Not since the introduction of the combustible engine or the two-stage pump has the fire service been at such a critical turning point. But this time, the fire service needs to define and preserve its role in society.
Fire departments along the East Coast were severely tested by Katrina to the south and Sandy to the north, without enough calm between the storms to rebuild and rejuvenate. The Middle states have seen years of drought followed by flood, the unpredictable weather patterns challenging to even the most ardent Midwestern grit and determination. The sunshine states in the West have seen an unprecedented rise in wildland fires, constantly pulling resources from throughout the country.
And all this comes at a time when municipal governments are losing tax revenues and fire districts are seeing mill levies shrink. Communities are being torn apart financially and politically. States are challenging union rights and encouraging privatization.
At the federal level, grants are drying up or being rerouted. Disaster relief is being delayed, while emergency preparedness is being discussed on a grand scale in congressional committees. Small departments are criticized for outdated equipment and inadequate response capabilities while cogent arguments and appeals to officials, legislators, and the public are kept quiet regardless of the level of petition or application.
But there is something with greater impact on the fire service than these environmental and economic catastrophes. The critical crossroad isn’t coming from these mammoth forces, however culpable. It’s coming from the very core of the fire service.
After 9/11, as reluctant as we were to cash in on sacred memories, we allowed the memorial to be built and the myth to promulgate. The short-term result was better academy candidates, increased fire-department revenues and widespread public acknowledgement. Who can deny our exposure in advertising and newscasts? But now we are beginning to see cracks of skepticism in the seemingly consecrated concrete of our fire service institutions. Subtle and insidious, what started out in the natural heartfelt wake of a national tragedy has grown into a public-relations nightmare.
Is it such a surprise that this harsh momentum of public criticism is coming to light in the constant glare of negative articles, sensational TV news, and biased social media? Seemingly, we can’t do our jobs or live our lives without seeing the results on YouTube — before we have had a chance to comprehend the transgression. So begins the “real” reality of doing our job.
Further, those attracted to the job today because of all of this notoriety are in some part motivated by a completely different set of values than those who joined in the past. Not necessarily worse or better, but altered enough that it becomes absolutely necessary and prudent to take notice. Officers are making weak decisions based on mounting legal consensus and constant broadcast review. Firefighters today seem intent on affirming their place in history, even before it’s made.
We are challenged with this highly public and newly critical profile. By all of the economic and political signs on the road; it couldn’t have come at a worse time. We have a great deal of work to do if we are to survive in a world we hardly recognize and to thrive intact and on time. Society is moving too fast and change is too instantaneous for us to do nothing or worse, be caught questioning our moral courage and ethical resolve. Rather than take the road less traveled, we may have to create a new and righteous path.
We must come together and cooperate in a voice of unified declaration. To blink is to be behind; to ignore is to lose. The job does not end after a long day or a difficult shift. You can’t quit just because your phone isn’t charged.