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Battalion Chief Paul Lepore

I wrote a column several months back that dealt with a new probationary firefighter who was eager to get started on his career. Thanks to the actions of a select few sour firefighters, this rookie has begun to rethink the longevity of his career on his new department. Instead of shopping for a new home, he is now shopping for a new fire department.

To tell you the truth I was a little cranky at my peers after hanging up the phone with my young friend. You see, I have witnessed similar events on departments all over the country. Many of us are guilty of forgetting what led us to become firefighters in the first place. Our zeal for the fire service may have been replaced with distain for the city council over a lack of pay raises, or not providing us with what we consider to be the top of the line equipment to do our jobs. When I signed up there was no such thing as a ninety percent retirement, or the “drop” program.

After the article ran in this magazine, I received dozens of emails from firefighters who have either been in a similar situation, or were trying to change a comparable culture on his or her respective department.

I love the fire service (as I know you do too). I like to watch and listen to mentors, both in and out of the fire service. I listened to a lecture that rang home today that I wanted to share with you. Before I go any further I will confess that I am not an openly religious person. I do have my beliefs, but usually I am pretty private about them.

I listened today to a sermon given by Rick Warren, a popular religious leader. While not intended, I found many parallels between his message and the fire service. The message was about pride, stress, and leadership.

The first message that caught my attention was his description of a true leader. While there are many different styles of leadership, he pointed out that many leaders are insecure and are afraid to admit their mistakes. I learned that people expect us to make mistakes. We are only human. It’s when we don’t admit to them, or try to cover them up, that we lose respect from others. I had to take an uncomfortable look in the mirror as a chief officer, and as a parent.

Another thing that resonated home to me was the statement, “The more insecure a leader, the more medals he wears on his chest.” When I think of a true fire service leader, retired Phoenix Fire Department Chief Alan Brunacini comes to mind. Anyone who knows Chief Brunacini knows that he can always be found wearing a Hawaiian shirt. No medals, brass, or anything that has to do with his twenty-plus years as one of the most progressive fire chiefs of our generation. He doesn’t need his badge to earn respect.

Another common thread to the fire service was that of pride. Pride is based on a false image of ourselves. It is the number one source of our stress. The fire station is a place full of egos and pride. Most of us are guilty of it. I reflect back to a conflict I had recently where someone said something negative about me. I was very upset and found it kept me awake at night. I even got out of bed in the middle of the night and composed an email (which I later regretted). Simply put, I was too worried about what people thought of me.

Pride can certainly be a good thing. We all learned the importance of school pride as youngsters. Hopefully we all have that same pride in our fire departments. Not all pride is good, however. Pride can be a negative thing when you compare yourself to someone else. It will make you either prideful or discouraged. It is important that we are content with who we are and where we are in our careers. If you are not satisfied, make a change for the better.

I believe that when you worry about what people think about you, you are easily manipulated by them. It’s too hard to stand up for what’s right when you are worried about making the popular choice. Image is what people think of you; character is what you are in the dark.

Telling stories about fellow firefighters is also a favorite pastime in the fire station. Sometimes the story will put the firefighter in a positive light. More commonly, the story places the individual in a less than positive light. While there may be some element of truth, the stories are usually grossly embellished. I believe in grade school we call these stories “gossip.” In the fire station we call it story telling. Whatever you call it, most of us are guilty of it. One thing to keep in mind is that anybody who tells gossip to you is also telling gossip about you.

One of the firefighters who has had the greatest impact on me was a former paramedic partner. No matter how much someone had hurt him, or what they said, this individual never said a negative word about them. In my entire career I never heard Charlie utter a cross word to, or about, anyone. He was a true role model to me.

I look back at my career and I have witnessed some truly honorable coworkers. On one occasion I had a paramedic partner ask me to take him to Target after a tough run involving a 10-year-old girl who had been abused by her father. As I pulled up in front of the store he jumped out and said he would be right back. He returned a few minutes later and asked me to take him back to the hospital. Again, he said he would be right back and jumped out. Curious, I followed him into the emergency room. I found him in the room with the young girl. She had a tear in her eye as she was holding her new gift: a new fluffy teddy bear from my partner.

On another occasion, a partner asked me to take him to the post office on a fairly regular basis. After a period of time I began to see a pattern. Each time we had a patient who did not survive, he would go to the post office. I learned that throughout his entire career he mailed a sympathy card to the family of the deceased person. He signed it from the firefighters and paramedics.

I have many more stories of true compassion that I have been fortunate enough to witness throughout my career. In both of these examples, neither person wanted anyone to know what they had done.

In the end of our career we won’t be remember by the rank we achieved, but rather how we treated people.

Paul Lepore is the author of the best-selling series of career how-to books for firefighters. You can buy them directly from the FireLink Bookstore