In the past I have written about reputation management because it seems to me, for a while many major fire conferences across the country had someone speaking about this subject, “And the Beat Goes On.” The most comments I have received on articles has been about how the public, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, perceive the fire service. Just keep in mind that public perception is real and it does affect how some departments operate. A few years ago, I wrote about volunteer firefighters doing the wrong things. Today and even then, it is not just about the volunteers. Career fire departments, some of the largest in the country, are making the headlines and when the media locks on to a story about a public servant, America’s Hero, doing the wrong thing they seem to find more about the agency. Here is what was written then with some editing and updating, and if you are not giving the media the information they are asking for, they will make up their own version. Remember fake news sells.
“The Volunteer Fire Service continues to get a black eye because they continue to do stupid things.” Too many people just see us as tobacco chewing, redneck, 4X4 truck driving, and belly hanging over our belts, trying to be something we are not, want-a-be heroes. Look at the news across the country and we are giving the public plenty to talk about. Just go to your browser and search “fire department wrongdoing” or “why volunteer firefighters quit.”
We had firefighters in Tennessee that will respond to a fire and refuse to extinguish the fire because the homeowners did not pay their fire dues. Why respond in the first place?
A fire chief in North Carolina has a dispute with the town he serves so he takes his fire trucks out of the station, hides them and refuses to respond to calls.
There was a fire chief in Southwest Virginia making illegal moonshine and has a reality television show about it. He is deep in the woods running his illegal still when he gets a call for service only to drop what he is doing to respond to the call. OK, now he is a legit moonshiner making whiskey the legal way.
Here are some items taken straight out of the headlines, all I did was cut and paste and removed the names. You can’t make this stuff up:
- A Minnesota responder charged with stealing money from crash victim’s wallet. Amid the grief of losing her two sons in a car crash earlier this summer, this mother learned that an emergency worker who arrived at the scene rifled through at least one victim’s wallet and stole money from it.
- The former head of a fire district accused of stealing about $240,000 from the district says he’ll pay it back. He’s reportedly ready to accept a plea agreement to theft charge.
- The former fire chief and secretary of a defunct volunteer fire company are accused by state police of stealing more than $67,000 from the department during a two-year period, forcing it to close. After the department folded, the couple allegedly sold some of its equipment, including smoke protection masks, to pawn shops police said
- A former volunteer fire chief will appear in court next week on charges he embezzled and cheated the department out of nearly $29,000. He served as chief and assistant chief for a volunteer fire department, was indicted this summer by a grand jury on six counts of obtaining property by false pretenses and one count of embezzlement.
Too many times to mention them all, we read or hear about firefighters that are starting fires because they are bored and want to be a hero. Chief officers and board members embezzle money from the fire department for personal gain.
Who do you think you are? Whether you are a 501C VFD, large metro department, or just a social club calling yourself a fire department that wants to do some good for the community, it is not your fire department. Whether your department is funded by tax payer money or by donations alone, the money you receive comes from your community and should stay in your community.
So many of the volunteers have a great need to feel important and that may not be all bad, but if you are in the department just to feel important and bang on your chests — maybe you need to rethink why you are there. Maybe you don’t feel important enough at home or at work so you come to the firehouse and try to show your authority. This practice is not just the lonely firefighter, but some chief officers and board members. It seems there are way too many people in charge that should not be, and if you are not happy you need to get the hell out, stay at home and make your wife and family miserable. Chief officers and board members are the ones we hear about because that is the way the chain of command works. It makes for better press and those are the exact people that are held to a higher standard by the public.
Does your fire department have a mission statement? If so, is it just words on paper that makes you sound like something you want people to think you are? Should you rethink that mission statement to be simple, concise and to the core mission of protect and serve?
Do you swear in your new members by taking the oath to do the right thing, whether they are volunteers or paid? This practice will not make bad people be good or keep them from making the wrong decisions while on the job, but it just might be something they would think about every time they put their uniform on.
Does your department do background checks? If your department is not doing a thorough background check, you are asking for trouble. It does not matter how bad you need new members. You must recruit members without criminal history. Mr. and Mrs. Smith are trusting your members with their home and families. Remember, if you hire idiots, thugs, and misfits you should never be surprised when they let you down.
To be very clear, I am not bashing volunteer members, it is just the contrary. I have been a volunteer for over 40 years now and I hold the banner for the volunteer fire departments anywhere I go across the country. I am very proud to serve as a volunteer and hope to continue for many years.
I know very well the traditional volunteer service as a whole is making the shift to hire members to maintain the increasing call volume. I know also that too many volunteer departments hire that first person and can’t wait to take the word “volunteer” off the side of the apparatus and most important, our uniforms. You are still a volunteer fire department unless you change your charter. Why are we continuing to try to be something we are not?
I know of a deputy chief at a large combination department that seems to have the same passion as I for the volunteer fire service. He told me he thinks we are losing our history, or heritage because the new members we are recruiting don’t know because they are not being taught. The chief told me when one of their new recruits has been approved; the first requirement is to read Chief Rick Lasky’s book “Pride and Ownership.” I thought what a great idea. I know there are plenty of books about fire department history but Chief Lasky hits you right in the gut with the hard truth. Being a firefighter is the greatest job in the world, and we should want to learn as much about the history as possible. We have a deep heritage and pride that would be a shame to tarnish.
We should start teaching firefighters more than ladders and nozzles. Continue to remind them of good values and remind them they must always do the right thing. Today more than ever the public knows what we do when we think they are not watching. With a cell phone camera in every hand you can be assured someone will be recording anything that looks wrong.
We should all work hard to make the system one unit — volunteer or paid, why does it matter? The only difference in a paid firefighter and a volunteer firefighter should be the way they are compensated, that is it. When we roll up on the scene Mr. and Mrs. Smith does not care what name is on the side of the truck. We should all be trained the same so while on the scene no one can tell the volunteers from the paid staff. We should not be afraid to call on our mutual aid departments whether they are a paid municipal department or all volunteer.
Don’t be ashamed to have the word VOLUNTEER on your letterhead and on your uniforms. Be proud of the fact because that is your heritage.
Work hard to keep your fire department out of the headlines if all they have to report is negative and what we have done to screw something up. Work hard to develop a good positive relationship with the media and continue to tell them all of the good things you are doing for your community. You should be talking to the media regularly, keeping them informed on the positive things going on at the firehouse and in the community. Social Media such as Facebook, Twitter and your department’s website can tell your story if someone is in charge that controls the content. Educate the media so they can help you educate Mr. and Mrs. Smith to see what the real fire service is doing for them and let’s all try to stay out of the news when it is something that leaves us with that black eye.