The Real Meaning of Brotherhood


THE CONCEPT OF BROTHERHOOD IS DEEPLY ROOTED in the common experience of those in the American fire service; yet, from my experience, it seems that few of us remember or fully understand the implications of such a concept.

My high school English teacher taught us that the strength of the English language is that it is a living and evolving language-the meanings of words evolve within the context in which they are used. Brotherhood may just be one of those evolving words. In the larger world today, brotherhood has come to be a term used by any group sharing a goal, no matter how nefarious the purpose. A simple Google search of the Internet returns more than 10,000 “hits” on the term brotherhood.


Based on discussions I have had with some firefighters, brotherhood is viewed from the perspective of “What are you willing to do for me?” I see it used also as an excuse to avoid personal accountability and duty. Worse, I have even witnessed it being interpreted as a pass to behave badly. It is as if we are expected to forgive any sin and allow any dishonor simply because we are brothers in a cause. The new definition of brotherhood seems to have become, “Anything goes if you are a brother.” It has come to be akin to honor-among-thieves morality.

Traditionally, brotherhood, as it was taught to me, signified what I was willing to do for my brother. It was a solemn oath to face danger and fear and even give my life, if necessary, for my brother. It was not a matter of receiving but a matter of giving. It was not a matter of avoiding personal accountability. It was a matter of accepting responsibility. It was not a matter of being forgiven any sin. It was a matter of avoiding sin and living up to the standards of honor required to be a member of the brotherhood. There was a stark difference between whether I was liked, or even loved, and my actions. I knew I would always have the love and support of my brothers. I also knew that I would never be allowed to dishonor them by my actions and be allowed to continue in their company. I was required to embrace and live specific values and ethics if I was to have the honor of being a brother. It was never a matter of entitlement based on employment or association.

The erosion of values and ethics I see in this new definition of brotherhood is personally and professionally insulting to me. Ethics are important. The definition of Transformational Leadership provided by James MacGregor Burns is “… when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality ….” 1 Subscribing to this concept necessitates that I, as the leader of my department, raise my people to a higher purpose. What better purpose is there than promoting ethical conduct?

My fire department shares many of the same characteristics as other departments in the nation: We provide an array of services to our communities-fire protection and suppression services, emergency medical emergencies, and hazardous materials response, among others. In short, we are the general safety net for our community.

We go to people’s sides on the worst days of their lives and try to make it better. That is the essence of our purpose. We visit them at the time they are most vulnerable. They implicitly trust that we will act with honor and in the most ethical manner. When we fail at this task by stealing or lying to those who trust us, we breach the trust that the community grants us by virtue of our positions. We also fail our brothers. We besmirch their good name when we fail to meet the standard.

There is also a real and practical need for brotherhood within the unique culture of the fire department. We operate in extremely volatile and dangerous environments. It is not being overly dramatic to say that we make decisions that may mean the difference between life and death for our coworkers and ourselves. The job requires that we go where it is inadvisable to go and do what many people would consider foolhardy.

Such a heavy responsibility necessitates that words take on special meanings. They should not be spoken only; they must be lived. We operate as interdependent teams. There must be a bond between team members if we are to succeed at our tasks. We must be able to count on our team members and place our well-being in their hands. “Duty,” “honor,” and “trust” must be more than just words.

The military has long understood the importance of the concept of brotherhood or brothers-in-arms. The fire service also has recognized the practicality of the concept as it relates to its mission. It is often said that the devil is in the details. The details in this case are defining a noble meaning of brotherhood and implementing the concept in a way that leads people to a higher purpose. It is a matter of values-based leadership.


Ethics and ethical behavior are timeless subjects that are significant for any generation and any leader. That this is especially true in today’s environment is almost undeniable. Opinion polls show that many citizens distrust government and government leaders at almost all levels. It is crucial that leaders in government work diligently to regain that trust, if they are to be effective.

