I was working my way through a stack of annual evaluations one day, and I recall thinking about how great the members of the agency are; hard-working, dedicated, and compassionate as they carried out their day-to-day duties. I also remember the depth of some of the goals that were established for their professional growth and I was inspired because they were not just for themselves; they would benefit the entire agency. Does it get any better? Phil Jackson was one of the most successful coaches in the NBA. The Philadelphia 76ers climbed to the top of the basketball world under his leadership. He was quoted as saying, “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” So how do you see or describe your firefighters – as members or employees?
As I have thought about this question, I looked around at professional sports. I found the Seattle Sounders football club, the Seattle Seahawks football team, and the Dallas Cowboys football team (a.k.a. America’s Team). What I couldn’t find was a franchise that described its players as employees or many quotes from great coaches referring to his players as employees; they were members or team members! Why should the fire service be any different?
By definition, a member is a person, county, or organization that has joined a group, society, or team, a part or organ of the body, especially a limb; synonymous with a limb, an arm or leg. An employee is synonymous with work, member of staff, member of the workforce, blue-collar, white-collar, hired person or hired help. A team is several persons associated together in work or activity and within the context of the fire and EMS service, a management team, an engine or truck company, a medic unit (ambulance) or a first alarm assignment overseen by a battalion or district chief; sounds like professional team to me.
As you look at the policies, standard operating procedures or guidelines, how are you describing your firefighters or civilian personnel? When you refer to the people that you are charged with supporting through care, compassion, and resources, I hope it is members. Your members should be as inseparable as an arm or a leg; worthy of significant investment in their time, talent, and energy. How you describe them tells a lot about how you see them in your agency. When they are members, it resonates inclusiveness. When they are employees, they could be construed as mere numbers (do you know your first employee number?).
Vince Lombardi once said, “Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a civilization work.” I consider the inner workings of the fire station sacred ground, much like the locker room of a sports team. Not that it is exclusive to men or women, but that it is sacred ground for those we choose as fire chiefs to become part of a team that responds at all hours of the day and night to meet the public’s needs while putting their own needs aside.
As fire chiefs, we look for the best, the brightest, and for the individual that sees the fire service as not just a job but a calling that demands dedication and commitment to self, the membership, and the service we provide. To be a member of the fire service is a gift, and it is something special to be a “member of the team.”
Warren Merritt started his fire service career in 1974. He served with the City of Bellevue (Washington) for 32 years and recently retired from Kootenai County Fire & Rescue (Ihaho) after serving almost eight years as fire chief.