The story vs. the reality: What we do is often not well understood

Busting the myths about our work is critical, not only to support our retention efforts but also to maintain realistic public expectations


While reading a recent article about the concept of “toxic heroism” in EMS, my thoughts drifted to various current events and the troubles that many fire departments face finding quality applicants who will stay for a while.

The article defines toxic heroism as, “the idea that what we do is heroic and extraordinary all the time, when in reality, we are people doing a job who occasionally get to do the extraordinary.” And this misperception is hurting the profession because, “We’re selling a bill of goods to people that aren’t interested in what the job entails.”

This is all very reminiscent of Chief Bob Horton’s FireRescue1 article “This isn’t what I signed up for,” which addresses the grumblings of firefighters who find themselves “stuck” in a role they supposedly didn’t understand when they joined the ranks.

"Maybe if we were more honest all the way around, our internal constituents would be happier and more productive, and our external constituents would support the advances we need to keep everyone safer," writes Bashoor. (AP Photo/Tom Copeland)

While we clearly have a cultural opinion divide among the different generations of members who see the trauma and the drama of our business through different lenses, the concept of the story vs. the reality crosses all generations and all genres of public safety professionals. Furthermore, the story vs. reality extends deeply into our communities, at times creating an unrealistic expectation of our members and false perceptions about what we do.

With this as our backdrop, let’s look at some of the public perceptions (the story) of the fire service versus our actual experience (the reality), at least as I see it.

Comparison #1: Our firefighter heroes

The story: “If there’s a fire, the fire department will show up an make the situation better. They train for everything and are capable of handling anything.”

The reality: There is some truth to the first part, that someone will show up – but to what time standard and with how many people? There are so many factors we could throw at this, from sprinkler systems to dispatch protocols to turn-out times, etc. With respect to learning from incident observations, we do our industry a disservice by not sharing lessons learned from past incidents. I fully recognize that sometimes our lawyers end up prohibiting us from sharing – or is it that we hide behind the lawyers? I suspect it’s a little of both.

Bottom line: Someone will show up; however, there’s probably 10 things we could have done better to 1) prevent the call in the first place, 2) arrived more expeditiously to limit exposure to the danger and 3) limit damage once we were there. But as an industry, we’ll accept the gratitude and blissfully go about our way as “heroes,” even when we could have done so much more.

Comparison #2: Firefighters, paramedics and EMTs

The story: “All the firefighters do is wait for the bell to ring – and then fight interior fires, repel down tall buildings, successfully perform CPR on lifeless babies, rescue victims stuck under water for what seems like an eternity, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.” You get the point. And then there are disconnected statements from other agencies or even politicians like, “The fire department is just justifying itself by sending all those firefighters to medical calls!”

The reality: After completing the morning sweeping, mopping and trash service, most firefighters will run more false alarms and fight far more brush and outside trash fires in three or four shifts than the number of interior fires they’ll fight in a year. I know MANY firefighters who haven’t been part of an interior firefight in years. Yes, there are firefighters who run working interior structural fires every shift and successfully perform CPR on someone they pull from under a pier, but those are outliers – not representative of the other million firefighters out there. Further, it is highly unlikely they will ever rescue someone who’s been underwater for more than a few minutes, and they are far more likely to experience an unsuccessful CPR situation when those efforts exceed 20 minutes or longer than they are to have a “save” of any age.

With respect to “justifying” existence, where an emergency medical dispatch system is used, firefighters are likely dispatched to medical calls, based on the analysis done that says X number of providers need to be available at Y type of incident. “Paramedic engines” should be (and are likely being) used to strengthen ALS capabilities and potentially improve patient outcomes.

Firefighting and paramedicine in the 21st century require continuous training and quality control. And as you know, it is HIGHLY unlikely that any of those with their head in the game are just sitting around waiting for “the bell to ring.”

Comparison #3: Fire chiefs and other chief officers

The story: “There are too many chiefs and not enough firefighters. They need to trust their firefighters and stop hiring so many white shirts.”

The reality: While there may be circumstances where the ratio of supervisors to front-liners is out of whack, in general, the time-tested ratio of 3 to 7 (with optimum of 5) subordinates still holds solid for the purposes of individual supervision. Let’s not forget that supervision extends beyond paid line firefighters to include volunteers, administrative staff, program management, etc. We are not sitting around painting pictures here – we’re in the business of protecting property and saving lives. Our service-centric mission demands that we maintain a paramilitary presence to our sense of business and supervision.

The officers, usually the chiefs, are also the ones charged with making both community organization contact, having political interface and dealing with media requests. These are the members who (should) have been tested and qualified beyond the scope of firefighters to deal with the myriad issues affecting management of multi-million-dollar organizations.

Telling our story

If we don’t tell our story, someone else surely will, whether an internal or external someone.

There are two prerequisites I’ll offer before you tell the story, however:

  1. Be honest with yourself; and
  2. Be honest with your internal and external constituents. It’s easy to bask in the TV limelight of “Chicago Fire” or “Emergency!” It’s harder to tell the less-sexy truth.

Next, when addressing your community – both your internal and external constituents – focus on key points that can make a huge difference in your life safety efforts:

  • Be honest with your community groups about the effectiveness of sprinklers.
  • Be honest with your community when you tell them your department could have been there five minutes earlier if you had more volunteers – OR a at least a paid driver.
  • Be honest with your community that your department did a good job but could have done better. Sure, you need to be wary of the potential slippery legal slope, but sharing remarks is not an all-or-nothing proposition here.

Echoing the now-common refrain from U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, let’s make sure we’re using data to support our story – honest and transparent data. Might there be some pain in telling the truth? Sure, but I assure you that there will be much less pain in telling the truth than there will ever be when you’re caught in less-than-transparent truth – or an outright lie – about how the department spends its time and resources.

Maybe if we were more honest all the way around, our internal constituents would be happier and more productive, and our external constituents would support the advances we need to keep everyone safer.

Tell your story – or someone else will tell it for you!

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