TRADITIONAL THINKING IN NONTRADITIONAL TIMES

BY CHARLES F. BRUSH

“Tradition … Tradition … TRADITION … TRADITION!” So starts an outstanding song from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.” For you Generation Xers, a musical is a real-time, three-hour rap in street-gang strength with harmony and full visual effects. In this story, a father whose whole life, ideals, and values are based on traditional values has to choose between tradition and the reality of the times. From the song “Tradition” comes the following quote (modified, of course):

“Here in the Anatevka Volunteer Fire Department, we have traditions for everything. How to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes, how to fight fires, how to manage people, how to keep members, how to raise money, how to support our members. You may ask, How did these traditions get started? I’ll tell you, I don’t know! But it is a tradition, and because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God (i.e., the chief) expects him to do.”

Are there traditions that we should maintain? Absolutely! They define us, identify us, and represent a continuation of a time-honored commitment. Are there some that we could do without? Absolutely! We don’t know why we do it-we just do it! Following are some thoughts enhanced by strong belief, cold-hearted observation, and the assistance of Jack Daniels.

TRADITIONS TO DUMP

Fundraising. Another tradition. Bingo wars between the local church and fire station-those were the days. Paper drives, can drives, selling this, raffling that, freestyle cooking, doing things never done or considered at home for the good ol’ volunteer fire department. We did this because we had to, we wanted to, and we still do ellipse? If we can’t raise the money, we’ll get by. Members will have to buy their own equipment, pay their own expenses, and will love it. If there is truth in advertising for fire service recruitment, we would place an ad that says:

“Ninety-five-percent boredom, five-percent sheer terror-join the Good Ol’ Boy VFD. Save lives maybe once, fight fires some, deal with people that don’t understand in a potentially hazardous environment. We provide the environment, you provide your time, money, reduced life potential, potential noncompensated injury, and increased time away from the family unit. If you become a member, we have shirts you can buy, every light and siren device known to mankind, and 275-channel radios that will drive your family bonkers. If you’re breathing, we got gear for you.”

Callous? Yes. Overdone? Guilty as charged! Too close for comfort? Yup! Please note, the days of “Hello Mr. New, welcome to the VFD, here are your boots, coat, and helmet. You is a firefighter” are over. Training and remaining current in our profession (yes, profession) require more time than years past. As a volunteer fire chief, my standard comment is that we could build competent firefighters or great fundraisers, but not both.

A sticker I saw in Minnesota said it quite well: “VFD: your dime, my time.” Your members should have good equipment compatible with the service area threat potential (amount and quality of stuff that can provide an evening of quality entertainment), and they should not have to raise or spend a dime to do it.

The name “fire department.” In the beginning there was Fire, and Fire Departments were created to meet the threat. Then came Rescue with ropes and other devices of a somewhat kinky nature. Rescue involves sane folks (fringe members of the fire department) falling off of perfectly good high structures. Next came the threat of Hazardous Materials. Free radical gladiators (Hazmateers, or the “I Die First” team) who were educationally born to deal with the threat and came from the womb of fire departments. Then came EMS, terrorism, environmental emergencies, disasters, NASCAR racing, and a virtual plethora of need-driven skills. What do they have to do with firefighting? Enlightened departments have stepped away from the traditional tag “Fire Department” and moved to the broader, better defined, more marketable “Emergency Services” or “Public Safety” name. The name should describe the services provided.

TRADITIONS TO KEEP

Uniforms. Our uniforms are a good example of a tradition worth keeping. The United States Navy, an organization noted for 200 years of tradition (unhampered by progress), began a dynamic changeover and created the “new” Navy. Everything changed, including the uniforms. The Navy moved away from the traditional bell-bottoms, jumpers, and “gob” sailor hats to army-style uniforms (blue, of course). Navy personnel now looked like poorly dressed Air Force types. With the uniforms went the identity of the Navy. After a short and uncomfortable period of time, the traditional sailors’ garb returned and remains today.

We have tried all types of uniforms, and still the quintessential fire department dress uniform is the Class A uniform. The traditional Class A uniform consists of a weird hat; a six- to 30-button jacket and matching pants; white shirt with tie; enough designer badges, braids, stripes, and such to anchor a yacht; black shoes; and white socks (spray-painted black prior to being seen in public by anyone with taste). It is reassuring to know that in uniform you visually stand together with your fellow firefighters and are just as uncomfortable. How many departments, racking their collective brain banks for member retention ideas, have overlooked such a simple yet powerful device as a dress uniform, provided after three years of service? Will providing Class As solve the retention issue? Maybe not, but it is one more building block toward attaining the sought-after goal.

Honor. A simple word with dramatic impact. A difficult goal to attain and even more challenging to maintain. For the law of probability (which is probably true) to remain true, there are some among us who have a less-accepted view of honor than we do. While the law is true, we do not have to help it along. Consider what happens every time a volunteer is nailed for arson: We all catch it. When a firefighter screws up, the media never forget to mention the affiliation. I have yet to hear about a carpenter arrested for DWI or a history major accused of a hit-and-run, but if it’s a volunteer firefighter, they’re onto it like fleas on a dog. Maybe it’s a jealousy thing, since we have the highest trust of any profession while the media are somewhat lower. In any case, our honor and that of those before us should be cherished and protected.

One method of protection is an unbiased but thorough background investigation prior to accepting a new member. A very successful, low-impact investigation method is one liberated from our police department. The process works like this:

  1. Candidate Wannabe submits a formal application for membership. As part of the application, three references are required with signature confirmation that references can be checked. Each reference is checked. Three questions are asked of all references: What are the strengths and weakness of the individual?Would you feel comfortable with the individual being in our department?Is there any other information about this candidate that you would like to share with us? These references predictably speak of Candidate Wannabe in comparative terms with Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Martha Stewart.
  2. After the glowing recitation, we ask each of the three original references for the names and phone numbers of three other people who deal with or know the candidate. We now have nine other people who have knowledge about the candidate. We contact each one of the nine and ask the same three questions. These folks paint the picture of a mere mortal-a real person.
  3. After the more factual representation, we ask each of the nine for one additional reference. From the additional nine references, we select three at random after discounting any duplicates.

This system allows you to go through three layers and 15 references to establish a picture of Candidate Wannabe. In one such reference check, at the third level, a person comments that it was good to see that the candidate had gotten over the heart problems. Based on this, we arrange for a full cardiac workup that would not normally have been done on someone in their 20s. The candidate is advised and withdraws from the process.

As we stand on our organizational roofs fiddling with the future of our departments, we must maintain a balance between tradition and change lest we fall off. The past is kept alive in our traditions, but those traditions should not strangle our future.

CHARLES F. BRUSH is a career chief in the Lebanon (NH) Fire Department and a call firefighter in Hartford, Vermont. He chairs the Vermont Fire Service Training Council’s Curriculum Committee and is a member of the NFA adjunct faculty.

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