Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Futility of Our Humility

I have found myself thinking about the term “arrogant” a lot lately. It is what comes to mind as I read some of the stories coming out of our fire service these days. And trust me; what you will read here won’t be a speech that you will hear this year at FDIC.

Yes; I am of the opinion that our humility has been uprooted and replaced with an air of arrogance.

What right do I have to say this?

Well, I was an active firefighter for 22 years. I suffered through under-funding, a lack of leadership, no plan, no mission, little hope, but a desire to help my community. Back then, we would be standing there with a booster line, shooting water into the hole that was once a house and everyone was telling us what a great job we did.

We did everything that we could, we would say. Arrogance!

We appreciate everything that you do, was a typical sentiment that was voiced by one and all. Ah; humility!

You are swept up by this unconditional worship of the fire department when you are new to it (humility with a splash of cynicism), but, after you have been on for awhile, you come to expect to hear it and to feel it each and every time there is a reason to drop the tones (arrogance with a touch of entitlement).

Is it a natural part of the maturation process to lose one’s humility or have we been confusing “humble” with “grateful” for, oh, so many years?

Recently, there have been several, negative stories in the news about firefighters or ex-firefighters. Are we humbled by the fact that we are still regarded very highly by the public, even though recent news has firefighters committing arson, murder, sexploitation, drug sales and embezzlement? Or are we grateful that it isn’t happening where we live? More importantly, are these national headlines chipping away at our “unconditional worshippers”?

I keep hearing complaints from many corners in the fire service about how the pro-firefighter sentiment has eroded since 9/11. Do we want to believe that it took a catastrophe of major proportion to elevate our stature? Or did we think too highly of ourselves to begin with? It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing what we read about us.

I am disturbed by the fact that we use 9/11 as a reference point on the gauge of public opinion as if it were some “side benefit” for firefighters who weren’t even there, who didn’t lose family or aren’t struggling with health issues that may or may not be recognized as linked to the WTC site and covered under insurance or PSOBs. We should not be arrogant enough to believe that we can understand the immense loss that a city and their firefighters felt and continue to feel and instead be humbled by the professionalism exhibited by them.

When I think of some of the incidents that we have undertaken over the years, I take a critical view of the end result and am not humbled by it. If we are approached by a citizen and told we did a good job, I am grateful for their kindness, but no longer feel humbled by it. Why? I believe that it comes from knowing that we could have or should have done things differently for a better outcome.

Part of the reason that I think the public was so quick to heap praise upon their fire departments some years ago was because it was somewhat guilt driven. They didn’t have the time or wouldn’t take the time to join their fire department; yet fully understood the importance of praise as positive reinforcement. This is how they raised their kids and it worked with them and let’s face it; a firefighter is a big kid who, as a young kid, wanted to be a firefighter.

So, it was necessary for leaders in the community to praise their public servants so that they wouldn’t have to do it and then they could sleep better at night. When I think about my early days on the department, I remember that many of the property owners were too involved emotionally in their fully involved house to be thankful that a fire truck or two was there to keep it cool as it collapsed into the basement. As you were getting ready to return to the station, the last image at the fire scene that you saw was a family huddled in the front lawn arm-in-arms and holding on to what was left from the fire-each other.

Somehow; humility isn’t the feeling that comes to mind. But, I must admit; there is a feeling of arrogance from the expectation that there should have been a “thank you” for our efforts.

I think back to how many times we told ourselves that just a “thank you; just a pat on the back” was good enough. But, that was back when we didn’t have a lot of emotion, time and effort invested in ourselves as a member of the fire department. As we increased our skill sets, did our expectations of how we should be perceived grow as well? Once we were neck deep and fully vested; was a simple thank you or pat on the back ever going to be enough again? Was that arrogance settling in?

Then, we must have thought that the community was going to be right there alongside of us every step of the way as we went to school after school, conference after conference and collecting certificate after certificate. We were arrogant enough to believe that taxpayers would buy anything for their fire department; the best training and the best equipment and for awhile they did.

But, the economy turned. We started seeing job losses, eroding tax base, less new development, no new jobs, no new revenue sources, schools eating up most of the taxes and TIF districts got the rest. Our equipment was getting older and so were the firefighters. Even in tough times, we felt that the community would support the purchase of new fire trucks. The older guys didn’t want to attend training and the new ones didn’t have the time, but we were arrogant enough to believe that we could survive on our laurels. We could stir public support with tales of the old days.

And if that didn’t gain us their support, then we were arrogant enough to believe that we could use the old “if we don’t get it, more people will die” Big Lie. It had worked very successfully for years. “Can’t miss; two thumbs up”, you say.

Still; the community didn’t want the debt of a new truck in these uncertain times. They were resigned to the reality that the old trucks might break down when we were in the heat of battle, but that was a chance that they were willing to take. It sounded like a much cheaper alternative than the $300,000 for a new truck.

Our last gasp of arrogance comes with the “we will have to shut down the department and let someone else handle the calls”. We are thinking, “No way will they want to wait for the next town over”, but your citizens are thinking, “What’s the difference? They are going to pour water into the burnt out basement anyway”.

Yes; communities will support their fire departments through the tough times, but it will not be at previously high levels. Our public is more educated and therefore, less inclined to be swayed by emotional arguments. They remember the demonstrations of low pressure/high water volume tactics and its reliance on limited manpower. Let’s not forget the great Quint debates either. A truck designed for understaffing? I’ll take ten.

When you are no longer able to fulfill your mission statement because of a lack of resources, then you must either contract to your current level of resources or risk catastrophic failure in some form. It would be arrogant to think otherwise.

And a community telling their fire department that they cannot support them at their current levels can be very humbling, indeed.


The article is protected by federal copyright law under The Adventures of Jake and Vinnie© umbrella. It is written and submitted by Art Goodrich a.k.a. ChiefReason. This article or any other article submitted under The Adventures of Jake and Vinnie© umbrella cannot be reproduced in ANY form without the expressed, written permission of the author. Violations are punishable by applicable laws.
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