The public’s level of trust in the fire service was still high in 2001. A November 2001 Gallop opinion poll revealed that more than 90 percent of the participants rated the honesty and ethical standards of firefighters as very high or high.2 In a 2006 poll here in Hanover County, respondents to a survey indicated a level of trust in the fire and EMS services above the national and regional average.3 The trend of general distaste toward government should serve as a warning for public safety services. Response to 9/11 and the sacrifice of 343 brothers at the World Trade Center twin towers bought us the goodwill we enjoy today. It does not serve the memory of those lost in that disaster if we risk squandering the public trust purchased at so high a price.

There recently has been a troubling trend of unethical behavior among firefighters. A search of periodicals and newspapers within the past six months revealed more than 1,000 news articles in response to the search phrase “firefighter charged.” Reviewing the articles leads to stories of firefighters engaging in all possible social ills: theft, violence, child pornography, and even murder.


It is easy to find casual references to brotherhood in the fire service, but there doesn’t seem to be any serious study or understanding of the fraternal model and its ties to the familial organization. Our institutional knowledge tells us we are members of a special brotherhood, yet there is no universal definition of the term. As an industry, we seem to have little real knowledge of the subject. We also have not made the connection between ethics as a component of brotherhood and the larger issue of the social construct as it relates to all of its components.

Knowing that we are brothers without really understanding what it means is the precise reason the term is so abused. My thoughts on this subject have evolved from a perspective of “they do not have it right” to “none of us really knows what it means” or “how to use this powerful emotional tool for good.” Accordingly, I have defined my model of brotherhood and its use as a tool to teach and instill the component of ethics in our department.


The analogy of the family model and organization appears to go back at least as far as biblical days. The construct of brotherhood was a natural outgrowth of small family units that served as the cornerstone of social interaction into the extended family of society and organizations. Clawson noted “… we can see how the assumptions that underlay kin relationships extended into activities structured by the fraternal association and permeated the entire of our everyday life.”4

Besides the well-known history of the patriarchal organization of early Christianity, the construct of the fraternal association grew into many different applications. One of the interesting ties found in the concept is how fully the Freemasons and the children of that organization adopted it. The unique classless approach of the Freemasons allowed the concept to be democratized (4, 76) and spread throughout the world. Freemasonry itself started as a labor guild. Masons organized into groups that may be viewed somewhat as our labor unions today. In the context of the Middle Ages, when the group was formed, it was much more, though. The Masons were a social order that not only governed people’s work lives but also had major influences on their personal lives. The unique part of Freemasonry was and is that it is classless in its membership policies. Anyone could join the organization, regardless of his roots. It was and is also a fraternal social organization built on the idea of kin relationships. It is the root of the concept that all members of the organization are brothers in the labor movement.

More interesting is the connection of Freemasonry to the American fire service. Benjamin Franklin was a Freemason from 1730 throughout his life (4, 113). He was also a pioneer in the American fire service, forming one of the first fire companies on our soil, the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia in 1736 (Independence Hall Association). Many of our founding fathers are reported to have been Freemasons, and many of those same civic-minded individuals laid the foundations of our fire departments. It is little wonder to me that the fire companies were modeled on the same fraternal model of the Freemasons, including the concept of brotherhood and kin ties.


A quote I recently read on a door in my daughter’s middle school sums up the core of brotherhood to me: “Loyalty above all else except Honor.” (unknown) This quote encapsulates the dilemma. We are all loyal to our brothers, but how far does this loyalty extend? It is also the key to the traditional (and my) definition of the boundaries of brotherhood. Chief Rick Lasky of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department puts it best: “Honor is the brotherhood.”5 He defines the meaning of honor in stark and simple terms: “Honor is also preventing anyone from giving your company or department a black eye or doing anything to hurt its reputation.” (5) The Volunteer and Combination Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs echoes this ideal of honor in its “White Ribbon Report.” The leadership body noted, “The public expects that the members of your organization will be trustworthy and that they will meet higher standards than the general public.”6


Most writers on fire service issues note that values are teachable. Mike Chiaramonte, a 40-year member and a past chief of the Lynbrook (NY) Fire Department, says: “But we must understand that rookie firefighters are as soft as clay and can easily be molded by their environment.”7 This concept is supported by the view that ethics is a learned social behavior that contains cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions.8


