Fire Commentary: Brotherhood Demands Action

By Samson J. De Sessa

Readers of the following will likely fall into one of three categories: Those who get it, those who don't care, and those who will inevitably make fun of it all. You may think, "Yeah, this totally makes sense", or "Blah, blah, blah", or you will immediately start blaming others for "the way things are around here" and start tearing it apart. I encourage you to read and think about what YOU can do to improve your department's brotherhood. Stow the pointing fingers for a few minutes, keyboard pundits, and try to accept the challenge with a positive outlook for once--you may just achieve a positive outcome.

Which words come to mind when you hear "brotherhood"? I often hear these, among others:

  • Tradition
  • Pride
  • Honor
  • Family
  • Loyalty
  • Friendship
  • Solidarity
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Teamwork
  • Heritage
  • Camaraderie

One definition decribes brotherhood as the feeling of kinship with and closeness to a specific group of people or all people. Some say "the Brotherhood" is the whole fire service, some say it is the union membership, and still others claim it represents paid, sworn firefighters. Is it a willingness to lie for each other to keep from getting in trouble? I have visited many firehouses over my 21-year-career and have seen houses that seem to get the concept of brotherhood, whereas others that don't even have a clue. I have been to industrial, municipal, volunteer, federal, and even foreign fire brigades, and have asked, "Why are some departments so rich in brotherhood, but others just don't really seem to care?

Over time I found that the answer depends on the caliber of people. We enjoy the benefits of brotherhood, but many people have a hard time associating it with terms like "individual responsibility," "personal accountability," "servanthood," "stewardship," and "ethics." What do these expressions have to do with brotherhood? It does not just happen by accident. Being a part of this fire service brotherhood means more than getting 10 percent off on your gas station coffee just because of the cool uniform. Many brothers and sisters are more concerned about what they can get from the fire service versus what they can give. People are sometimes taunted for "going the extra mile," but why is going above and beyond not always a popular concept? Chief Alan Brunacini brought customer service principles to the fire service industry in the 1990s . Why did you join the service, if not to help people?

Chief Rick Lasky says that brotherhood "defines a value system that we need to abide by. One where brothers stand by each other, stand up for each other, stand up for the fire service and stand up for our family. It does not, however, mean that you take advantage of each other and play on the whole brotherhood thing for personal gain, especially when you are wrong. Being a brother means I will do everything I can for you, but it also means that you as my brother would never ask me to do something that would risk my own family's financial security." I would like to submit to you that as public servants we are called to stand up for the communities we serve as well. You may remember the adage, "Do no harm."

To really understand the brotherhood, one must realize that it is something much bigger than you. You belong to something elite, something special, yet something fragile. Every time one of us forgets that we represent something greater than ourselves, problems occur. When our people get caught doing something less-than-honorable, it casts a shadow over the entire brotherhood. Whether it's a city firefighter busted for arson, a volunteer chief caught misappropriating funds, or a county medic caught stealing drugs--it all reflects poorly on all of us. It chisels away from the brotherhood. Conversely, in the few years following September 11, 2001, brotherhood was something so obvious you could almost breathe it in every fire department in every community. Fire Department of New York personnel displayed brotherhood for each other, for their community, and for the world. They put others before themselves because they knew it was bigger than them and we all benefitted. They earned the public's confidence. The impacts of our actions affect all of us in the future, whether positive or negative.

Most of us joined a department that already had a certain degree of brotherhood handed down and entrusted to us, but that does not mean that the next generation will necessarily inherit from us. The brotherhood is similar to a family. Families are bonded by blood, but that does not necessarily make them good families. Strong, thriving families are forged by hard work, communication, fun, and loyalty to one another. Our family is no different. Brotherhood is a family by choice.

Brotherhood requires action. You have to make brotherhood, which takes work and commitment to imperfect people. You have to forgive things that happened years ago, and see others as more important than you. Pride is a great feeling in the context of brotherhood, but selfish pride is the antithesis of brotherhood. It is self-centered and it strips brotherhood from the individual and often from others around them. Stop pointing your finger at everyone else and start accepting your role in both the problem and the solution.

So, how do we do it? How do we build brotherhood? Be engaged, take action, and get involved. Be there for each other--it's that easy. Be there when a brother or sister needs you. Make yourself available when someone needs your time. Invest in each other. Build each other up instead of always tearing each other down. It's occasionally fun to laugh at someone else's expense, but honestly, how often are we saying "good job" to another member? If we say we are willing to lay down our lives for each other in a fire, why don't we reflect that in the firehouse? Why must you berate a fellow firefighter behind his back for forgetting to take out the trash and bring conflict into the firehouse over similar petty issues? Those attitudes will transfer to the fire scene. Let the little things go. Ask yourself, "Will this matter to me in five years?" If not, let it go. Put in the work; it is worth it. Besides, we owe it to those who have gone before us and to the next generation to cement a legacy with a solid foundation of brotherhood. They will inherit tomorrow what we put into it today. Remember, your fire service heritage is the very fabric from which the brotherhood is cut. Are you being a good steward of our brotherhood? Would you be proud to have your son or daughter work for your department? If the answer is "no," then start making changes now. Whether you are a firefighter or fire chief, the answer to authentic brotherhood is in you.

Samson J. DeSessa is the assistant fire chief at the Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base in Texas.

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