By Rick Lasky
The person WHO coined the phrase “Blood is thicker than water” to describe the closeness and loyalty that a “family” has obviously never got to experience the closeness and loyalty of the American fire service family. Granted, your family at home is going to rank higher when it comes to that way of thinking—and rightfully so—but the fire service family has to run a very close second. Nowhere does there exist another “family” or organization that has the closeness and love for one another that the American fire service has.
I know “love” sounds mushy, but it’s true. Where else can you go to a place and see someone wearing a Maltese cross and not feel that closeness instantly? You know what I’m talking about. You’re traveling somewhere, at a wedding, a ball game, or whatever, and you start talking to someone and as soon as you realize that person is a firefighter, you feel at ease. It’s as if you’ve known each other for years.
Now I know we all have that “crazy” uncle we don’t want to let out of the house, but the fact still remains that we are a very strong family. When someone is in need or is having a rough time, as soon as one of the fire service family members finds out, the help and support come pouring in. Sick kid? Family problems? We’re there.
Some Fortune 500 companies would kill for the marketing advantage of the American fire service family—especially when at times the American family itself is struggling with divorce, abuse, ugly relations, and other challenges. Maybe that’s why you can’t turn the television on without seeing a commercial with a firefighter or a fire truck in it. Look at all the advertising that incorporates the fire service family. The advertising/marketing people realize there is a bond and a trust between the public and the fire service that is second to none.
DEFENDING OUR FAMILY
It’s hard to defend our family from those on the outside when someone on the inside is “slapping” it around in the first place. What I’m referring to is when we hurt each other’s feelings with what we say about each other and what we do. Aren’t we supposed to take care of each other? We’re supposed to be there for each other “through thick and thin.” Sometimes we need to be reminded.
The other area we need reminders about sometimes is not allowing anyone to tarnish our image. That means keeping each other in line and coming down on those who cross that line. We’re human. Once in a while, someone is going to make a mistake. We need to step up and let them know it’s not right. Just try to explain to someone from the outside how a firefighter could commit arson. We read about it way too often. Our family is not supposed to break the law!
So how do you work to control it? Start by hiring the right people and letting them know just what our expectations of them are. Tell them right away. Tell them that we don’t steal, we don’t lie, and we don’t put up with anyone who betrays our family. It goes back to brotherhood, which defines a value system that we need to abide by. Brothers stand by each other, stand up for each other, stand up for the fire service, and stand up for our family.
It does not mean that you take advantage of each other and play on brotherhood for personal gain, especially when you are wrong. Being a brother means I will do everything I can for you, but it also means that you, as my brother, would never ask me to do something that would risk my own family’s financial security. Remember, doing the right thing doesn’t mean doing the wrong things and trying to make them look right. It means doing the right things for the right reasons.
The good news is there are a couple of organizations that do nothing more than promote the brotherhood and thankfully so. During times when integrity in the private sector is a struggle and family values are often thrown aside, we have to step up and protect our own. Maybe we ought to let the fire service family serve as a role model for others to follow. I think in many places it already does.
OUR FIRST FAMILY
Our first family, the one at home, is where it all has to start. The only way we can build and strengthen our second family or extended family is to work toward building a strong foundation at home. Without a foundation, a strong base, our value system begins to crumble. That is the beginning of the end. Take a look at someone who is struggling, is always in trouble, or has chosen to work against the whole brotherhood thing. Nine times out of 10, he lacks foundation. He lacks a value system, and he lacks it at home. It all starts at home. Develop those values, live by them, and then you will begin to strengthen that foundation.
Building on that foundation also means keeping your priorities straight. I love the fire service more than life itself, but my family comes first. With all the demands our profession can place on us such as schooling, training, continuing education, studying for promotions, and just the time it takes to be good at what you do, it can be easy to forget who’s waiting for you, patiently, at home. When you look at the big picture, isn’t that what it’s all about, family? Remember to take care of what’s at home. If you’re not good at that, you’re probably not good at work and are struggling there as well.
We try to bring that kind of atmosphere to Lewisville, the one that helps our folks with the “first family.” We discussed in a previous article the importance of having awards ceremonies that the whole family can participate in—hiring and promoting ceremonies that bring families together and encourage family members to visit more often at the firehouse and make them feel welcome and at home.
We even take it a step further by encouraging and allowing the spouses and children of our firefighters to come in and witness and experience what dad or mom does at work. Not a week goes by that you don’t see one of our member’s kids riding out. Once in a while the question of liability comes up. We’ve got a waiver to sign and rules that define what a rider, any rider, can and cannot do while riding out with a station or company.
We believe that this particular program does a lot more good for our members than it can hurt. Maybe by allowing this liability, we can help reduce the “liability” some of our troops face at home. For all we know, it might help keep a few more families together. We even have child-size department and company T-shirts for children and some small sets of turnout gear. We really want our firefighters’ families to feel as if they are part of it all.
KEEPING BOTH FAMILIES STRONG
Here are just a few areas that help keep both families strong.
- Remember where your priorities are. Take care of the “first” family. It’s a great way to start taking care of the “second” family.
- Remember what the brotherhood is really about. It’s a 24/7 commitment!
- Just as it’s important to take care of the things at home, remember to never betray the family at work.
- Establish a 100 Club or, as we did in Denton County, The Heroes of Denton County. Both are organizations set up to assist the families of firefighters and police officers who suffer a loss from a line-of-duty death. Many are already established across the country; unfortunately, many areas still don’t have that kind of support and assistance program in place.
- Implement a good program for the line-of-duty death. Model it after the National Fire Academy’s “Taking Care of Our Own” program or a similar one. Set it up now, so if, God forbid, your department suffers a line-of-duty death, you’re there to take care of the family. When it comes to the respect and dignity that a fallen brother or sister and the family deserves, a good resource is Battalion Chief (ret.) William C. Peters’ Final Farewell to a Fallen Firefighter: A Basic Fire Department Funeral Protocol (published by Fire Engineering). The Illinois Fire Chiefs Association has another great program.
- Remember to be fair, objective, and honest at work. Stay open, encourage diversity, and just be nice.
- Remember what the 9-11 and memorial stickers on your helmet are for. NEVER FORGET means NEVER FORGETTING!
- And probably most important of all, make good decisions, and think before you act. Make the right decision because it is the right thing to do. Decisions made on emotions almost always are wrong and can hurt or get people in trouble. Decisions that are made on good solid information and common sense usually go a long way and yield better results. Remember that each decision you make is going to affect someone in either or both of your families. We teach our kids not to drink and drive, not to do drugs, and not to get into a car with someone under the influence. Once in a while, we need to remind some members of our second family as well.
It’s all about family—and this means both families. Life will throw you a couple of curves from time to time. Make good decisions and good choices. Remember what’s at stake. Taking care of both families is the only way we can keep the foundation that supports our values from crumbling.
RICK LASKY, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. Previously, he was chief of the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department and training officer for the Darien-Woodridge (IL) and Bedford Park (IL) Fire Departments. While in Illinois, he taught at the Illinois Fire Service Institute and Illinois Fire Chiefs’ Association and received the 1996 International Society of Fire Service Instructors “Innovator of the Year” award for his part in developing the “Saving Our Own” program. He is the lead instructor for the H.O.T. Firefighter Survival program at FDIC West and is co-lead instructor for the program at FDIC. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and serves on the FDIC and FDIC West advisory committees.