Silent Trumpets: When Leadership Fails

BY JOHN KING 

It is an honor and a privilege to wear our uniform. There is a history behind the badge on our chest. There is a responsibility that comes with the trumpets we wear on our collar. The uniform, the badge, and the trumpets are symbolic of the traditions and lineage of our profession. Never forget that the honor and privilege associated with the fire service were earned by those who served before us. We must pay the same price for those who follow.

These words should influence us throughout every day we spend as officers. Each time we decide to act or not to act, regardless of whether we are on the fireground, in the firehouse, or in our office, these words should be ringing loud and true. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case. The result is that the fire service is in a crisis. At the heart of the problem are those trumpets on our collar. It doesn’t matter if they are silver or gold, crossed or upright, singles, doubles, or the whole house of five. The fire service is in trouble, and our trumpets have fallen silent.

Sexual harassment of fellow firefighters, racial slurs and nooses in fire station lockers, probationary firefighters dying during a hazing, firefighters treated in the emergency room because of a fight in the firehouse, drugs sold out of fire stations, driver/operators under the influence of alcohol and drugs …. Some may call these isolated issues, but to me it looks as though our profession is in trouble. Is anyone tired of reading about how six firefighters were lost because they were standing on the roof with pike poles and axes watching fire blow through the vent hole when the roof gave way? We are burying firefighters because they were operating inside a 50-year-old vacant structure that has burned multiple times. We are burying firefighters because they weren’t wearing seat belts. Are you telling me we aren’t in a crisis?

Like you, I get it: The fire service is an inherently dangerous profession. It goes without saying that even in the best of circumstances, things happen and we get hurt; unfortunately, sometimes our friends die. What I don’t get is why we continue to believe that technology will somehow solve these issues. Our problem is not the dangers we face. Our problem is a lack of control and a lack of respect within the job. Simply, we lack discipline in the fire service, and it is a failure of leadership.

As unpopular as it may make me, I am only pointing out what should be painfully obvious. The problem of firefighters dying from not wearing seat belts will not be solved by throwing millions of dollars into developing better seat belt systems. Harassment cannot be solved by hiring a company to come in, write new policies, and teach tolerance. Do you really believe that providing a firefighter with the best protective gear and the most technologically advanced self-contained breathing apparatus and monitoring firefighter locations and status in real time on a laptop from the command car will save lives when officers allow them to stand on the roof admiring their work and watching fire rip through the vent hole? Although it is easy to believe these issues are simple problems, the truth is they are collective symptoms of a greater problem. We continue to think the quick fix is to improve our technology or to write a policy to prevent the problem from happening again. This is ignoring our responsibilities. Our problems are attributable to poor discipline and a general lack of respect for the system. Technology and policy cannot fix that.

If you are thinking that the young firefighters and new officers in our firehouses are to blame for these problems, you don’t get it. The problems may involve firefighters, but it is not a firefighter issue. It is a leadership issue. Somehow our leadership has become disconnected from our firefighters, and our officers do not understand the consequences of this occurrence. This has been going on so long that we have lost our sense of accountability; and, worse yet, we have abdicated our responsibilities. We have failed to speak up and lead. We are paying the price for “silent trumpets”!

It is time for leaders at all levels to speak up and to restore discipline within the fire service. This begins with instilling respect. Respect is the cornerstone on which pride, dedication, and integrity are built. Many of the traditional values and cultural behaviors that have contributed to the good of our profession were derived from the respect and responsibility. These values translate into honor and pride. More importantly, they keep us from hurting what we ought to value.

Respect is not always automatic, nor is it mandatory. There are officers who command respect, and there are officers who command no respect at all. Respect is given, not earned. Yes, that is correct. I said it exactly as I intended. First, you give respect and then respect is given back to you. There are no shortcuts.

 

WHERE DO WE START?

 

As fire service leadership, where do we start? We begin at the same point where I began this article, with the debt we owe our fire service predecessors for building and preserving our profession.

