Attitudes and Fire Service Perceptions

by Richard Etheridge

Over the last year, I have become a fan of some of the social networking sites. I know many of you cringe at the thought of its use in the fire service. For smaller departments, it is a great tool if used properly. These sites can also be hugely destructive if you allow them to be. We will go into those details later.

Recently, a very well respected fire officer posted a simple question, “Why do some writers refer to fires as emergencies? Fires are fires.” This is a question that should generate a lot of positive discussion on the perception of what is truly an emergency. It is a great kick-off question with which to start a discussion to reinforce training, competency, and professionalism, and to determine how it affects our perception of what is an emergency.

I was surprised on how the comments made by fellow firefighters made a 90° turn and went immediately negative, including bashing of the “ungrateful” public, the biased incompetent media, and on and on. As a firefighter and a fire chief, I am very concerned that we would go that way so quickly. The fire service is not all peaches and cream; there are ups and downs. We all have good bosses and bad bosses; that should not affect the reputation of the fire service as a whole. We need to take responsibility for our parts of these perceptions.

We owe it to those who have come before us to uphold the fire service reputation and image they created, and we have the honor of defending and carrying on their work. We are the generation building the reputation for the next generations to uphold. In some areas of the country, the firefighters are public enemy #1; in other areas, they remain heroes of the community. Regardless of how many years we have in the fire service or what rank we hold, we are all public servants. We are here to serve the needs of the community regardless of what those needs are. An all-hands fire does not occur every day.  

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Instead of complaining about the public’s perception of firefighters and fostering animosity, we owe it to the fire service to look at what is going wrong and what we need to do to fix it. Is our reputation tarnished because of the actions of a few hooligans who broke the law? Do we have firefighters abusing the leave schedule or running their side jobs on department time? Our reputation allows us to do our jobs, and it must be aggressively defended. It may come down to a perception of wages. “Those firefighters are paid way too much to hang out, sleep, and wait for a fire.” This is all perception on the public’s part and ours. We can demand higher wages and price ourselves into being a detriment to the functioning of the local government, or we can ask for fair wages. If we bankrupt the government, none of us will be getting paid. We should not be looking to “get rich” off the taxpayer.

It is up to the fire department administration to meet with the city leaders and find out which services are critical and which they are willing to fund. It is up to the department’s officers to lead the department from there. We need to educate the public on our capabilities and limitations. People want to know what is going to affect them directly. We must be accurate in what we report. We will lose credibility if we try to scare them with “sky will fall” tactics that are not based in fact. Most people take their perception of what we do from TV, movies, and the media. People in general like and look up to firefighters. It is usually the actions of a few or a small group that damage the fire service’s reputation.

Most importantly, we need to be honorable in our lives. We need to police ourselves and hold each other accountable. Firefighters must hold other firefighters accountable for their actions. If they are abusing the system, not doing their jobs, or doing a disservice to the community, their brother firefighters must to call them out and let them know it is not acceptable. Peer pressure is a very powerful tool that can correct many issues before they get to the fire officer, the public, or the front page of the paper.

We must also face the reality that some of our brothers and sisters may be so angry and jaded that they simply won’t change regardless of the improvements. Some may even need to move on to other departments or leave the fire service completely. No one wants to see these actions; however, disgruntled senior members can be like a cancer cell. They spread the negativity exponentially. I have seen angry new firefighters who did not know the root of their anger. They took their views from their senior people.

Working in the fire service is the greatest job in the world. Regardless of whether you are paid or volunteer, you all must be professionals. It is up to every fire chief and officer to demand professional behavior from our departments from the top down. Our reputation is what makes it possible for us to get the job done. Without that, what do we have? We set the standards. We defend the work of those who came before us. We carry on the reputation and traditions of the fire service. We must all work to dampen down the negativity and bring the positive traditions of the fire service back to the forefront of our communities.

 

Richard Etheridge is the fire chief for Capital City Fire Rescue in Juneau, Alaska, a combination department with 33 full-time line firefighters and approximately 80 volunteers. He has served 20 years in the emergency services, 16 years in the fire service and four as an Alaska State Trooper.

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