As firefighters, we go through many processes in our careers. Generally, we compete with our peers for limited opportunities, promotions, assignments, and slots. As in every competition, there is an outcome; it is the nature of processes. The old baseball line captures it beautifully: “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes it rains.” The wisdom here is ageless no matter what the outcome: Life goes on, the world continues to turn, and God is in His heaven. It is a great perspective on the nature of life in general and competition specifically.
Competition is a good thing. It sharpens us, increases our efforts, and allows us to measure ourselves in many ways. It is good when the rules are known, the access is equal, and the opportunities are fair. Winners are those who have earned it through skill, effort, physical ability, and sometimes luck. When we lose, we get it: The other person studied harder, showed more effort, and performed better on game day. We will get another chance, and so we are not bitter—disappointed maybe, but resolved to try again.
Albeit with the best of intentions, parents often try to hide the reality of outcomes in children’s competitions. They do this hoping to protect kids’ self-image, but kids are not stupid. Some kids are faster, some are stronger, some are smarter; some games favor one type of kid, other games favor other kids. Games are important; it is how we learn the structure of life, how we learn to interact, how we figure out tolerable limits and boundaries. We learn what gets rewarded positively and what gets negative attention or unwanted results.
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Most folks get that. You may be a nationally registered paramedic with 25 years as a promoted captain on a busy job. You love basketball but are, say, five feet, eight inches tall. You accept you won’t stand much of a chance one-on-one with LeBron James. That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t love to try, but you probably won’t be upset when he destroys you in a game of one-on-one.
You will still admire and respect LeBron’s talents and try as best you can to learn from your experience with him. Conversely, should LeBron have a sudden onset of shortness of breath and radiating arm pain, he would truly appreciate and respect your skill and talent and be grateful he did not run up the score in your one-on-one game earlier.
Promotional exams, selection processes, and even officer elections are forms of competition. How we fare in these competitions sometimes influences how we perceive or, maybe better stated, “feel” about the result and the process. Interestingly, how we select persons to associate with, do business with, or even socialize with and marry is a competition with winners and losers. People do not just randomly mate or intentionally select companions to balance society or correct previous social issues. We do so intentionally to satisfy to the best of our individual abilities our needs and wants.
It continues to be an ever more difficult process in many locations to find acceptable selection and promotional systems for our fire departments, “acceptable” being most often a locally defined term. Acceptable by whom, satisfying what goal, and meeting which criteria? The fire service and firefighting as a craft are fundamentally a trade irrespective of what aspect of the craft one looks at—whether firefighting, medical, code, management, or special operations. In all aspects of our vast mission, the tenets of a trade apply.
Within the fire service divisions, the practitioner follows a prescribed route of training and education. Along the route, you acquire more skill, talents, understanding, and insights, which, like LeBron, allows you to perform at increasingly higher levels.
The selection of candidates for a fire department is a good example of one of those locally defined terms. With the ever present need to stay within prescribed budgets, often requirements are set that push the acquisition of needed skill sets down to the candidate to prequalify for consideration. We see this playing out with emergency medical technician and para-medical certifications being prerequisites in many places to apply.
We also see often Firefighter 1 or previous experience as necessary. This does not make an organization good or bad or just or unjust; it simply reflects the conditions present locally and the desires locally expressed inside the realities of the budget and other existing conditions. They are from the outset the local rules of the game.
Often, folks muse that the world and all fire organizations should be absolutely egalitarian and no one, not you or LeBron, should have any kind of advantage, earned or otherwise. The old hippie writer Kurt Vonnegut once wrote a story about a hapless character named Stoney Stevenson who, after winning a Tang contest, is shot through time and space, seeing the future and past in several episodes.
In one, the future world is a place where everyone is made to be equal by placing limitations on them—for example, heavy weights so folks can’t move easily and thick glasses so everyone sees poorly. The use of these devices is mandatory and enforced by the “Handicapper General.” The episode ends when two dancers throw off their handicapping devices and perform a dance beautifully. The Handicapper kills them with a shotgun to enforce the law.
The world, life, and competition may never be completely level playing fields. However, we should agree on certain things. First, the rules matter. As best we can, everyone should have a shot at competing if they meet the basic qualifications locally. The desired outcomes of a process should be in direct relation to being necessary for acquiring measurable job functions of the position for which they are applying or promoting to, and immutable characteristics should never matter.