Straight Talk: May 2013
By Kevin Foster
Professional is a term that can be widely interpreted.
By Kevin Foster
Professional is a term that can be widely interpreted. Many occupations are referred to as professional because of the level of trust, confidentiality, training or certification required. Professional can mean a person who delivers a high quality of work, or a specialization. And it can indicate the socio-economic organization of individuals.
Certainly, the fire service falls within the scope of several of those definitions of professionalism, so I definitely believe that firefighters should be considered professionals. Being considered a professional comes with expectations that affect all firefighters – career, part-time, and volunteer, including chief officers right through to the rank and file. The fire service strives not only to achieve these expectations, but to exceed them. We are, after all, a service that responds to individuals when they are at their times of greatest need, and it is primarily that for which the fire service is admired by the public.
Under the watchful eyes of taxpayers, municipal budgets are being scrutinized for value. Municipal services are being studied to ensure that the community needs them and that they are delivered efficiently and cost effectively. Emergency services are no exception to these detailed analyses. Now, more than ever before, any perceived laissez-faire attitude, sense of entitlement or improper activity has the potential for disastrous fallout.
In order to maintain the high level of public respect for our profession that has developed among the citizens we serve, we must be extra vigilant to do and say the right things. The dominance of social media continues to astound me; I admit a reluctant acceptance of social media rather than a warm embrace. Almost everyone has some type of electronic device that can record in one form or another, and almost instantly share it with everyone in the world. Public satisfaction goes further than just emergency response and calendars: we must be prepared to demonstrate professionalism all the time, not just whenever it is most convenient; that means in the station, at a public-education detail or an emergency scene.
Damaging the integrity and honour of the profession can happen faster than we ever dreamed imaginable. We spend countless hours building respect while attending community events and participating in fundraisers, and the glamour associated with emergency response can be lost in an instant through a smartphone flash or video. Protecting our integrity and honour isn’t really all that difficult; maintain a high standard of personal conduct and, voila. Remember why you chose to be a part of the fire-service family: most likely you chose it because of your desire to help others. If you chose it for other reasons it’s time to re-evaluate.
The conduct of one can have a detrimental impact on the reputations of many; when that happens, it is imperative that the actions be rectified. Addressing the matter with the individual is the responsibility of everyone. Activities on the fire ground or around the fire station should never be perceived as an inconvenience. Do you find your fellow firefighters more focused on their iPhones and BlackBerrys than on station duties? I have to admit there are times when I find myself doing just that and sometimes it takes a colleague to bring back perspective. But, truly, professionalism is more than just being aware that there are inopportune times to check the techno-gadget on your hip.
Have you ever heard a firefighter complain that his gloves were damaged and he couldn’t get a new pair, then, when he does receive new ones, he leaves them in his pockets instead of wearing them at the next call? Or what about the firefighter who says his bunker gear isn’t that dirty, because he has bought into the stereotype that having dirty gear means hero firefighter and thus impresses people? Health-and-safety proponents have gone to great lengths to conduct research and educate the fire service on the affects of contaminated PPE. Dirty gear should be washed at a proper facility, not the local laundromat. This also means that just because you have been out all night at that long call, you don’t wear your gear into the pizza place. If something is important then show it is important, all the time. Looking cool in your gear is not synonymous with professionalism.
Equally important to personal conduct is the use of language. Speak of the public with compassion and respect and we will receive compassion and respect in return. Fire-station speak doesn’t belong on the incident scene, and today it isn’t even acceptable for the fire station. Friendly joking to one may be offensive to another.
The public trust is a fragile thing and perhaps today more so than at any other point in time, those who provide service to the public find themselves under heavy scrutiny. We must take care to protect the public’s view of the service by upholding the professional image we have put together rather than just taking it for granted.
Kevin Foster is in his 25th year in the fire service, having begun as a volunteer firefighter in East Gwillimbury in 1987. Foster was appointed to his current position as the chief with the Midland Fire Department in November 2001 and is Midland’s community emergency management co-ordinator. Foster is president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter at @midlanddfsem