Does It Really Matter? Really?



Hello boys and girls. This might be one of those ramblers so I'll apologize in advance. When I sit down to write I very rarely map something out, read it and re-read it, tweak, adjust or otherwise do much in the way of editing. I usually just go off the top of my head and the bottom of my heart. Hence why I have seen a little controversy in the publication of this site, but that's o.k. I think a certain amount of turbulence just makes for a more interesting ride. I've got a jumble of thoughts running around in the vast space between my ears so I'll see if I can make it take the form of some sort of intelligible drivel that you won't be angry at yourself for investing your time in. So please fasten your seat belts. Put your trays in the upright position. Maybe get one last cup o'regulah, have a seat and enjoy.

I've been thinking a lot about pride, professionalism, job performance etc. It also seems as if many of these topics have been receiving the attention of bloggers and print-writers lately as I have seen many articles being published on these types of subjects. There also seems to be a lot of noise being made about our appearance to the public and how we must appear as professional as possible in order to stave off attacks, criticisms and decreases. Many of those making that noise use professionalism as some sort of magic shield. Like, if we just look the part, dress in perfectly pressed and creased uniforms, have spit-and-polished rigs and avoid any and all controversy then the public will love us and not be banging on the gate with pitchforks and torches ablaze. While I agree that those things may aid in our overall appearance to the public, especially keeping your department out of the headlines for scandals, I don't think they are as important as many would like to think and in the economy of the day won't protect us from cuts, pension attacks or referendum failures.

According to the Cambridge on-line dictionary the definition of professionalism is; the qualities connected with trained and skilled people. Hmm, ok. Let's see. How about the definition of qualities then; a characteristic or feature of someone or something. Hmm, ok. How about professional, then; a person who has a job that needs skill, education, or training. Gee, not too many jobs like that are there? Anyway, my point with all that is that no where in any of those definitions is the word appearance or a similar synonym used. So in order to be a true professional and display true professionalism do we have to dress a certain way or ride in rigs that look a certain way? I think not. Does anyone think that the Detroit Fire Department is not a professional organization? They are arguably one of the busiest fire-duty departments in the world. For years the department has been mismanaged and neglected, leading to run-down equipment and PPE. Does that mean that the firefighters that risk themselves every day for the citizens and visitors of Detroit are unprofessional? To the contrary I would argue it makes them some of the most professional firefighters I can think of because they overcome these and many other obstacles to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities. Now, do I think that you should be allowed to show up on scenes wearing whatever you want, in any state of disrepair and driving crappy looking equipment? Here's where the title to the post comes in. No, I don't. I just don't think that those things are that big a deal. Traditionalists hang with me.

I honestly, to the depths of my soul believe that John or Jane Doe who calls for our assistance in their time of need really cares, or notices, what we or our rigs look like. Now there are, of course, a couple of exceptions. I once went on a call in a Gumby suit. We were out doing ice training and we caught an ambulance call. Instead of delaying the response, and being unable to get out of it en route, I walked in and began treatment in a Gumby suit. Pretty sure the patient and family remembered that one. Another time, a family member of a department member was transported. The ambulance they were treated and transported in was one of the department's oldest and in the roughest shape. It was very soon after that the condition of the fleet was brought up at an open meeting and things were set in motion to update the condition. So, in some cases, yes, people are going to notice those things. For all of you who might be going for your Executive Fire Officer out at the NFA, I've always thought a great thesis would involve the perception of professionalism by those we serve. The quantitative research portion would simply be a survey sent to each person your department responded to over a given period. Four pictures would be included. One of a firefighter dressed in normal station-wear with button-down shirt badge and name plate, one in a t-shirt, one in bunker gear and one in a full Class A uniform. Then have some questions about the basics of their call, what they remembered about what the crew who responded was wearing and how, if at all, their perceptions or impressions were influenced by that. Just a thought, give me credit at the end.

It seems lately that the image of our fire departments has been trumping the actual performance of our fire epartments. The ability of many departments to effectively and safely respond to emergencies has been slashed while at the same time these cash-strapped departments are running TV, radio and print-ads singing their own praises and trying to convince everyone how indispensable they are. They spend money on pub ed and balloons and buttons and coloring books to hand out everywhere to build a good image in their community but then can't afford to maintain apparatus or replace PPE. The whole time these departments are beating the professionalism drum and giving their troops the message that appearances are more important than substance. Does it matter that a department roles up to a structure fire in a beautiful rig with perfect uniforms underneath their risky turn-out gear? Does it matter that the pub ed division was at the community picnic yesterday handing out said balloons and buttons when tody the house burns down because the training budget was slashed and the younger members can't lead-out the line? How's that for looking professional? What's that going to do to the image the public has of a department? I have overheard a conversation between two gentlemen that have way more bugles than I and one said that he was diverting more money into his pub ed budget from his vehicle maintenance budget because, "…if we can just educate people better they won't have to call 911 as often and we'll save money in the long run…" Presumably from not submitting the rigs to the wear and tear of actually going on runs. Does this line of thinking make sense? Am I the one that is thinking about this all wrong? Pub ed helps, don't get me wrong. But Pub ed can't prevent all fires, accidents and other emergencies. It certainly isn't going to decrease medical runs much and those are by far what we are responding on the most. I wonder if the man in white who made that statement remembers Lt. Kevin Kelly and the circumstances that led to his death?

