BY JAY LOWRY
“It is the family business” … or so goes the saying for many firefighters. Since the dawn of the American fire service, families have played a tremendous role in staffing fire stations around the country. The old wisdom was that firefighters from a family of firefighters are more often than not better prepared to serve their community. It is quite easy to estimate that if volunteer departments had forbidden family members from participating, the fire service would have been dealt a tragic blow. Young children admire firefighters; for the son or daughter of a firefighter, that fascination can be multiplied tenfold.
One officer interviewed for this article stated, “Someone who has grown up in the family of a firefighter has a good understanding of those traditions and why they are important. They understand that firefighters are role models in the community both on and off duty.”
In the course of preparing this article, I interviewed chief officers from around the country. Only a few names will appear, but all who participated are part of this article. It is not a fire service tradition to hire family. It is a family tradition to go into firefighting, which translates into a large difference when looking at the entire situation. Young children who sit at the feet of their mothers and fathers listening to tales of the job are more often than not intrigued by this mysterious, romantic vocation. It is difficult to find a child who is not mesmerized by a fire truck. For the child of a firefighter, that mesmerizing quality takes on greater fascination. When the children become teens and visit the fire station, they often find what they love, and to deny them a proper place at the table of the brotherhood and sisterhood of firefighters seems at a glance as spiteful.
Without fail, firefighters gratefully acknowledge those members of families who have contributed to the fire service. One item that sticks out in a sea of comments is the desire of family members to serve their communities. Thomas Stone, chief of the Easton (MA) Fire Department, maintains that the fire service is unique in that although most children at some point want to grow up and be like Mom or Dad, it usually loses its appeal as children age. Stone states, “For whatever reason, the fire service is one of those careers that maintains its appeal. Sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters remain committed to doing the exact same thing.”
This view is shared by many and is a key component in the rich history of the fire service. It is more than the red trucks, sirens, and excitement of a call. It is usually the call to service, the belief in something greater than one’s self. This is not to say that excitement never leads to the decision to follow in Mom or Dad’s footsteps. Often, the excitement is generated by talking about the job.
Dan Shook, a lieutenant with the Fairport Harbor (OH) Fire Department, notes the excitement for him was “hearing all of the war stories that Dad told at the dinner table. They ranged from almost dying from a fall through a roof to the gore of the fatal car accident he was just on. All of it, although dangerous, was and is exciting.”
Shook goes on to describe the influence of his father not only in becoming a firefighter but also in learning the vital role of leadership. Shook explains that his father “led by example” and has motivated the younger Shook to want to be “half the officer” that his father was when he was active. The pride in Dan Shook, both for his chosen vocation and for his father, is an unmistakable sign of fire service and family tradition. This is not an isolated case; it is prevalent in departments across the nation. In short, it starts in childhood and manifests itself in adulthood.
IS TRADITION A PROBLEM?
It is impossible to talk about the tradition of families in the fire service without mentioning charges of nepotism. For many, it is a real issue. A popular dictionary describes nepotism as “favoritism shown or patronage granted to relatives, as in business.”
Nepotism is commonly seen in family businesses, car dealerships, and even corporations. The fundamental argument comes down to one central question: Does nepotism hurt the fire service?
Some fire service leaders think that only harm can come when nepotism is allowed to flourish. What would an officer do if his son were trapped in a building? Would he exercise good judgment, or would that officer take more chances than he would take if his son were not involved? This is a debatable point and one that is not easily resolved. We all would like to believe that professionalism wins out in the end, but few seem to possess the ability to block out that a son or daughter is working for them and should always be treated the same as any other employee. However, is this necessarily true?
Psychologists debate the merits of this type of argument, and results are inconclusive to say the least.
Another point often raised is, Will that son or daughter have a chance off duty to call on “Dad” or “Mom” or “Son” to offer advice, seek counsel, or talk shop? If these conversations have an impact on how the officers handle those in their charge, is that ethical? If called on, what parents would completely remove their child from the equation? What about other firefighters who are not able to call on that officer in the same way as a relative can? Legally, is that equality? Nepotism might lead to discrimination lawsuits that are becoming more prominent in our litigious society.
Fire chiefs and administrators had better have a good explanation for each move that is made. Nepotism has been cited in several cases before the Supreme Court as contributory to discrimination lawsuits. One example that describes the possible problems of nepotism involves a father who was an assistant chief. His son became the chief, and interviews were held to determine the next battalion chief. No test was given, just an oral interview. Three department members conducted the interview: the chief, his father, and an assistant chief. The younger son of the assistant chief and the brother of the chief were promoted to battalion chief over a dozen other candidates, all of whom were senior in time and had acting battalion chief experience. This occurred in a paid department with roughly 300 members. Of 11 line chiefs, there were the two brothers and the father—the chief, an assistant chief, and a battalion chief—and two other assistant chiefs whose sons were captains and eligible to act in a battalion chief’s role. In percentage terms, three families held 54 percent of the line chief officer positions. The arson investigator’s son was also a captain, and the public affairs officer had a son who was a captain.
