professionals because their priorities, tactics, and mindset put THEM first.
Anybody can be a firefighter, but the unfortunate reality is that not every firefighter is a professional. It is a discredit to the real professionals in our industry to apply such a blanket statement to everyone. If it is not OK to apply blanket terms which are “negative” to entire groups of people, why is it any more OK to apply blanket statements which are “positive”? Earning the right to be called a professional is simple, but it’s just that: earned. It is up to us, as a whole, to be accountable for the growth and permeation of real professionalism within our own organizations and not let the term become just another buzz word. It is also up to us to have the courage to admit shortcomings and either facilitate change, or show the door to those who would abuse our fire service or tarnish the cultures that we work so hard to build.