I think that maybe the issue really comes down to perception of the problem. I think that it is probably safe to say that a firefighter looks at the problem of underfunding differently than the Chief of Department. The firefighter looks at the empty seat next to him that used to have another firefighter sitting in it. He notices that more fires seem to be taking longer to control, are getting bigger and are resulting in more greater alarms than in days past. He notices more brothers and sisters getting hurt. The chief, on the other hand, looks at the figure under his operating expenses and the one under his total approved budget. He then somehow needs to balance the two. Other than a papercut, or maybe carpal tunnel from the computer, that is the most the chief risks. The numbers in his spreadsheet don't get hotter, darker and more aggressive. They don't come blowing down the hallway at him because the firefighter that used to be at the bottom of the stairs to feed line isn't there anymore. The firefighter has a very real, tangible perception of the problem. The chief has just as real a perception but not nearly as tangible wear it matters. I know, I know. Those of you with rank will immediately admonish me for not understanding. You'll say the problem the chief faces is just as tangible because he'll see and feel the cuts he has to make and the tough choices that he'll have to decide. While I respectfully acknowledge that view, I greatly disagree that the two are equateable. I really disagree with it when the chief is willing to make a shift in mindset that the resulting decreases in ability to perform, whether it be on the fire ground, extrication scene, EMS call or anywhere else, is acceptable and just "the new way of doing business." I cannot accept that. It is my personal belief that while rigs, ballons and uniforms are nice, we need to be able to effectively respond to any emergency when the tones drop. I'm simplistic that way.

Listen, I'm not a chief or Ben Bernanke. I understand budgets, cashflow and deficits. If I were suddenly put in charge of a fire department with money issues I can't tell you what decisions I would make. I can tell you that anything that led to a decreased ability to perform our primary missions (read not just structural firefighting) or that had a negative impact on my guys and gals health and safety would be the absolute last thing I would even consider. Recently Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff was called to task by the Mayor of Chicago, Aldermen and some news media for his statement that he was "deathly against" proposed cuts to his budget. These cuts mainly revolved around decreasing the number of firefighters per company from 5 to 4. Commissioner Hoff came up through the ranks. All the way up through the ranks. And while doing so he didn't forget that he was still a firefighter and the impact that his decisions made in his new position will affect the guys and girls he once served with in the field. He's not willing to risk their health and safety or the ability of the Chicago Fire Department to respond to emergencies. Since wages and benefits are always the biggest line-item of any department's budget I think it is too easy to look there first in order to make up shortfalls. A department I know of had an estimated shortfall of approximately $450,000 for FY 2012. The department decided to lay-off 3 firefighters and not fill 2 existing vacancies in order to make up the gap. Now, this department also publishes a paper copy of its budget to each firehouse. That's probably where they went wrong this year. Because once the rank-and-file saw th line items for "Chiefs Training"- $50,000, "Publication Subscriptions"- $2,000 (really?!?!), "Professional Organization Membership Dues"- $10,000 (again, really?!?!), "Advertisement and Media Fees"- $15,000, "Travel Expenses"- $25,000, "Matching Retirment Plan Contributions"- $100,000 (for the chief, mind you, not the members) and my personal favorite, "Miscellaneous Expenses Related to Hosting Meetings"- $12,000 (i.e. donuts and coffee), they understandably went ape poo-poo. In case you weren't running a tally in your head that's $214,000 in what I consider to be perks, fluff and B.S. Is it the whole deficit? No, but it's a start in what I consider to be very non-impact areas. All except the "Matching Retirement Plan Contributions" I guess, if you're the chief. And it certainly isn't a living, breathing human being capable of saving a life. Just sayin'.

Professionalism, just like the definintion says, has noting to do with appearance. It is all about function and performance. And it irks me to no end that it keeps being invoked like some great brass ring we all have to dedicate ourselves to reaching in order to present a great face to those we serve. Let me know what you think.

Now getjerbutts off 'da tailboard and go get ready for the next one. Cuz 'dats what being professional is all about.




  • TK –
    Perhaps your blog could best be summed up in the recent words Buffalo Bills Coach Chan Gailey used to describe his 'professional' athletes:
    "We're more of a pretender than a contender."
    Stay safe. Train often.

  • Adam Smith says:

    very nicely put.  I think focusing on quality of operations instead of trying to just look the part would give us a better image overall.  thanks for writing this article.

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