Change Agent: February 2013
By Tom Bremner
Does everything we in the fire service do and say hit the streets? It sure seems that way. Is there such a thing as a secret, or confidentiality?
By Tom Bremner
Does everything we in the fire service do and say hit the streets? It sure seems that way. Is there such a thing as a secret, or confidentiality? Do the people in our communities judge us on what they hear and personally believe, until they witness or understand the difference? Let’s pause and think how many times this has happened that you can remember.
Internal negativity in our departments causes huge problems and usually stems from a few within the organization. How can we change this? Here are some suggestions: understand your role; understand others’ roles; focus on positive leadership; reach out to trusted partners and work together on common goals and visions.
I have often reflected on how the attitudes and turmoil within the fire service are perceived completely differently on the inside than on the outside. Yearly statistics indicate that the public loves firefighters, the job(s) we do and the way we provide public safety. However, through the media and/or community gossip, the public eventually learns about that the internal goings-on of the service, which can be nasty, selfish and sometimes destructive. The evolution of the fire service has resulted in multiple levels within everything from leadership to training, to operations, and more. This, in turn, breeds stress, discontent, greed and jealousy at all levels – not much different from the rest of the world.
We continually hear that the people we serve love us; the question is, in what way? This admiration seems to be based primarily on the good things they feel we do to help them, and contrasts with what taxpayers perceive about our lifestyles, salaries, benefits and the attention we receive as firefighters; yet these taxpayers don’t understand our needs, endless rising costs and in-house challenges. The question this raises is whether firefighters respect the taxpayers, which include other firefighters and management in terms of working partnerships and operational responsibilities.
Chiefs are not special individuals, nor should they promote themselves as such. Chiefs are provided the positional opportunity to be leaders by taking responsibility to address, promote and support the best interests of the firefighters, fire service and the community within justifiable means. Chiefs are human, and must be real and approachable. Firefighters need to understand this so that communication can flow both ways with ease. It has been proven many times that breakdowns in communication and respect lead to much more turmoil than we want to accept or admit. This turmoil and disrespect continues to hit the streets of our communities in many damaging ways, often through misunderstandings among our own members.
Confidentiality is critical in our business and operations. More often than not this gets forgotten, intentionally or unintentionally. No matter what the reason, once rumours start, they grow like a wildfire – out of control. Lives, visions, dreams, great projects and people all get damaged and, in some cases, destroyed by this lack of respect, confidentiality and service-first vision.
A long time ago, a very good friend of mine noted that “a silent tongue is golden.” This often runs through my mind. In retrospect, these words of wisdom have been some of the best advice I’ve ever received. How have we allowed this two-sided process to fester and grow over the decades? In most cases we should feel blessed, fortunate and committed to what we do, inside and outside of the stations. I believe there is still a majority who feel this pride about our profession; we need to promote and enhance this. Remember: it takes only a few bad apples to spoil the pot.
The commitment and passion of many can be overshadowed or challenged by our own colleagues or partners; then, the community starts to hear about the internal grumblings. This is unfortunate. If we want the full-meal-deal support for all we ask from our councils and taxpayers, then we need to clean up our acts. Why not take the time to reflect, look around and observe what is real, whether it is damaging or positive. Partnerships within the service are critically important and must be respected and built upon, but should not be destructive or rooted in greed. I have recognized that, in many cases, the public is the power; the taxpayers are the real decision makers, even if we don’t agree with that. Councillors are elected by the people: the taxpayers. When the public fails to understand the challenges that firefighters and the service face, our success rates are greatly reduced.
The messages and reports that hit the streets matter and are critical to garnering the understanding and the support of the general population, which helps to ensure the longevity of our service and our partnership success rates in the future.
What role can we play to mitigate these challenges?