Compromise and Conciliation Amid Imperfection

Tim Bradley, Executive Director, North Carolina State Firefighters’ Association

When many benefits seem to be taken away from public workers and responders, the North Carolina State Firefighters’ Association recently moved to increase benefits for our membership of 50,000 firefighters. Effective July 1st, our line of duty death benefit has increased from $50,000 to $100,000. (This is separate and in addition to the State Line of Duty Death benefit.) If the line of duty death resulted from an accident, it would be $125,000 because of our 24-hour death and dismemberment coverage that covers firefighters 24 hours a day for accidents on or off-duty. In addition to the increase in LODD, we increased the seatbelt benefit to $25,000, added a $25,000 safety vest benefit, added a new repatriation benefit for transportation of remains over 100 miles, and made several other improvements. Our new carrier is VFIS of North Carolina, and with their local office here in our state, the new partnership will allow them more hands-on service capability. Check out our website at ncsfa.com for a complete listing of benefits. 

The NCSFA Board, elected by the membership of our Association, work together with staff to provide the best support and benefits for the firefighters they serve. In an era where many organizations and governments are gridlocked and unable to accomplish much, working with a group that keeps its eyes focused on the goal is refreshing. They are a great example of working together until solutions are found. Then, they find programs that best serve our members and make things work.

Often you don’t find meetings where everyone agrees on everything. Some are more cordial than others, but how do effective fire and rescue service leaders deal with issues when two evenly matched sides can’t agree. When dealing with legislative issues, how do we handle the conflict of political parties that weighs into whether we get our measures passed or not? How do we handle fire service legislative issues when different associations have different opinions on the legislation? Unless there is a clear majority, particularly in government and regulation, realistically, compromise is the only mechanism of ever getting anything done. The balance between two groups of individuals is rarely uneven. In most discussions, you will find that one side feels it is infallible, while the other believes it is never wrong. To get things done, most of us must come to grips with the fact that few of us are completely right all the time. Call it compromise, conciliation, or concession. We each have to pull a little and give a little to adjust the line correctly. As a wise man once told me, you must admit that someone else is right occasionally. How do we get opposing sides to make that admission? 

I was talking on the phone with an individual years ago when he suddenly screamed into the microphone. After I recovered and asked him what happened and if he was ok, he replied “yes” and told me some dummy talking on his cell phone just cut him off in his lane. When I replied, “can you imagine the nerve of these nuts talking on their cell phones while driving” he found an excuse and got off the phone. I’m not being critical. There have been times when I’ve screamed at the guy in front of me because he wouldn’t move over and gave dirty looks to the guy riding my bumper when I was running the speed limit and wouldn’t move over. On any given day, I could be both people. On every given day, I am imperfect.

Perhaps we shouldn’t believe in the perfectibility of man. In history, only one has met that mark. 

Most of us recognize that we aren’t perfect, and we ask and expect other people to excuse our imperfections. We, however, are often intolerant of imperfection in others. It’s not that we expect anyone to be perfect. We don’t like it when they make mistakes. There is a thin line between tolerating imperfection and lacking initiative. There is also a thin line between pursuing perfection and being fastidious or persnickety. The question is, how do we fall within the correct boundaries. Waiting until we can get it perfect may prevent us from getting it right because we can’t get it done. What is the adage; that perfection is the enemy of good. 

Michael J. Fox summed it up great when he said, “I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for, perfection is God’s business.”

When I read the news this morning, I couldn’t help but worry about the state of our country, not from a Republican or Democrat point of view, but from the inability of the government to move forward on key issues that we need to resolve. When decisions are made to oppose ideas before they are heard, you wonder if your leadership seeks to get anything done.

In 1787, Benjamin Franklin was considered the wisest man in America. He had been dispensing wisdom for years in a well-known published column in Boston called “Poor Richard.”  Nevertheless, he harnessed lightning with a kite, convinced France to come to the aid of America in the revolution, and negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which made England finally recognize America’s sovereignty. Second, George Washington was considered one of the legendary figures of his time. He still is today. I recently read a biography of his life, and he was well recognized as hard-headed. On September 17th of, 1787, he rose to speak in favor of a draft Constitution and, by doing so, helped forge and embody the spirit of compromise and conciliation that he knew was necessary to forge a democratic nation and to keep that nation working. For him, it was a tough but necessary compromise.

