This article is dedicated to Al Bergner a Life Member of the Rusling Hose Fire Company, Ambulance Corps & Rescue Squad who served as both a firefighter and EMT. Al also retired after an honorable career as a Hamilton Twp. NJ police officer. Al recently succumbed after a valiant 3 year battle against cancer. Why Am I dedicating this article to Al? Because he had HEART. He had 150% of it. He was never in an official leadership position. However, he was a leader through his actions as team player, as one of the worker bees. His impact on the lives he touched was huge through his willingness to to embody the attributes discussed in this article.
I’m sure many of you are asking, with that type of background why don’t I know Al? The answer is we mostly hear about firefighters behaving badly. The reason you didn’t hear about Al, is he didn’t behave badly. You never heard about Al, ‘cuz he was one of the good guys.
What traits are the most important for a firefighter? In my not so humble opinion, the most important traits and values a firefighter must have: He or she, “gotta have HEART”. I can hear many of you now screaming WHOA HOMEBOY, that’s pure Bull Sh**! I know you’re gonna tell me a good firefighter is one who when unleashed, goes balls to the the wall to go in on an aggressive interior attack. One who goes to open the roof up with the energy and aggressiveness of the Tasmanian Devil, as well as the skill of Paul Bunyan. In short, you want a lean, mean, firefighting machine ready to take quick, decisive, offensive action to stop the fire in its tracks. I’m here to tell you none of those traits and skills are worth anything if a firefighter doesn’t have HEART. I know what you’re all thinking, that this dude has balls to smack that hornet’s nest sitting on his face with those asinine comments.
Now I know I’ve riled some of you up, others are saying ‘Where the heck is he going with this?’ and the rest are just saying, the man’s just rambling. Give him a beer, stick headphones in his ears and turn on the Beatles Magical Mystery tour. Cuz that’s where his brain is, in a Magical Mystery. Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re not. Let me provide you my theory first on the five most important traits a firefighter needs to be successful before we do battle.They are:
It’s my educated and experienced opinion is that without these five values/character traits a firefighter will be a detriment to your fire department and a danger, both mentally and tactically to his or her fellow firefighters.
As we all know, only about 5% of our time is fighting fires. We also know that about 95% of the problems in the fire service happen in the firehouse, not out on incidents, yet we concentrate 95% of our professional development on tactical skills and very little on the values, culture and behavioral expectations that firefighters should embrace. (Don’t take this comment to diminish the need for high quality, repetitive training.) Then we wonder why we’re always having people problems. Many that Geraldo Rivera would just love to investigate to raise his TV ratings. I assert if we spent just a little more time on teaching and reinforcing the values of HEART we would have substantially fewer personnel problems, less events of unwanted public notoriety and be a more productive fire service.
Let’s discuss HEART in detail.
Honor – Merriam Webster dictionary has several meanings for honor. 1. To be held in high esteem. 2. A privilege. 3. To show respect, have integrity. The word Honor itself is almost enough to describe the values of a firefighter. First and foremost you are provided the honor of belonging to the the best profession in the world (career & volunteer). Many studies show over and over again that firefighters are one of the most respected professions in the world. Understand that it is an honor to be part of this great, extended family. Second, you have a responsibility to honor the opportunity your community provided you to provide such respected service. Honor the proud traditions of the fire service that define us as caring, selfless servants willing to do what it takes to make a positive difference. To honor the brother and sister firefighters you were blessed to serve with. To not tarnish the respect they’ve earned through hard work and commitment to doing the right thing. To not disrespect their acceptance of you into the firefighting family. To honor them by being committed to integrity, being there for them when they need it and giving your all every day. If you want to be considered honorable, you have to earn it.
Ethical – Is described in Merriam Webster as being morally right. Living within accepted standards of conduct or behavior. The fire service has always had unwritten expectations of morality and behavior; recently they have been put in writing. See the following link: Firefighter Code of Ethics to read the full document. I’ll provide you with the first paragraph as it pretty much sums up what being ethical is. “The Fire Service is a noble calling, one which is founded on mutual respect and trust between firefighters and the citizens they serve. To ensure the continuing integrity of the Fire Service, the highest standards of ethical conduct must be maintained at all times.” Many fire departments now have their own Code of Ethics, and or Core Values. You should not only know the words to these creeds, but implicitly understand how they define expectations of you, your fellow firefighters and your fire department as whole. If your department has you swear to an oath, do you know what it means, what expectations you are putting your hand on the bible for, in front of your family?
