Achieving a Just Fire Service

BY BOBBY HALTON

It is extremely difficult to recognize someone’s skills and abilities if we are unfamiliar with the difficulty of their work. For example, recently during rush hour in a Washington, DC, subway station, a man took out a violin and began to play. He played for more than 45 minutes, and thousands of people walked by. A few people threw coins and bills into the open violin case, but none stopped to listen. About six or seven people did pause briefly, but no one stayed for any length of time. He played beautifully; however, there was no applause. There was no recognition of his skills.

Everyone has blind spots in their views and, for most of us, our views affect relatively few; however, some have views that affect many. Important decisions regarding our profession are often made in the courts by judges who can have a simplified view of our work. The burden on these judges is immense; they must balance justice with the greater common good.

The decisions judges make almost always have a moral component, even if they are addressing an issue that is not fundamentally a moral question. A judge’s decision tells us what “ought to” be done from the perspective of right and wrong. Whenever we are told what we ought to do, not simply what we can do or what it is possible to do, we are dealing with morality.

The blind spot for these well-intentioned judges is their lack of familiarity with the highly complex “skill sets” that are necessary for safe and effective firefighting. The judges, like most civilians, have an uncluttered concept of firefighting and emergency response, one of the world’s most dynamically complex and high-risk professions.

The question going before the Supreme Court is this: Does the fire service position of company officer have enough consequence for the community welfare to require that the selection of these officers be made solely on the results of valid testing? Is justice served if every firefighter competing for the opportunity has equal chance to succeed?

The decision will be made based on how important the judges determine these officers’ critical skill sets are to society. We know company officers routinely make decisions with limited information, no time, and strained physical resources—decisions that, because of the most subtle of differences, can result in either catastrophe or heroics. We know our officers need to be able to manage multiple decisions in complex and extremely stressful situations, projecting and visualizing conditions three and four tactics ahead to determine if they, their crews, and those we protect can survive the outcome. But how well have we explained that to the rest of the world?

When the company officer is viewed as one who is responsible for making life-or-death decisions, like a pilot or a doctor does, then firefighting takes on a professional perspective. Historically, we have been unable to prove that we are a profession, and the blame lies squarely at our feet. Firefighting as a profession is something we must all endeavor to establish. To start, we must see to it that our critical responsibilities are clearly understood, or “validated,” so that judges will have measurable skill sets on which to base their decisions.

The fire service is a noble profession, and our company officers are our key professionals. So if we want to have a just culture in the fire service, we have to find a balance between selecting qualified officers for positions we know to be critical to public safety and being accountable to making improvements within our own community.

Dr. Martin Luther King said it best when he wrote from a jail cell, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We may never reach complete agreement as to what is fair and just. The concept of justice can and will be debated forever. Developing a just culture in the fire service means building and maintaining open and honest relationships with everyone in our communities.

We must be open and accepting of those who in the past have felt unwelcome. We must provide ample, well-delivered training and mentoring to everyone. We must produce validated testing that is fair, accurate, and designed to measure what skill sets are required. And from those tests we should promote in the order of achievement, regardless of any other issue. That is the definition of professionalism.

Achieving a just culture means communicating clear expectations of the duties, responsibilities, behavior, and professionalism that our service requires. Firefighters have the compassion and the wisdom to understand that everyone has the right to compete as equals and to promote fairly, independent of any other measure but the quality of their skills.

Oh, and the man playing the violin in the subway? That was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest violinists of all time. The piece he played involved some of the most intricate and beautiful violin music ever written. The violin he played on that day was worth $3.5 million. Two days before he played in that DC subway where no one even stopped, Joshua Bell played to sold-out audiences where the average seat went for more than $100.

You see, it is not a failure of the court if it can’t recognize our officers’ critical importance to the community. It is our own failing, like those DC subway riders who heard the music but could not be expected to appreciate it or recognize how well it was played. They were not trained musicians—just regular folks. To be recognized as professionals, we must explain to the justices the vital nature of the services and functions our company officers provide to us and the community. Then we will have just recognition as a profession.

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