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Between Alarms: Think before you speak to preserve integrity

Recent and past events in the world have left the public with little faith and trust in the establishment. We inherently and frequently trust institutions with our livelihood and well-being, yet there are often mistakes made that negatively affect public perception of these institutions.

July 18, 2008
By Vern Elliott


Recent and past events in the world have left the public with little faith and trust in the establishment. We inherently and frequently trust institutions with our livelihood and well-being, yet there are often mistakes made that negatively affect public perception of these institutions. I do not promote an activist viewpoint or claim that all public servants should be painted with the same brush; what I am trying to get at is this – emergency responders are respected members of communities and small, selfish acts can impact a department tremendously. Thankfully, there are only a handful of instances in which emergency personnel have abused trust. Results of these kinds of behaviours can be catastrophic from a public-relations point of view. More importantly, the faith a department once had is lost and it takes a great deal of effort to regain it.

vernelliottLosing faith in an entity that is trusted is disappointing and, although it is rare in our business, it still happens. Saying this, I am an optimistic soul and have decided to apply a different perception in the loss of confidence in public service by comparing it with public business.

I will begin with the simplest of rules because it is the most obvious: the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Easy enough, but I admit that there have been times when I have not followed this directive and wondered why I received a negative comment or letter or encountered a less-than-positive attitude from other firefighters. The simplest ideas apply; unfortunately, we witness and are aware of emergency responders missing that point.

Time heals a great deal of injury but when you are a part of a trusted body it takes more than a few months to mend a damaged reputation. Our status in society means there really are no second chances. If a major disruption occurs this can affect more than just reputation – it can damage relationships, budgets and even jobs.


Financial institutions are supposed to be trustworthy – we place our hard earned funds there for future (and hopefully increased) value. The recent credit crisis in the United States shows how mismanaging funds can influence an economy. I contrast this to how front-line workers and management should operate.  Management should take its intellectual capital (human resources) and treat it carefully as an investment for the organization’s future. A department can have the best and newest equipment but without personnel who can maintain and operate it efficiently and effectively, the department has nothing. Management should never mishandle intellectual capital; allowing the right people to carry the right projects creates empowerment, pride and motivation.

The lesson for the firefighter is to learn and understand the job every day and share it with the organization by, for example, holding an impromptu training session, asking someone a question or simply reading an emergency industrial magazine. Never be satisfied with what you know because there is always something else to learn; investing in your organization will provide future interest. The other side of this is to help someone in the public by performing an act of kindness. Scouts are encouraged to do something for others every day – why can’t we? The simplest of acts can seriously change how someone feels about your department.

Government is our defence against disorder. Representatives are chosen to stand for our best interests and represent themselves as a model for society. No matter what your position is in the fire department, you must embody control, correctness and impartiality as a modelfor the community you serve. This is not a part-time posting; we must be aware that at all times someone is watching and is aware of our actions – not in the Big Brother sense, mind you, but it is a fact that one bad apple can spoil the bunch. Use wisdom in your judgment as a firefighter, officer or manager, on and off duty. 

I am an “angel with a dirty face” and am far from perfect – maybe I am writing this to atone for some of my trespasses (not all of them because that would take up the entire magazine!). What I know is that we are a proud group who serve our communities. Remember that as trust is gained, so can it be lost. Thankfully, there are very few examples of loss of faith in emergency responders. I simply realized that within society there are certain assemblages that we should be able to trust but we have been severely disheartened by the actions of some of those institutions. My reaction to those kinds of incidents and behaviours allowed me to understand what a client might experience in a similar business situation. 

Emergency workers perform heroic and selfless acts every day that build our reputations in our communities. If something happens on the job or in your private time, think about how you will react. Before you offend someone, make a comment or perform an act – think about what the implications are. People call on us to assume their risk; this puts a great deal of trust in our ability, knowledge and our character. Will you contribute to or restrict the trust and integrity of our occupation?

Vern Elliott has 14 years’ experience in emergency services in municipal and industrial departments as a firefighter/paramedic. He works with Strathcona County Emergency Services in Alberta.

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