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Respect should be a 360° testament of an officer’s leadership. Leaders must lead with respect 60 seconds a minute, 60 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for a career, regardless of where they are at any given moment—in the station, in the office, in the apparatus, at training, on scenes, doing daily apparatus checks, and even over coffee in the kitchen. They must lead by example.

Good leadership entails setting the right example and serving as a role model. These actions teach firefighters and young officers that the fire service is about traditional values. Respect at all time, regardless of where you are and what you are doing, is just the foundation of these values. Respect also encompasses the people, principles, and ideologies that shape our profession.

Self-Respect

Self-respect is about who we are. It is about feeling valued, being able to stand tall and feel proud of yourself just because you exist. It is about the drive to succeed because you care about who you are. Stop trying to be the perfect officer; just be a good leader. Recognize your faults, and strive daily to improve them. If you cannot be honest with yourself, how can you expect others to respect you?

Respect Your Firefighters

When do firefighters become disillusioned with the system? When they are ignored, stereotyped, and not taken seriously; when they are lied to or not given all the information; when they are not asked for their opinion; when no one seems to care about their career development; when their abilities and job knowledge are underestimated; and when their supervisors fail to enforce policy equally.

Trust your crews to do their jobs; give them an assignment, and let them determine how to complete it. Most importantly, let your firefighters know when they do a good job. If the only time you talk to your crews is to give them orders or to let them know when something is a problem, then they won’t want to talk to you. If they have concerns or questions about policy, talk it out, and let them express their views. Ninety percent of policy issues are based on a lack of understanding.

There is no better arena for solving the world’s problems than a kitchen in a firehouse. Have a cup of coffee, lean against the counter, and talk; it doesn’t even have to be about the job. During the course of an hour, you can learn more about your crews by just letting them have their time on the soapbox.

Get out of your office, get in the trenches, and work with your crew (not over them). There are administrative tasks associated with being an officer. Reports often mean you are in the office doing them long after your crews are done for the day, but don’t use that as an excuse not to work side-by-side with your crews. If you think working with your crews is “micromanaging,” then shut up and just work. Working with them allows you to see and correct deficiencies. There are also times when you need to supervise work, but sometimes just get in the trenches and do work. Be human.

Respect the Public

That fire truck you ride around in, the firehouse you call home for 24 hours, all the cool tools you use every day, and that paycheck you get for having the best job in the world came from somewhere. Don’t forget who pays for all that.

We live in a world where bad things happen. The public needs to know that when the worst day in their life happens, we will be there to protect them. The public funds our fire service because they need to know someone will step up and say, “I am here with you.” There are many unknowns in life, and the public can go to sleep at night because they know there is one constant in this world—firefighters are always there. They call 911, and firefighters show up at their house—no questions, no judgments, no hassle. Firefighters just show up and take care of the problem.

That is an awesome trust, and we should be honored. The public doesn’t ask for thank-yous, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show our appreciation. Take stock of your surroundings once in awhile. That little firehouse you call home, the fire truck in the bay, the chairs and couch you sit on to watch TV, and all the tools on the fire truck cost millions of taxpayer dollars. Do you really want to complain because all they ask in return is the chance to have their kid tour your firehouse or for you to come over to help change the batteries in their smoke detectors? Simple things are big “thank-yous.” Talk to people at the store, wave at little kids, stop and help someone with car trouble. Be nice, and make sure your crews do the same.

Respect Your Trumpets

You wanted those trumpets. It is imperative that you accept your roles and responsibilities. All the people above, below, and with you in the chain of command are counting on your ability to lead.

A lack of discipline is the most contagious, caustic, and destructive disease that can plague a firehouse and crew. If your crew lacks discipline and respect, then look at your leadership—attitude reflects leadership. Respect your rank. Enforce policy. Make discipline happen.