Contrary to popular understanding, our country’s Constitution was not written until a little over 11 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In May 1787, 42 delegates from 12 States (Rhode Island did not participate) came together in Philadelphia to try and hammer out a constitution for a new, stronger federal government. Even though he was almost twice as old as most delegates, Franklin participated for four months in sweltering heat through impassioned debates to try and find common ground to preserve the nation. The final document was included upon addressing state’s rights, slavery, the executive’s authority westward expansion, liberty, personal rights, and many other issues. The meeting, which George Washington later called a “miracle,” was held secretly with sentries posted at every door. Although many expected the Constitution to be a temporary fix for our young country, it has withstood the test of time and stands as a model for countries across the globe today. 

 I wonder if our government could deliver such a document today.

What made Franklin’s speech on September 17th of that year so remarkable were the concessions he made in his usually cemented opinion. To find a document that would hold the country together and find support from the 9 States necessary to ratify it, he recognized it would not have everything in it he or anyone else wanted. Yet it would be a combination of compromise the masses could support. Many famous people, even Thomas Jefferson, had mixed feelings about it and even questioned its need. Jefferson was in Paris at the time. Patrick Henry, the legendary revolutionary, opposed it, saying it would squash individual liberties. Others like Alexander Hamilton and George Washington supported it. Franklin said on that day while addressing the President of the Assembly, “Sir, I consent to this Constitution because I expect no better, and I am sure it is not the best.” He had made the statement earlier in his speech that the older he got, the more he tended to pay more respect to the judgment of others. The Constitution was not perfect in his or anyone’s opinion at that time, but it was an example of compromise that the majority would find acceptable.

I think the closure of Franklin’s speech sums it up. “On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention, who may still have objections to it (the Constitution), would with me on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and make manifest of Unanimity, put his name to this Instrument.” How many meetings would you like to close on that note rather than an argument?

Looking at the fire services history on issues such as fire codes, public fire education, professional qualifications standards, staffing levels, etc., gives me confidence that we can work together through tough issues. I hope that the attitude that if I can’t get it completely my way, there will be no agreement doesn’t invade our processes. Could America Burning be written today? I’m sure it could, albeit there might be many more items to ensure certain groups got certain considerations. 

There are and continue to be good examples of compromise within the NC fire service, especially working with the legislature. For example, in 2013, there were concerns about local relief fund account balances and the lack of use locally of those funds. There was an effort within the North Carolina General Assembly to redirect those funds. The fire service worked with committees within the General Assembly, accepted some maximums placed on account balances and additional uses and preserved the fund for the fire service. Three years ago, when it appeared Presumptive Cancer for Workers Compensation would not pass, the NCSFA pushed for a compromise of Cancer Insurance for Firefighters. Fire service groups and the legislature finally came together two years later and passed that provision. It wasn’t where we started, but we got financial protection for firefighters who develop cancer. Issues such as these come up every year, and we need to continue to work together to resolve them in ways that continue to protect our service and our credibility.

We need to continue to focus on the defined goals that have made us America’s Hometown heroes: protecting the public through prevention and response, looking after our own, and maintaining our ethics and credibility. Winning against the other side, whoever that is, isn’t the goal. Serving our responsibility is the goal. 

Tim Bradley has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire and Safety Engineering Technology, an Associate Degree in Electronic Engineering Technology, and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program. Tim has been in the fire service for 47 years. He served as Chief for seven years, Executive Director of the North Carolina Fire and Rescue Commission, and Senior Deputy Commissioner of Insurance in charge of the Office of State Fire Marshal (OSFM), among many other positions. He was awarded North Carolina’s Firefighter of the Year Award in 2003, and in 2007 he was awarded Firehouse Magazines Heroism Award for the rescue of a five-year-old boy from a house fire. He is the author of “The Fire Marshals Handbook,” a book published to match the requirements for the NFPA Standard for Fire Marshals.

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