“You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like ‘honor’, ‘code’, ‘loyalty’; We use them as the backbone of a life trying to defend something. You use them as a punchline.”
– Jack Nicholson, as Col. Jessup, “A Few Good Men”
While we all know (and secretly loved) Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Col. Jessup in the movie, this monologue, delivered in context, probably made most of us cringe. The long and short of it was that Col. Jessup ordered his subordinates to violate the sacred duty they really held- to use their strength for good to defend the weak.
The point of my using this quote, however, is in a different context. There are plenty of “civilians” who don’t understand public service and don’t understand that there are people who put aside their own comfort and safety on a regular basis to keep them safe. We use words like “courage”, “valor”, and “service”. We see them as something that makes us different from the rest of mankind. When it is said that “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for their friends,” we GET it. These aren’t just words to us, they are our credo.
We can’t, however, continue to throw our bodies at incidents and hope for the best. Or worse, sacrifice our personnel in unsafe acts that are unjustified or are for no good reason. We lose firefighters on a regular basis for no other reason than driving too fast, failing to buckle up, or neglecting our own health. Does the public care a few weeks later that you sacrificed your life daily for them? Think hard about it and tell me if they do.
Laying down your life without cause means that children grow up without fathers or mothers; failing to return from an alarm means that spouses must carry on where the loss of their loved one has left a void. We forget that others may have risked much to try to save us and may have even risked it all and died in vain. We forget that the community that depends on us is now one less and must find a way to make up that person, that leader, that friend. We must challenge ourselves as leaders to understand the situation that is at hand and insure we don’t take unnecessary risks simply for the sake of doing so.
Those of us in the emergency service are called to educate the public as to what we need and we can show them how failing to support those needs can translate to hardship on them. But we can only take the taxpayers so far kicking and screaming when they don’t see that the risk sometimes exceeds the benefit; that the immediate savings in tax dollars doesn’t translate into safer homes and businesses if our truck companies are shut down or we can’t repair the equipment we need to do our job. Our challenge is to make our community safer and in doing so, making our jobs safer.
Our calling is to be better people so that we can defend those who can’t defend themselves. We shouldn’t look down on the people who need our service, but try to remember that they make us who we are. We need to do a better job of getting the public to understand our existence in the hope that maybe they will see, and as a result, advocate for us to elected officials and other citizens. Most of all, though, we need to make sure our efforts aren’t in vain, and that we give our all only for good reasons. It takes discipline to hold the troops outside of a fire that is not quite a defensive one, but you suspect an imminent collapse or a quickly changing scenario. It takes courage to say, “I’m going to lose weight because I want to see my kids graduate college”, or to challenge some gung-ho firefighter who thinks charging into a vacant building to “get some heat” is doing the right thing. Doing the right thing means taking care of yourself and your team so that you can take care of the public in the long haul.
Being a zealot for safety doesn’t seem like a “sexy” thing to be sometimes, but when you think about it, how many people outside of the fire service remember your loved ones ten years after you are dead and gone? Being loyal to our brother and sister firefighters requires that we honor each other by taking care of ourselves and to take only calculated risks for good causes, and eliminating unnecessary ones. Don’t let anyone ever fool you into thinking that throwing your life away for no reason is an honorable or courageous thing to do. Take the time to understand the hazards of each incident and in fact, during everyday operations, and insure you and your team all go home in the morning.