Being soft on policy is intolerable. Policies are written as guides for avoiding chaos, confusion, and injury. Applying the policies is as important as developing the guidelines. If you criticize policy or allow crews to follow only the rules you like to enforce, then your crews have learned a leadership lesson from you—you don’t have to follow the policies you don’t like. So, if your crews don’t respect your rules, don’t blame them; they learned that from you.

Disciplining for infraction of policy is part of the supervisory process. It is true that people make mistakes and an infraction need not always be punished. Up to the point of termination, discipline is corrective. Taking a firefighter aside and having the “I am disappointed with you” talk may work once, but if you are always talking to that individual about “mistakes,” then you aren’t correcting his behavior.

If you are unwilling to accept the responsibility for your actions and those of your crew, you are not respecting your trumpets and are unfit as a leader. If you don’t respect your trumpets, don’t expect your firefighters to respect them.

Respect Tradition

Tradition is our history. I am talking about real history, not just the typical “how we got Dalmatians” or the eight paragraphs of fire service history covered in the firefighting basics manual. I am referring to the real stories of how we got here. Most firefighters probably know about the Knights of St. John on the island of Malta, but how many know what the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry (aka Ellsworth’s Fire Zouaves) contributed to having the Maltese Cross adopted as an emblem of the fire service? Do your firefighters know the significance of signs on businesses with the letters “N.I.N.A.” for the fire service culture? How about the Vulcan Society, Fire Chief James Braidwood, or Fire Chief E. Massey Shaw?

Our firefighters should understand the significance of events like One Meridian Plaza, New London School, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Doxol Gas Company, Gates of the Mountain, Strand Theater, The Station Night Club, and a hundred other places throughout our history. Do you know? If not, then you had better get busy.

We have suffered some bad days in the fire service, and that part of our history should be our first priority. There are approximately 3,300 firefighter names honored at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. Each of them died in the line of duty; we should know who they are and how they died. Honor them by getting to know them. It might even save your life or your crew’s lives someday. Do you know what happened on June 18, 2007? That was only four years ago; if you don’t know, shame on you.

Respect the Job

One hundred or so years ago, Fire Department of New York Chief Edward F. Croker noted, “When a man becomes a fireman, his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work.” That quote should be on the wall, at the front of the classroom, and in every fire academy and training center for recruit firefighters. It would not hurt to paint it on the apparatus bay wall of every firehouse in the United States as a simple reminder for all of us.

“… all in the line of work.” This job was never about heroism, but everything we do, regardless of how routine it may seem, can be heroic to those we serve.

You respond to a civilian’s house at 3:00 a.m. because he heard a pop in the attic and smelled smoke. You search the house and the attic and find nothing. People don’t argue with you no matter how sure they are they smelled the smoke. You leave, they tuck their children into bed and kiss them goodnight, and they go to sleep knowing everything will be fine. There can be no higher honor than that level of trust.

You respond to the house of an elderly couple for weakness and flu symptoms. It might be a simple call for us, but to the husband who has a sick wife, it is a scary thing. They have been married for 30 or 40 years. His wife is his whole life, and he can’t imagine a day without her, but he trusts you to care for her without question.

Every day parents entrust the care of a sick or an injured child to you. They will do background checks and require 30 references before they drop their child off at daycare, but they give you their child to care for without hesitation. They may interview two dozen pediatricians looking for the right doctor to care for their child, but they call 911 and immediately trust you.

You respond to a house fire, and even on your bad days when you can’t save their house, people still thank you for being there. You go on cardiac arrest calls, and even when you cannot resuscitate the patient the family sends a thank-you card for trying. When you are at the grocery store, kids go out of their way to say hello and wave.

It is easy for officers to blame this generation of new firefighters for the loss of respect for the job. I think it is more of a case that we haven’t had enough respect for the job to show these new firefighters what it is truly about. When I remember the good and the bad days from my career, I find that I may have forgotten some of the particulars, but I always remember the people who were there. Take the time to show your firefighters what this job is about. They need to enjoy the good days, and they need a good leader on the bad days as well. Become part of their memory of the job.

