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Protecting the Image of the Fire Service

Protecting the Image of the Fire Service

Battalion Chief Paul Lepore

I was scrolling through one of the major fire department magazine’s website and clicked on a banner ad that promoted fire department t-shirts. I scrolled down to view the different designs. Most were creative and colorful, highlighting the fun parts of our profession. One, however, really caught my attention. As a professional firefighter I found it to be in particularly poor taste. The design on the back of the shirt showed a typical fire station in Anywhere USA with the engine and truck pulled out on the apron. In the windows of the second floor was a silhouette of two naked women. The caption below read, “What happens at the firehouse, stays at the firehouse.”

This shirt was playing up the “frat house” image that can be very destructive to the fire department. I am not saying that this sort of thing doesn’t go on. I can be certain that the old days of the old school firehouses have come and gone.

I posted my thoughts on an online firefighter chat room and provided a link to the t-shirt image. I felt the t-shirt was inappropriate. I was amazed to see posts following mine that told me I was making a big deal out of nothing and everyone had a right to wear what he or she wanted off duty. I was astounded at how naïve some firefighters could be. Firefighters posted the following in response to the t-shirt: “Stuff like this will never go away. It has no names and no affiliations, so don’t worry about it. People who buy this stuff obviously are not firefighters.” Another firefighter posted, “It’s a stupid t-shirt. Concentrate more on doing your job, not on what people think.”

On a positive note, one of the firefighters posted, “It is the citizens in our community who pay our salaries. When we are in a positive light we are rewarded with better pay, benefits, retirement, equipment, and staffing. When we are reflected in a poor light as the result of a scandal or a poor decision, we suffer. The ability for me to continue to do my job safely relies on the members of the community to have that inherent trust in how I approach my job. We have an uphill battle in the public relations arena. It will never end.”

I completely agree with the above statements. Maybe it is my twenty years in the fire service that have opened my eyes. Quite possibly it’s my current assignment to a forty-hour workweek that has made me view things through a different set of glasses.

I called the maker of the t-shirt. I was amazed to learn that this is one of her most popular t-shirts at the national fire department trade shows. She stated that she has sold several thousand of these t-shirts.

In the public eye all fire departments are painted with the same broad brush. I remember a few years ago when an arson investigator was arrested (and ultimately prosecuted), an elderly woman approached me in the supermarket and asked me if all firefighters started fires. Regardless of what type of damage control we try to do, it is nearly impossible to try to change public opinion.

The general public watches everything we do in the fire service. Many resent our retirement plan and benefits. I believe we are entitled to what we are paid, but I do not flaunt it. There are people who believe we are overpaid and our retirement plan is too expensive.

I remember my mother asking me why the fire engine is allowed to park in the red lane in front of the grocery store. I told her the same thing that every firefighter before me said. I explained that if we have a call we are closer to the fire engine. She shared that it looked unprofessional to see four able-bodied firefighters jump off the big expensive fire engine and walk into the store, while the person with the handicapped placard parked in the lot.

I had never given it much thought prior to that conversation. When I promoted to Captain I asked my engineer to park out in the lot. In the beginning it was a bit of a struggle. I heard the usual response of how it will take longer to get to the rig and increase our response times. Shortly after that an event occurred that would forever change the way we do business. After September 11th, the Fire Chief mandated that someone must stay with the rig at all times. Now the rigs park in the lot and response times are not impacted because the engineer meets the crew at the front door of the supermarket with the lights flashing.

Another battle that I have fought is that of wearing uniforms while in the public eye. I remember having a discussion with a senior firefighter about him not wanting to tuck in his shirt on a call. He reasoned that he never had a sick patient complain about his shirt being untucked. He may be right, but bedside manner and professionalism are important to instilling patient confidence. While the patient may not complain, his friends and neighbors notice how we look.

We in the fire service are considered to be the most trusted profession in America. A recent CNN poll revealed that firefighters have more trust and respect than someone’s priest of doctor. Every time a firefighter is shown in a less than professional light, it erodes our standing in the community. It is up to us to maintain our image. Our staffing levels, pay and equipment depend on it.

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