To say that these arrangements caused morale problems is an understatement. The legality of the moves was in question but was never fully pursued because of fear of retribution. Opponents of nepotism cite hundreds of cases like this one as evidence that it is not wise to hire family. In one of its divisions, the Department of Defense has the following written policy:
“Nepotism occurs when relatives are in the same chain of command. A management official or supervisor with authority to take personnel management actions may not select a relative for a position anywhere in the organization under his or her jurisdiction or control. They, or other public officials having the authority to appoint, employ, promote, or advance persons or to recommend this action, may not advocate or recommend a relative for a position.”
It is easy to infer from this policy that the chain of command is important. Anything that might become an obstacle or cause someone to make decisions based on personal loyalty is apparently unwise and dangerous.
Another person interviewed cited the O’Sullivan brothers, five of whom were killed when their ship was sunk during World War II. Why would anyone let five brothers serve on a warship? Why would anyone let relatives serve in the same department? Whole families can be wiped out at one incident.
So what does one make of nepotism? While it is true that hundreds of cases can be made against it, is it not equally true that hundreds of thousands of cases can be made for embracing family members as firefighters?
DEBATING THE ISSUE
Why is the fire service the target when people speak of nepotism? Plumbers, ironworkers, police officers, physicians, and other governmental workers can follow in a father or mother’s footsteps without being questioned. It would seem the fire service is the target because when people speak of tradition, the fire service comes to mind. Like any other vocation, there are good results from participants and bad results. Firefighters are called to prove themselves time and again. If a person is not, to borrow a line from friends in Boston, a “good Jake,” then he is stigmatized. It may not be right, but that is the way it is. Family does not matter when firefighters sit down to discuss who is reliable. The stakes are far too high for each firefighter. If you are a good firefighter, most other things can be forgotten. This is not the case when someone is sub-par at performing his duties. He will be told without hesitation. It is also a fallacy to think that someone cannot be objective when dealing with a family member.
One example of this is an assistant chief who suspended his son for being one minute late. This particular chief followed the rules, and he expected his son to do the same.
On the scene of an emergency, many state that they see fire and firefighters and they deploy them regardless of family connections. During the course of a fire or other emergency, there is precious little time to analyze the “who” when the “what” is taking up your attention.
Just as in any vocation, common sense has to play a role in how the fire service deals with family and tradition. It is a common practice to discard what is not working and maintain what works best. Wholesale change just for the sake of change is counterintuitive and counterproductive. Do you really want to remove from consideration an excellent candidate because he has a sister on the job? Do you hire someone of lesser abilities and take a chance that this person might make a mistake that causes injury or death? Disqualifying someone based on color, religion, gender, or family is abhorrent. All are equally discriminatory.
It is true that action has been taken with respect to nepotism, but judges are reluctant to deny someone the opportunity to earn a living or participate in his job or volunteer activity of choice. Who is more likeable than a volunteer? The communities of many jury members most likely are protected by volunteer firefighters, and everyone passes through jurisdictions where volunteers protect the populace. With respect to paid firefighters, it is an issue of denying someone the right to earn a living. Again, though, chiefs and managers must use common sense to ensure that family members take the same tests, receive the same training, and follow the same rules as other firefighters.
IN THE END
All firefighters are judged by performance. There can be no doubt that common sense must prevail in hiring and promotion practices. This can be said of departments that do not allow family members as well. However, to strip away an individual’s right to follow in the footsteps of his family members is inexcusable and wrong.
Firefighting is a profession. Like any other profession, there are rules and codes that must be followed. Often, when sons or daughters of an officer join a department, they are rarely given any slack and must make a name for themselves. This has occurred for centuries, and it can promote real growth in a young firefighter.
Tradition is not just a catchphrase in the fire service; it is a deep motif that goes to the core of every single firefighter. If you remove that, the job becomes “soul-less,” and it suffers damage. Firefighting is family. Those who follow family members onto the job bring great credit on themselves, their family, their department, and the fire service.
JAY LOWRY is a former firefighter and senior fire marshal for Charleston, South Carolina. He has served on various NFPA committees and has been published in fire service journals. He is a certified firefighter, fire inspector, and fire marshal.