I’m sure most don’t think firefighting, or firefighters haven’t changed all that much over the years. I have written about some of the changes I witnessed over my career and pointed out some of the subtle changes I have seen.
But I was reminded again this weekend of how it really has changed in some profound ways. There was an Easter party for the families and children of firefighters and having three children I elected to take the kids for some fun.
Since publishing my first book about the fire service and my times as a firefighter I have had many reactions to the book. The majority have been overwhelmingly positive, but the biggest negative reaction has come from my former coworkers, and that is fine everyone is entitled to their opinion, hell firefighters can’t agree on what TV show to watch, let alone a piece of writing.
I did hesitate to go to the Easter party as I have had some less than kind treatment at the hands of my detractors, but the kids wanted to go, so off we went. So here is one of the changes I noticed, the fire service is huge on their notion of all of us being a second family.
We recite the statement as if learned from a sacred ceremony at the altar of fire, it is one of the largest traditions of our storied career; we are a second family to our brothers and sisters in the service. Quite frankly I have to call bull shit on that one these days.
My former department is a group of men and women that numbers over 400 members. At this family gathering of our second family I saw the same dozen firefighters and their wives that pull these events off year after year, doing it again.
Lumpy and his wife, Cindy and Paul, Nolove, and so on. What I didn’t see was a single gold badge. Not that anyone was wearing a badge, but you get my drift. No chief officers, not one. Now granted I didn’t stay for the whole event but we were there for nearly three hours, long enough to have noticed if a chief would have attended.
That made me think, are there two second families on the job now? Is there a second family for firefighters? Because I saw plenty of mid-level officers mixing with their crews, many union members with their kids, but no chiefs.
The health of the organization I believe can be measured by this observation. The chiefs either don’t feel comfortable mixing with the working firefighters, or more likely don’t feel it necessary to expose themselves to their employees in a non-professional environment.
When I began my career this same department was half the size it is now. But you know what, when you went to the Christmas party or the summer picnic it was a full house and you know what else? The chief was there, the big chief and other than the duty chiefs all most all the chiefs were there. They at the very least put in an appearance, had a beer, shook some hands, acknowledged, how much your boy had grown or how pretty your daughter had become.
They still mixed the common man or woman doing the job, the people that were really going inside burning buildings. They were a part of that mythical second family, they were one of us.
Now I can see if you are sporting a wagon wheel of a golden badge that your commitment to the job as an executive is time consuming. It probably drags on you 24/7; you are dealing with budgets, and discipline, and the Mayor, and tax payers, and so on.
But guess what? You took that damned badge, you said yes to all that misery because you wanted it, you wanted to be the big. Well now you are the big, and the thought that hey I work hard the rest of the week, I never get a break, so you know what I’m skipping the party, that one don’t fly with me.
It doesn’t look powerful, confident, or like being a leader, it looks cowardly it looks like fear to me, like you are afraid to mix with those doing the job, those most at risk.
See what happens when you are an unpopular fire chief like this one, when you go to a departmental party like this, two things will happen I guarantee it. First is you will get shunned, oh people will say hi and shake your hand if you get close enough to them, and then they will slip away quickly.
Second thing, some firefighter will confront you about your poor decisions as they see it. Because outside the glass walls of his office building the chief can be perceived by some as human, and they will take this opportunity to confront him.
So it’s easier to stay home. Well being the fire chief isn’t meant to be easy; it’s a damn hard job especially when you make it hard on yourself. Firefighters aren’t stupid people, and they know what the absence of every fire chief to one of their parties’ means, it means we don’t care.
It means we don’t have to explain ourselves to you and they don’t that is true. But more importantly it means that we lead from desk chairs, we lead from the infamous fire SUV, we lead from the rear boys, follow us.
Well I’m retired now and I may have it all wrong. But what I do know is this, one day all of the leaders will retire just like me, and they will be forgotten quickly for the good they did do. But they will be remembered for the way they acted or didn’t act, and when their name is spoken of in a firehouse it will be with the recollections of perception.
And then one day their neighbor will introduce them to a friend as my neighbor who used to be a fireman, and then what? Where will that second family be on that day?