Firefighters can’t maintain the public trust without first eliminating hate

The IAFC Public Statement Against Violence and Hate isn’t code; it’s a simple reminder of who we need to be as a fire service


First of all, if you haven't read the IAFC Public Statement Against Violence and Hate, released on Jan. 15, 2021, start here:

“The International Association of Fire Chiefs represents the leadership of the fire and emergency services of our nation, North America, and abroad. We have a long history of serving all members of our great society. In the service to our respective communities, we treasure the high level of trust and confidence that people place in us. We return this trust and confidence in the form of highly trained response, professionalism, compassionate service to all, and integrity for those we serve as well as ourselves.

“The events of the past year have resulted in uncertainty, frustration, and anger across our nation and even within our own agencies. We understand and endorse our nation's founding principles – the right to assemble peacefully and the right of free speech as fundamental freedoms – freedoms upheld by the basic tenets of mutual respect, constructive conversation, and at times healthy debate. The violence that occurred across our nation in 2020, and most recently at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, threaten the very principles we value as a nation.

Hateful doesn't work when it comes to public trust and the trust we must have in each other. We are the public's last chance, and they must know that every firefighter everywhere in every firehouse is unequivocally not hateful. Ever.
Hateful doesn't work when it comes to public trust and the trust we must have in each other. We are the public's last chance, and they must know that every firefighter everywhere in every firehouse is unequivocally not hateful. Ever. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

“The IAFC, together with the people we represent, hold ourselves to the highest standards and do not condone violence or the wanton destruction of property in any form; hate within our organizations is unacceptable and cannot jade the quality of service to our communities. We are often the ‘last chance’ to those who are suffering an emergency. We are committed to assuring the public that when they need us – we will be there, regardless of race, color, creed, lifestyle, or beliefs. As Fire Chiefs, we believe in the basic tenets of a good society: doing the right things, for the right reasons, in the right way, at the right time for any and all.”

I like that statement. I like it A LOT.

I posted that statement on my social media pages because I like it a lot. And after I did, I received a few negative comments from friends who I like, a lot. One quality I like is the ability to disagree and it doesn't require the end of a friendship, although that does seem to be the norm these days. I dislike that, a lot.

Years ago, I worked for a fire commissioner named Ray “Big Daddy” Muth. Ray was a phenomenal person for a variety of reasons, but the one quality I like to brag about my late friend is his ability to go toe to toe with anyone on an issue he was passionate about – and when it was over, it was over. His “fighting” with you over an issue (usually fire department stuff) allowed you and him to say what needed to be said. And then you, he or both budged a little and the issue was resolved. It was done. Then it was time to go eat ribs and have some ice cream. I loved that man a lot, miss him every day, and I am so fortunate to have been his friend.

So to those who don't like any part of the IAFC statement, I'll give you my thoughts if you have tolerance for a differing opinion. If not, it's time to close the browser window.

Don’t miss the point of the statement, of which I am proud to have had a small part in developing. The statement isn't about rules. It isn't about right or left. I promise it is not. I also assure you there is no hidden message or need to read between any lines. What you read is it. It represents the feelings of every member of the IAFC board of directors, and what we believe is the responsibility of fire chiefs, fire officers and firefighters.

We (every one of us with bunker gear) are very privileged to be “the last hope” people have when their personal world is going to hell. That's why they dial 9-1-1. They want a whole bunch of “make it better/make it stop” experts, who genuinely care about people, to do everything they can to make it better, and make it stop – quickly. Literally anyone – anyone – should be able to dial 9-1-1 and know they are getting someone who actually gives a damn.

The conflict is that I don't think you can separate genuinely caring for anyone who calls and being filled with hate for a type or kind of person. Now look, this isn't “Kumbaya time,” but to succeed in our business, fully succeed in all that the public expects, you have to be pretty caring. You have to give a shit – whole-heartedly. Duh. Why do you think in every survey anywhere, anytime, the FIRE DEPARTMENT is #1 in public trust. Each and every time. We/you/us give a damn, and they know it. It is a genuine “trust contract” that allows us to enter their world and try and help. 

They trust us because of who we are – who “typical” firefighters are. At least who they think we are.

Hateful doesn't work when it comes to public trust and the trust we must have in each other. We are the public's last chance, and they must know that every firefighter everywhere in every firehouse is unequivocally not hateful. Ever.

Firefighters have almost always enjoyed the reputation of trust without ever really trying for it. It's a dividend of what and who we are and what we do. However, when people see firefighters (active, retired, whatever) commit a crime, the first thing that comes out is that "they/he/she" is a firefighter. And that is because NO ONE PROFESSION enjoys the public trust more than our profession. NONE. So when that happens, it's like a hero did wrong. Because that's exactly what happened. Their heroes did wrong. It doesn't compute. It doesn't "fit" anywhere. Firefighters CANNOT EVER be the “bad guy,” because after that, who’s left? I mean think about that: If you can't trust a firefighter, who can one trust?

When a firefighter is an arsonist, it erodes the trust the public has in you, me, us. When a firefighter assaults or steals, same thing. It's a FIREFIGHTER doing wrong.

So when the public’s trusted heroes were accused of committing crimes on Jan. 6, attacking what Americans hold sacred, our Capitol, regardless of the department or type of firefighters, every firefighter and our reputation pays the price and the trust in us gets whittled away. 

To be clear, I'm not talking about any one specific firefighter; I'm talking about trust generally in firefighters. The public often sees one of them as all of us. We get labeled. Unfairly labeled. We are pre-judged because, as we know, not every firefighter is like that arsonist they read about.

Will the media blow something like that up? Yes, expect it. Social media. Regular media. Whatever media. It’s 2021. That's how it works.

Years ago, I talked about the concept of BMA – Brotherhood My Ass – which distinguishes between those who genuinely demonstrate the brotherhood and sisterhood, and those who simply wear it on a T-shirt – our so-called brothers and sisters.

Fire brothers and sisters need us to live in the light of truth, authenticity and support each other. I don't think one really can put their life in another’s hands without that level of support and trust. 

I remember as a young firefighter hearing, “Well I can't stand that ….” (referring to another firefighter) and, “We may hate each other, but when the bells go off, we function well.” And in my young mind, I heard myself screaming BS. It was BS. When you “can't stand” a type of person due to their color, religion, heritage, lifestyle or whatever makes them different from you, then you need to stop the BS about “we are one team.” We aren't.

It comes back to thinking before doing something we may regret. I know, how deeply philosophical, right? We’ve all seen Non-Thinking Syndrome (NTS) kick in when our actions override our normal sense, we get caught up in the excitement and later wish we could just turn back the hands of time.

So what do we do when we get all worked up? Call a friend and tell them what you may do. What does your friend recommend? Ask your kids, spouse, partner, whoever. Maybe someone you trust can help save you from yourself. I know I’m indebted to several wonderful people in my life for their “maybe you shouldn't do that” advice.

And if reaching out helps, maybe take another step in trust with them and get their thoughts on who you are. We all need to be saved from ourselves from time to time. Do they see you as someone who can be hateful or someone who can get caught up in moments? The key is to figure out the real you. If the hate is there, it may be worth getting some support and help to find out why it's there and what can be done about it. 

As long as you wear bunker gear, you represent us all in filling an expectation by those who need us. It means being a genuine firefighter all the time.

It really is that simple. Fire engines and those who ride them need to equate to the expectation of absolute trust. The public thinks we genuinely care – so we need to genuinely care.

Editor’s note: What are your thoughts on the IAFC statement? Share in the comments below.

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