FDIC 2013 General Session: Michael Walker on ‘The Fireman’s Standard’

For Battalion Chief Michael Walker of the Oklahoma City (OK) Fire Department, The Fireman’s Standard is not performing at the social norm or simply meeting the minimum. The Fireman’s Standard means performing to a level of quality or excellence that goes above the social norm and that goes well beyond the minimum, which, he says, is merely ‘one small step above inadequate.’

Note: Walker uses the term “Fireman” because, he says, it predates political correctness as we know it, and it will outlive whatever term we choose to call ourselves tomorrow. The term encompasses more than gender, skin color, religious association, or political affiliation, he says.

In his discussion of the Standard during his FDIC General Session keynote, Walker focused on “two critical components”–citizens and brotherhood. ‘Without one, there’d be no need for the fire service to exist, and without the other there’d be no way for us to succeed,’ he explains.

Under that Standard, Walker says, ‘It was everything–the way we looked, the way we trained, which obviously had a positive effect on how we responded. When we trained, we trained until we did it right. If we didn’t, we did it again and again and, if necessary, again. When we got it right, we moved on to something else.’

That helped him to understand that being a public servant really means being citizen focused, that ‘good enough’ just simply isn’t good enough. It means that when we, as firemen, say we’ve done our best, it doesn’t include the unspoken qualifier ‘for as little effort as we put into it.’ It is a standard of excellence that requires us to focus on the details and strive for perfection, even in doing the small things. It means settling for a minimal effort just isn’t acceptable.

Walker said it also became apparent to him that firemen must see the citizens as something more than just generic. “Because of who we are and because of what we are supposed to live up to, we cannot afford to view the citizens as just a homogenous clump. We must see them as ‘OUR’ people.” They are our people regardless of their social status; skin color; religious preference; sexual orientation; or views on marriage, abortion, gun control, and politics. Every one of them falls within the scope of our duty. When they need us, we are there; it is our duty to protect and serve them to the very best of our abilities. Along with that, we have to maintain the confidence they have in “their firemen.”

Walker defined for the audience what it means to live according to the Fireman’s Standard.

  • We must live up to the expectations of those people who think of us as heroes. It is incumbent upon every one of us to do our dead level best to be as good as, or perhaps even better than, they think we are. We must do everything in our power to live up to the Fireman’s Standard because “our people” are not a by-product. They are the mission. It’s because of them that we exist.
  • A pivotal part of the Standard is to invest in each other’s success because if we don’t, we can’t succeed. We don’t point fingers and place blame. We help bear each other’s burdens, and we realize that to serve as we should, we have to rely on each other. We invest in each other’s success and, at times, if it is necessary, bring an overly inflated ego back down to earth. As my chief says while pointing to his heart, ‘A kick in the pants or a pat on the back comes from the same place. When either is given, take it for what it’s worth.’
  • Some may wonder if adhering to the Fireman’s Standard, or ‘just doing the right thing,’ as some would call it, is worth it. Sometimes trying to live above the social norms isn’t easy–you may feel beat up or misunderstood by your colleagues or citizens. It’s tough, and it may seem reasonable to sometimes wonder why we even bother. Wouldn’t it be easier to settle for ‘good enough’ and to just show up, punch the clock, and do your time? Some seem to get away with it. Maybe you would, too. But think of it like this: If it were your family whose house was on fire or a member of your family who was trapped in a car wreck or having a heart attack, who would you want helping them? A clock puncher? A nice guy? or A Fireman striving to live according to the Standard?

Walker assured audience members, the majority of whom he said are ‘keepers of the Standard’: “Most of you will never be known outside of the confines of your department, but the impact you are making–and you are making one–will affect a generation. You may not be able to comprehend the influence you have because the ‘Ahh-Hahh’ moments in life are typically recognized only after the fact. Because you are so close to it, it’s hard to see the day-to-day successes, but they are there. Keep doing what you’re doing because you are making a difference. You have to hang on, dig in, and keep going. Keep the faith in the mission. Do whatever it is you need to do to keep marching.”


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