Whether or not you like it, you are being watched. You are constantly being evaluated and graded. You are being evaluated by your peers, graded by supervisors, emulated by children and scrutinized by the public.
I am sorry if that pressure is more than you expected or desired when you signed up for this job — volunteer or paid has no bearing on this conversation. I am sorry if you think that judgment unfair. But 28 years of listening and experiencing has taught me otherwise. Many of you reading these few lines came on the job 12 years ago as a result of post 9/11 bravado and desires of esprit de corps that you saw as a lofty profession and are finding now that the reality of never forgetting also means that those which are watching are also never forgetting. Holistically, I think we stand up to that challenge and preserve the standards for which we have set. But let us not forget, that never forgetting must compel us to greater service and simper vigilantes (being ever vigilant) as to our cause and values. When we allow complacency to creep in to the mission and our personal appearance and actions, we suffer the consequences.
My evidence: Thanks to a dear friend and long time Hazmat guru, Perry Bailey of the S.C. Fire Academy — he will hate me for calling him out — for drawing my attention to the article in the Boston Globe on how Bostonians are evaluating (watching) the fire service of their city. Fair or not, your department, you, are being watched and graded with each turn of the wheel, each run, each training exercise, and each moment of contact you have with the public. And I want that level of judgment to stay that way. The reason we are respected is that very same two-edged sword. The sword represented by us saying proudly, “I am a Firefighter”; and the public asking, “Isn’t he (she) a firefighter?” (Use what tone of voice you wish in reading that line.) My faith in you is that we represent the best of society, the best of service, and the best trained professionals of our communities. But that comes with a price.
If you want to goof off, dress like you are on a TV reality show, get away with publically questioning someone’s level of education in relation to their maternal lineage, enthusiastically celebrate the 21st. Amendment to the Constitution in public, drive like you are in NASCAR, overtly express your fringe beliefs with flags and bumper stickers, or generally disrespect the time tested profession of which you are now a part, find something else to do! When you accepted the badge and attended the class you are no longer an individual, you are part of something bigger. (Let me repeat, this has nothing to do with whether you are paid or a volunteer.) The moment you put on a fire department logo shirt, flip the switch “on” for lights and sirens, or put on your protective gear, you represent all of us, collectively. And by your actions, we are all graded, and watched.
If you are having trouble getting and keeping members, ask yourself how others outside the bay doors see you (us). If you are having trouble getting that tax (budget) increase, think about what our customers see of us during their daily commute. Forget about your department, here is an experiment, and I know you already do this. What is the first thought that goes through your mind when you see someone (another firefighter) wearing a fire department logo t-shirt out in public? You judge. I am sorry if I am breaking a “judge not less thou be judged” premise, but those that watch amplify this same emotion. They — the public, council members, moms and dads, potential members — have those thoughts as well when they see that shirt, hat or car tag.
One of the best instructors I ever had the honor of being trained by, was Tom Taylor of the Columbia S.C. Fire Department. Capt. Taylor would constantly shout, yes shout and it was (is) OK, to his recruits, “maintain your professionalism.” It was his way, and a good way, to remind us all to slow down. Think what you (we) are doing. Realize the consequences. We were being watched. This may impose a heavy load, but it is a task, which we must accept, and face with pride. And it is a pride of conscientious action which can be seen and is reflected in our personal presentation, behind the wheel of whatever vehicle we respond in, at the front door of our customer, on camera, or when off duty. I know of no better group than you, my friends, which are up to that task. Maintain your professionalism.
Joe Palmer currently serves as the Executive Director of the SC State Firefighters’ Association in Columbia SC. Previously he served for 14 years as the Fire Chief for the City of Newberry, SC, where he still lives with his family. Joe is a Past President of the Firefighters’ Association.