Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Women and Children First

Unselfish service toward others

What does this mean? Quite simply it means that the less able are supposed to be assisted of the sinking ship before the able body males and the ship’s crew. Maritime law (or operational norm) grew from a sense of responsibility the mariners had for the value of human life, and while we can argue that there are as many able bodied women as there are non-able bodied males, the bigger picture was with the exception t of those needed to operate life boats the crew was the last to leave.

Yes that is right, the passengers came FIRST!

The Fire Service that I grew up in felt the same way about the public, yes those very people you swore to protect (probably with a line like – no mental reservation whatsoever).   The Fire Department was formed out of a need to keep towns and cities from burning to the ground.  They were needed because otherwise massive devastation would occur and countless lives would be lost.

The Public came FIRST!

As the Fire Service evolved from its infancy, firefighting changed.  Firefighters developed new and better way to stop fire.  Firefighting went from ‘save the block’, to ‘save the building’, to ‘save the floor’, to the oft used ‘one room job’.  Firefighters learned how to protect interior exposures, how to get inside and stop it dead in its tracks.  The benefit was twofold.  By going inside, firefighters gave victims a chance to survive and also saved valuable property and contents.  Life and property – you might have heard those words before.

These changes and tactics did not come without risk.  After all ‘inherently dangerous’ had to come from somewhere, right?  Firefighters were injured and killed protecting the Public.  Yet they continued to do it, because it was the oath they took, the profession they choose.

Do we come FIRST?

We come first when it comes to preparing to do the job. When you work out, you can come first. Of course by being in better shape you are better able to do the job, but it is in your best interest. When you eat better you come first. When you train you come first. When you check your gear, check your rig, test your SCBA….your are ensuring you are ready to do the job, but doing everything for yourself.

Here is the catch, by making sure you are prepared to do the job, you are also fulfilling your obligation to your crew, your shift, your department and the Public. Who would have thought that personal accountability could affect so many other people?

Now that we understand when we come first, we should get one other thing clear. When we cross the threshold they come first. After all that is what this job is all about. It is about a commitment to the public to do your best to make sure they are safe. You take an oath to put yourself in harm’s way.   You take an oath to protect life and property, to do your job, to the best of your ability, as conditions allow.

CONDITIONS – What you face on arrival, based on construction, fire conditions, and resources
I don’t know anyone that would ever say this job is a suicide mission, or that it is predetermined that you must die to be good. That being said, if you are unwilling to accept the fact that there is significant risk involved in doing your job then you are in the wrong profession. If you think that it is more important for you to be safe, than it is for you to serve the public then you have this whole thing backwards.

THEY – Who is they anyway?  

There are those that say ‘they’ are customers, like they are shopping for a TV or a good place to eat. The reality is that they are the public.  They are not customers.  They don’t choose which fire department to call, they call 911 and we show up.  They get what is available; hopefully what is available is up to the challenge.

Do we need to ‘market’ ourselves? Absolutely. Fire Departments have historically done a bad job at informing the public about our mission, what we need to do it and how we get it done. But that still doesn’t make those we serve customers.

Our sense of service does not come out of some equation or relationship where people pay for a service and for a fee it is provided. Certainly there is a cost associated with what we do, but our duty comes from a commitment to help our fellow man. We decided to enter into a profession, to serve those that need us, regardless of pay or reward, because we were driven by an internal calling to do this job. Some may not be as driven, maybe the whole internal calling thing is a bit much, but regardless the public expects that when they call the fire department that we will show up and fix whatever is wrong. We accept that understanding and do that very thing, even if it involves placing ourselves at risk. So that relationship is based on a calling and an expectation, not a financial obligation and customer service.

It doesn’t matter whether our victims are taxpayers, homeless, tourists, nice or a-holes. We don’t get to chose, nor do we care. When the phone rings, we go. That is Public Service, not customer service. And that is what you signed up for when you took this job.

So, after all of this, do you still wonder where we stand? Is there still a question in your mind as to what this job is all about? Those that preach safety as a standalone solution are missing the bigger picture. Mike Rowe wrote a blog called “Safety Third”. In a letter about this blog Mike wrote. “Every day, workers fall through the cracks of a one-size-fits-all safety policy. Complacency is the real enemy, and I’m pretty sure the way to eliminate it will not involve more rules and more soothing assurances that an individual’s safety is someone else’s priority. Workers need to understand that being “in compliance” is not the same as being “out of danger.” “***

Changing how we manage risk to risk avoidance only does two things, it transfers the risk from us to them and it lulls us into a false sense of safety. Safety in this context makes us hesitant, tentative. These are not traits we should embody as professionals. These are traits that ultimately lead to more harm being done, to less safety on the fireground.

Placing ourselves above those we serve does not make us safer, it makes us poor firefighters. It confuses our sense of purpose and it breaks the number one commitment we made when we signed up for this job.

Anchorage Alaska has it right….

“I am not here for me, I am here for we and we are here for them” – Anchorage Alaska Fire

Department training motto.
“It had nothing to do with the stop,”

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