By Jerry Wells
After finishing another great week at FDIC, I found myself sitting in my seat on an American Airlines flight back home. It was my fourth year attending the conference with classes instructed by so many fire service leaders. I spent hours and hours in between and after class “networking” with so many great firefighters. I had my “batteries recharged,” so to speak, and looked forward to getting back to work at home. But I had a lot on my mind. As I sat there, going through the mundane activities of a cooperative traveler, I couldn’t help but notice how the flight crew, particularly the flight attendants, were carrying out their preflight responsibilities. They were dressed in their usual professional uniforms. They are in a serious business, just like the fire service, and are responsible for OUR safety. I was relieved that they were not sporting some of the occupational advertising that I had witnessed at the conference in the past two years. What are we thinking? Thank goodness my flight attendants were not wearing the sticker on their hats that said in large, legible wording, “Do I look like I give a S#*%!!! Yeah, there it was, right on the back of this young firefighter’s helmet. Did I mention that the helmet was also red? Where does this fit in with the concept of “Marketing Our Mission?” I can picture myself, a battalion chief in Lewisville, Texas, walking a family back into their home after it was destroyed by fire only to see this firefighter shoveling debris out a window with that statement on the back of his helmet. Well, actually I can’t picture myself doing that, because it would not be tolerated in my department.
I was strolling through the exhibits this year and noticed a shirt for sale that said, “Off Duty Save Yourself.” Thank goodness Captain Eric Hankins from Yuba City, California, didn’t have this shirt. He was the recipient of the 2010 Ray Downey Courage and Valor Award for rescuing two children from their burning bedroom. He noticed smoke coming from a home as he was driving to the firehouse early one morning and stopped to warn any possible occupants of the danger. He did that morning what most firefighter’s dream of doing in a whole career. He saved two lives, and he was off duty.
Possibly the only good thing for the fire service that came out of the movie “Backdraft” was a single quote from the character of Donald Southerland. “The funny thing about a fireman is, night or day, they are always firemen.” I know I will never be “off duty” when someone needs help, nor will I ever market our profession with advertising like that.
Sadly enough, I am only getting started. How about the shirt I saw on the guy who sat right in front of me in a class that week? I stared at it for four hours. The picture was a two-story firehouse with two bay doors open and the apparatus parked out on the apron. In the upstairs window, you saw a silhouette of a well-endowed woman with nothing on but a fire helmet. And in the other window was the silhouette of two firefighters looking over at her as if she were “entertaining” them. And the caption …..? “What Happens at the Firehouse Stays at the Firehouse.”
In a profession where public image is everything, how detrimental is this kind of advertising to our reputation? We have been described as the most trusted profession year after year. People hand us their babies, and we drive away with them. They leave their valuables lying out on the kitchen table and allow us in their homes without fear of losing their property. We are responsible to continually market our core values: integrity, pride, excellence, honor, character, etc. You have seen them. These words are all over your firehouses, apparatus, uniforms, and challenge coins.
I had the honor this year to teach a classroom session at FDIC. Thursday morning, right after the general session, I was presenting a parallel between the philosophy and work ethic of a successful college football team and a cohesive fire company. When a reporter asked, “What makes this team special? a player stated that they all “believed in something larger than themselves.” You need to look beyond your local department, whether it is the Fire Department of New York or the smallest volunteer company in the county, and realize that you are a small piece in a very large and complex machine. Your actions can impact the reputation of the entire fire service. Study our fire service history; read about some of the great leaders who have paved the way for us to be where we are today in this business. Spend some time with Glenn Corbett, or at least read his articles in Fire Engineering magazine. Let him enlighten you on the proud history of this great organization. Think larger than yourself or even your department.
Most people will lead someone at some point in their lives. Be careful with your leadership style. Many leaders often lead without ever saying a word. Be careful what you wear, be careful what you do, and be careful what you say. I ask you again: How are YOU marketing MY fire service?
JERRY WELLS is a battalion chief with the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. He has been in the fire service for 25 years and has served at all levels from firefighter/paramedic to battalion chief. He has a bachelor’s degree in emergency management from the University of North Texas. He has been a volunteer in his community and has served as an adjunct instructor for the Collin County Community College of Fire Science.