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Aug. 17, 2011 – One morning at the firehall, about 20 years ago, I was helping in the kitchen with the preparation of the usual Sunday breakfast. Unfortunately, we were short a can of kidney beans for the Red Lead (an ambrosia of a mixture of kidney beans, canned tomatoes, peppers and onions; simmered with care and served with the typical firehall breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon, french toast, Spam . . . I loved that stuff). Someone suggested I go to the food donation box at the front of the hall and see if there was a can or two in there. I was loath to do that, but I did it anyway.

August 17, 2011
By Peter Sells

Aug. 17, 2011 – One morning at the firehall, about 20 years ago, I was helping in the kitchen with the preparation of the usual Sunday breakfast. Unfortunately, we were short a can of kidney beans for the Red Lead (an ambrosia of a mixture of kidney beans, canned tomatoes, peppers and onions; simmered with care and served with the typical firehall breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon, french toast, Spam . . . I loved that stuff). Someone suggested I go to the food donation box at the front of the hall and see if there was a can or two in there. I was loath to do that, but I did it anyway. The next day, I replaced what we had used with four cans of the same size, to the rolling eyes and shrugging shoulders from some of my peers. This was food for families who were struggling, not a convenient larder for well-paid firefighters.

A few years later, in my first few weeks as a training officer at the Toronto Fire Academy, I was in the equipment shop to borrow a tool and saw the director standing over a lawn mower and cursing a blue streak. The mower, brand spanking new, had come back from one of the firehalls with four cracked, mismatched wheels and a repair-or-replace tag. Obviously, someone at that hall had felt a greater personal need for a new set of lawn mower wheels and couldn’t be bothered to go to Canadian Tire.

I’m not just telling stories out of school here, or slamming the reputation of my former service. This is a blog for firefighters. I will bet that most of you were amused but not surprised by either of the stories above. We’ve all seen it – the guy who takes home a power saw off of the aerial to cut patio stones for a couple of days; or the guy who puts on a uniform while off duty and takes his family to a local restaurant to get burgers at half-price. We see this type of behaviour; we laugh at it; we shrug it off; we sweep it under the rug; we enable it. The prevailing opinion is that these individuals are the exception to our collective professionalism, the bottom of the food chain – not destined for higher rank or office.

So I read with considerable disappointment about the termination of the fire commissioner of Manitoba after a routine audit revealed questionable expense claims for travel and accommodation dating back a few years. There are good reasons why organizations have budget and spending rules. The rules are not always convenient or flexible, but the money being spent ultimately belongs to the taxpayers. Violations of the rules are violations of the trust and respect the public has placed in us. A provincial commissioner is about as high on the food chain as a firefighter can rise. When a senior official of the highest level is perceived as being caught with his hand in the cookie jar, the potential blow to the reputation of the fire service is enormous.

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I’ve said before that the damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead approach to problem solving often exhibited by firefighters is a two-edged sword. On the fire ground, it is useful and sometimes invaluable to improvise, commandeer or otherwise exploit whatever is on hand in order to get the job done. Administratively, however, keeping two sets of records to get around petty cash or overtime rules, however well-intentioned, is a sign of laziness, impatience or organizational dysfunction.

So the questions for you this month are: When is it OK for firefighters to bend the rules? Are we too ready to accept behaviour that is unethical and even illegal? Should the fire service be held to the same standard as other governmental agencies, or does the nature of our work grant us some flexibility?

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