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From the Hip: November 2011

Colleagues, our profession faces a very real and serious challenge.

November 14, 2011
By E. David Hodgins

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Colleagues, our profession faces a very real and serious challenge. This challenge, if not addressed soon, will have a damaging long-term impact on emergency public-safety services and personnel. The once strong-and-resolute reputation of those working in Canada’s uniformed services is going down the proverbial toilet.

I say this based on real-life examples and feedback from individuals working within fire/rescue, paramedic, police, emergency-management and military organizations, as well as the public. The public’s opinion of uniformed personnel (and the services they provide) is becoming increasingly negative.

We want to believe that people continue to revere their uniformed protectors unconditionally and envision emergency-services personnel as heroes waiting to ride to the rescue. Unfortunately, based on our proud tradition of service excellence, too many emergency-services personnel believe they can do nothing to harm their good reputations. These folks are taking the public’s longstanding respect for granted. The truth is that today, taxpayers are extremely concerned as they hear and read the many reports in the media about incompetence and objectionable actions by the men and women in uniform. They continue to smile and say nice things to our face, but these individuals are talking more openly about the inappropriate and criminal-like behaviour of their one-time protectors and superheroes. Elected and senior-administrative officials are included in the group that is questioning the dubious actions and the culture of entitlement that has become prevalent within emergency public-safety and military organizations.

We are very quick to openly criticize media organizations when they focus on and report negative happenings within our organizations. I can’t count the number of times I have heard complaints that the media are always looking for the bad news and seldom report the good news. There is a simple fix to this challenge, folks. If we act respectfully and responsibly and at all times behave in a way that makes mother proud, there will not be any bad news for the media to report.

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Those who study organizational behaviour in public-sector services blame the noticeable cultural shift within emergency and military organizations on the actions of the senior leaders. These analysts report that the incompetent and improper actions of these individuals have a direct influence on the behaviour of the members – the rank and file.

Based on media reports and recent studies, it appears that some in positions of authority have stopped doing what’s right and responsible and stopped acting in a morally respectful and legal manner, only to adopt a culture of entitlement, feeling as though they can do whatever they want because they are in charge. Several recently published reports include examples of senior officials being charged with theft, fudging of expense accounts, inappropriate sexual conduct, unacceptable use of drugs and alcohol both on and off the job, and abuse of their rank with respect to accepting perks and special treatment offered by private-sector companies. It’s a fact that several fire and police chiefs and senior members of the military have lost their jobs recently for improper behaviour.

One recent government report, published in part in the media, was an exposé regarding senior military incompetence in the oversight of millions of dollars in approved budget monies for critical-defence projects. It seems that these managers simply decided that the nobody-moves-nobody-gets-hurt approach was acceptable, and the monies went unspent to the detriment of the rank and file, the country, and the citizens they are sworn to serve. The fact that some of these managers are retiring and landing very senior positions within governments is alarming.

What about the staff serving within emergency and military organizations? Are leaders setting the appropriate example? It’s OK for the crew, while in uniform, to go for a coffee, and it’s OK to park the department vehicle in front of the local coffee shop and sit at an outdoor table while enjoying a cup. It’s not OK to sit in the chair, feet-on-the-table, while projecting a look-at-me-I’m-special attitude. This sends a message to the public that with the uniform comes a prima-donna mentality. And what’s the real reason behind the infamous firefighter calendars? Are these half-dressed macho men really doing this for the local charity or for the attention? I think I know the answer, but what truly matters is what the public thinks. You may be surprised by the answer.

I will never forget the words of a now retired and esteemed senior provincial bureaucrat. He would say civil servants must act in a responsible, accountable and respectful manner or governments will lose their moral authority to govern.  What are you doing to ensure this does not happen within your services?

This column is dedicated to a true professional and dear friend, Ted Bochan, deputy fire chief with the City of Lethbridge, Alta. Ted always did the right thing. May he rest in peace.


E. David Hodgins has served with fire, rescue and emergency-management organizations at the provincial and municipal levels during his 34-year career. Contact him at e.david.hodgins@shaw.ca


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