Respect the Uniform

Nothing shows a lack of discipline more than seeing a company of slobs. Look in the mirror, company officers. Is your uniform squared away? Do your uniform pants look as if you have owned them 10 years or that you have slept in them for the past five years? Get some new pants, and use an iron on them periodically.

Is your T-shirt tucked in, or is it half out? Tucking in your shirt takes all of 30 seconds. If you need a larger T-shirt, get one. While we are on the subject, is the T-shirt the same color it used to be? Is the screen printing still intact, or does it look as if you have owned it for 10 years also? If you need a new one, get it.

Are your duty boots shined? Listen, I don’t care if you can see your reflection in them or not, but they should at least be clean and have a fresh layer of polish on them. “But chief,” you say, “they were clean, but I got some dirt on them last shift; I can’t clean them every day.” Really? I will bet you got your uniform dirty, too, but you washed it. Clean your boots, and set an example.

That emblem on your chest and the patch on your sleeve don’t belong to you. They belong to the community and to those who wore them long before you did. Treat them with respect, and teach your firefighters to respect them as well.

Respect “The Right Thing”

There is no point in being a leader if you don’t intend to respect the right thing. You want to have the courage to stand up for what is right. Unfortunately, our sense of right and wrong is constantly being battered these days by what seems to be a total collapse of values.

Doing the right thing is difficult. The easy road is to say, “Everyone else is doing it.” When we are confronted by people engaged in “doing the wrong thing,” the easy road is to adopt a “go along to get along” approach. Nobody ever said leadership was easy.

As leaders and, most importantly, as people, we know it’s wrong to lie and cheat and steal; it’s offensive to demean others because of their gender or race; it’s criminal to seek to injure another; and it’s intolerable to abuse public trust. Failure to do the right thing is not limited to the actions we choose. It sometimes includes remaining silent.

Have you ever sat in silence while a firefighter made a demeaning remark about the organization or another employee? Did you fail to discipline a firefighter for a policy infraction because you didn’t want to be the “bad guy”? Did you fail to speak up about an unsafe act because you didn’t want to step on someone’s toes? These behaviors are unacceptable. Your gut instincts probably told you it was wrong to remain quiet. You failed to do the right thing.

You are a leader, so you are the right person to make the tough decisions. When things are unsafe or firefighters are doing things that are wrong, it is the right time to be strong. The fire service is the right place for professional and honest leadership. All you have to do is do the right thing.

If you do the right thing, especially when it is hard, inconvenient, or unpopular, our firefighters learn respect for what is right; respect builds stronger future leaders. If your decisions are about doing what is right for others, the respect for what is right develops a sense of selflessness. Making decisions that benefit you makes you look selfish. Being an officer isn’t about you.

TOMORROW AND BEYOND

Poor leadership got the fire service into a crisis, and nothing short of exceptional leadership can restore discipline and pride to our profession. We must restore respect for the cornerstones that served our profession so well in the past. The road to redemption will not be an easy one. We have many issues with which we must deal, and the impact of our silence will continue to be evident for years to come.

We can, however, achieve discipline through vigilance, steadfastness, and holding to our values and traditions. We do not need fancy mission statements, technology, or a 16-volume set of operating guidelines. We need only a simple guiding principle:

It is an honor and a privilege to wear our uniform. There is a history behind the badge on our chest. There is a responsibility that comes with the trumpets we wear on our collar. The uniform, the badge, and the trumpets are symbolic of the traditions and lineage of our profession. Never forget that the honor and privilege associated with the fire service were earned by those who served before us. We must pay the same price for those who follow.

The rest will take care of itself.

JOHN KING is a battalion chief and commander of B-Shift with the South Metro Fire District in Raymore, Missouri, where he has served for 14 years. He has more than 20 years of experience in fire, rescue, and EMS.

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