The No. 1 job of any officer — chief or line officer — is to make sure a firefighter goes home to his or her family. This mindfulness is always there when you are on the scene and making tactical decisions, be it at a structure fire, a fast-moving brush fire or a car wreck alongside the freeway. But this mindfulness also is needed back at the station looking at strategic issues. Are we buying the best equipment we can to keep people safe? Are we doing all we can to enhance firefighter safety when specifying a new fire apparatus or medic unit? Am I making sure the leaders intent is there as we give classes on tactics? Have I done all I can do to ensure they know the first due buildings that are most dangerous when on fire? Am I doing all I can to convince political leaders to do the right thing as it relates to codes and ordinances? Have we done all we can to educate people to protect their homes and create defensible space — even in the urban environment — so firefighters don’t have to place themselves in harm’s way? Every decision I make as a fire chief in the tactical environment affects firefighter safety — as does every strategic decision I make.
The second area for mindfulness is the citizen. Citizens call for help. They do not care about how my budget is impacted, if A-shift is having a spat with B-shift, or if we slept last night. They want three things: help to come quickly, help to solve their problem, and help to be nice. We are no longer the fire department — we are the HELP department. Citizens call us because they have fallen, they call us when the battery in their smoke detector chirps at 3 a.m., and yes when their house is on fire. Career or volunteer, they do not care — each can and does help. Citizen who call for help don’t want us to make excuses; they just want us to help and then go back. The system needs to transparent to them. One of the duties of fire chief is to be the spokesperson for the community and thanking the firefighters for them.
This past summer, we burned up about 60,000 acres in our county with two major fires — Taylor Bridge and Table Mountain. In the Taylor Bridge Fire, we lost more than a 100 structures without an injury to a firefighter or a citizen. In that instance, the outpouring of support from the community was outstanding. They brought food and water to every station, and we had businesses thanking the firefighters on their signs. I have not seen that kind of outpouring of thanks since Sept. 11, 2001.
Fire departments are a function of government, and we are public employees. Over the last several years, both of those — government and public employees — have taken a shellacking, as the recession has created a tough time for a lot of people. In those tough times when people don’t show their appreciation much, it is even more important for the fire chief to be the chief moral officer and remind firefighters that what we do is honorable.
Jim Page taught me: “You can love the fire service all you want, but it is never going to love you back.” As I age, I find that statement to be truer and truer. The fire service doesn’t care if you work 60 hours a week or even more. Families do. I have to ensure the dedicated people of the organization realize this is a marathon, not a sprint. They have families, and families come first. When staff members or firefighters have a family issue, I tell them family comes first and hope the fire department is at least third on their priority list.
The other part of that mindfulness is to look inward. Am I taking time for my own health? Am I investing in my family? Throughout my career, I would say no. But I am more mindful of that now, and taking the time to go to the gym and spending quality time with friends and family. So far, I have invested 36 years into the fire service, and I have loved it — but it doesn’t love you back.
One of the greatest joys of being the fire chief with Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue is we have a blended combination department. We have career, community volunteers, reserves (paid on-call firefighters) and residents. The resident firefighters live at one of the stations and go to college at Central Washington University. It is these young, eager, energetic, enthusiastic, wonderful firefighters who bring me hope for the next generation. They are courageous, smart, techno-savvy, respectful, hard working, and truly have a passion for the fire service. Many are second- or third-generation firefighters, and it is in their DNA. They help keep me on my toes. In the back of my mind, I see I have a responsibility to them and every firefighter, to help them grow and feed their passion for the fire service in a healthy way. Reminding them that family is first, but that this is a noble and honorable profession.
Like any organization, we have a lot of rules, policies and procedures. However, I tell every recruit class, there are three fire chief rules they must adhere to.
- No lying, cheating or stealing. The public trusts us. To violate that trust, harms every firefighter in this country.
- No drinking and driving —ever. I tell them, I will come pick you up, and drive you home or to the place of your choice, no questions asked, and no further mention of it. The addendum of rule two is, you barf in my truck you clean it the next day. In seven years, I have done this five times. But the rule exists to enforce that even off duty behavior is seen by the community.
- No inappropriate activity on department property — no matter how many times you have seen Backdraft. This rule is really about on-duty bad behavior. It gets them to understand as a public agency we are held to a higher standard. We cannot afford organizational embarrassment for ourselves or the fire service.
My mindfulness is simply this. People are more important than things. The fire service is a great, honorable, and noble profession. It can only be tarnished, by those who lose their way and betray the trust of the profession and the communities they serve. My duty is to be a Lighthouse for others, so they can remember their honor.
John Sinclair is chief of Kittitas (Wash.) Valley Fire and Rescue.