Accountable – Is described as, “Being required to explain actions or decisions.” I’m not talking about making excuses, alibis or putting the blame on someone else. Accountable is about being honest in your actions. Accountable means to be dedicated and committed to the job everyday. Not just on the exciting calls, but on the alarms systems and the sick person calls. It is extremely important to your crew and community that the know they can count on you day in and day out; on every incident. In the station you crew counts on you to clean up after yourself. To make sure equipment checks were done and done properly. The worst time to find that the saw wasn’t really checked, even though you wrote that you did, is when you’re trying the breach the side wall of a building with a firefighter mayday going on.
Responsible – I’m going to pull the description of Responsible right from Merriam Webster
a : liable to be called on to answer
b (1) : liable to be called to account as the primary cause, motive, or agent (2): being the cause or explanation
c : liable to legal review or in case of fault to penalties
a : able to answer for one’s conduct and obligations
In synopsis, you are responsible to carry out your assigned duties and tasks with little or no guidance, with a high level of pride and ownership. You are expected to carry them out in a timely manner and above the expected performance level. You are responsible for your attitude you bring to the job. You are responsible to do what you say you will do. If you offer to do something, do it; don’t make excuses why it didn’t get accomplished. One of the hardest but most admired responsibilities is to make yourself accountable for something you did that was inappropriate, done wrong or you mishandled. No excuses, “man up” you did wrong and are ready to correct it. You will surely make mistakes, when you do, make every opportunity to use it as a learning experience and not reason to shift blame.
Trust – Once again I’ll let Merriam Webster provide the description of trust:
a : assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something
b : one in which confidence is placed
Trust is a highly valued character trait and expectation given to any person or organization. If you cannot earn trust or you lose trust, your value as person or organization is reduced significantly to the point where those who don’t trust you, usually don’t want to associate with you.
HEART addresses many of the core values a firefighter and fire department needs to to reduce the chance of having Geraldo Rivera investigating your firehouse for firefighters behaving badly. Using these five values will help maintain your reputation in a positive manner with your community and government leaders that you answer to. Use HEART to evaluate potential candidates. If they don’t measure up, they just might not be a good fit for your organization.
Use HEART to manage everyday operations. This process will work especially well for station officers, whether it pertains to daily responsibilities or to your expectations on incident operations.
They should ask their crews everyday:
Are your actions, behavior and performance giving honor to your fire department and your firefighting family?
Are you behaving within the expected ethical boundaries for your department?
Are you willing to be accountable for your actions and behavior? Is this how you want to be perceived in the public and in the fire station?
Are you responsible enough to act and perform to the expectations set forth by the community and fire department? Do you bring your A game to work every day?
Can you be trusted to do the right thing when representing the fire department and completing any tasks you are responsible for?
So when Harry the Hepped-Up Hoseman grabs the knob and runs to the front door with the energy of a Class IV tornado and breaks the door down without the line charged, against his officer’s orders as the whole house lights off. You got to ask. If he was honorable as he needlessly put his brothers and sisters in harm’s way? If he was ethical, would he have thought of his whole team, instead of just himself? If he was accountable for actions, would he have listened to his officer’s orders? If he was responsible, would he have considered the impact of his actions before taking them? If he did what he was trusted to do, would the trapped victims have had a much better chance of survival?
While it is extremely important to have technically proficient firefighters who are ready and capable of carrying out physically and mentally demanding fire attack without hesitation and doing it in a challenging high-heat environment; they need HEART to really be effective. So before you slip a nozzle in the newbie’s sweaty little palms or or you teach them how to do a head first bailout, make sure they have HEART. If they don’t embody these core values they’re going to let you down. They’re not going to be committed to the mission and job when they feel a little heat on the back of their necks. Sooner or later they’re going to embarrass you in front of the public that provides you unconditional admiration and respect. Ask any fire department that was publicly dissected due to a firefighter behaving badly how long it took to win back public and government trust, if they ever got it back at all. As a Fire Chief who was handed one of those situations I can speak with experience, it not only takes a long time, but it’s a rough, hard & difficult road for everyone in the department. It affects morale, it affects your budget and affects your overall performance as a fire dept.
The moral of the story is that if you cannot be an energetic, engaged and effective firefighter who honors his/her oath in an ethical way, how can we expect you to be accountable for your actions and be responsible to do the job in the manner you were trusted to do it in? Which leads to the question. Do you have the HEART to be part of the fire service?