Ethics and honor have certain universal definitions that have evolved, albeit independently, around the world. Whether the western Christian community or the eastern philosophies defined the construct of the concept, certain basic and universal laws govern an ethical society. C.S. Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, “ … there are certain universal ideas of right and wrong that recur in writings of ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hebrews, Chinese, Norse, Indians, and Greeks, along with Anglo-Saxon and American writings.” (8,19)

This universal definition is further broken down into six basic laws: The Law of Beneficence, Duty to Family, The Law of Justice, The Law of Good Faith and Veracity, The Law of Mercy, and The Law of Magnanimity. (8, 20-21)


Inherent in the ideal of brotherhood are the following components:

  • Brotherhood is a group of individuals connected by mission. In the fire service, this mission is to serve.
  • The group has a history. The history is a shared experience. In the fire service, this is evidenced by many traditions. We have a wealth of significant traditions that enhance the group or team mentality and our value of kinship.
  • We have a close physical relationship with each other. We live, eat, sleep, and work from our second home, the firehouse.
  • We are together by choice. We have to go through a rigorous process to be chosen for the department. Many of us had to try for years to be hired. In our case, it is often more a vocation than an occupation.
  • We have a language that is unique. We speak in gpm, knobs, truckies, and other colloquialisms that are ours only. We have rights and rituals for swearing in, promoting, and even for burying a member.
  • We expect loyalty to each other and to the group.
  • There is an acceptable and an unacceptable framework of conduct. This framework should include a strong ethics and values system. This specific framework seems most under attack in my view.

Leaders should address the issues of ethics as a component of brotherhood and the social construct of brotherhood. The leaders of the fire service have not devoted the time and study necessary to fully understand these issue. We have no systems in place to teach, socialize, and reinforce ethical conduct and the fraternal model of familial relationships.

It’s well past time for fire service leaders to remember that they are still members of the brotherhood. In fact, we play the role of the big brother. It is our shared responsibility to ensure that it is a family that is ethical and worthy of the public’s trust. ●


1. Wren, J. T. The Leader’s Companion: Insights on Leadership Through the Ages. (New York: Free Press), 1995.

2. “November wave 2 question: Qn3v,” Gallop Brain, 2001, retrieved September 8, 2006, Gallop Brain online database.

3. “Hanover County citizen survey,” National Research Center, Boulder, Colo., 2006.

4. Clawson, M. A. (1989). Constructing Brotherhood Class, Gender, and Fraternalism. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), 25.

5. Lasky, R. Pride & Ownership, A firefighter’s love of the job. (Tulsa, OK: PennWell Corporation), 2006, 24.

6. Buckman III, John M, et al. (2006). “The White Ribbon Report: Managing the Fire Department,” International Association of Fire Chiefs, VCOS Section, Fairfax, Va., retrieved September 20, 2006, 9.

7. Mike Chiaramonte. “Preserve the spirit, promote good attitude,” Firehouse, July 1, 2006.

8. Eberly, D E. (1995). The Content of America’s Character: Recovering Civic Virtue. (Lanham: Madison Books: Distributed by National Book Network), 1995, 20-28.

Additional References

Broman, J. M., et al. Officer Development Handbook (1st ed.), International Association of Fire Chiefs, IAFC Foundation, 2003.

Davidson, J. H. (2005). The Committed Enterprise: Making Vision, Values, and Branding Work (2nd, revised). (Boston: Oxford, Elsevier/Butterworth-Heinemann), 2005.

“Firefighter Fatalities in the United States,” United States Fire Administration, 2000.

Gortner, H. F. Ethics for Public Managers. (Westport, Ct.: Praeger Publishers), 1940.

Kwiatkowski, R., 2002. ”Trends in organisations and selection: An introduction,” [Electronic version]. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 18(5), 382, retrieved September 20, 2006, from Emerald database.

“Membership survey results, ‘background check’,” International Association of Fire Chiefs. Fairfax, Va, 2001.

New York, Magazine Online, 2001. Picture 10 (front page graphic source file), retrieved September 12, 2006 from

The Philadelphia contributionship, Independence Hall Association, retrieved September 12, 2006, from

FRED CROSBY is chief of the Hanover County (VA) Fire & EMS Department.

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