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Health, Wellness and the Fire Service Family

As a chief fire officer, I have on occasion found myself deeply reflecting on the concept of brother- and sisterhood, particularly the relationships we share as a fire service family. Often, these reflections are caused by my own unwillingness to give into the notion that somehow, in an us-versus-them scenario, I became one of them and not one of us.

Of course, you can imagine that I find myself in these moments mostly when, as a leader, I’m compelled to make a decision that some view as not positive for either themselves or the organization.

I understand the concept of organizational conflict very clearly at this point in my career; nobody preaches more to young officers the truth that most people want to be led but may then resent being led.

It’s our duty as officers to lead; successful officers actually do lead, then take their lumps when they find themselves placed on the unpopular side of us-and-them discussions. At the end of these very difficult situations, regardless of the discourse, I do still feel like a part of the fire service family. I love that about us, them, we, you and me.

Recently, I had one of those fire family reflections from a somewhat different perspective, and that was about how our love for each other can get in the way of doing something that will truly help a brother or sister. I’m referring to those times when we selectively ignore each other’s problems and justify our blindness by believing that everything will somehow work itself out.

Worse yet, we may think to ourselves, “It isn’t any of my business to get involved.” This sometimes may be wrongfully justified in our minds in the name of preserving the fire family.

You know what? Sometimes things don’t work themselves out; sometimes our willingness to look the other way is a dreadful miscalculation that can cause people to lose their families, friends and careers.

Ultimately, these people also lose the family, all while we’re thinking that we’re supporting the fire family. In these situations, all of us that find ourselves looking the other way should be ashamed and disappointed—not in the person that digressed but rather in ourselves for the cowardly ways we acted, all in the name of the fire family.

I wish that our fire-service culture embraced the concept of leading in uncomfortable situations: situations like fellow firefighters who are out of shape and can’t do their jobs or those who have alcohol problems or drug dependencies. Still other issues may involve abusive family situations or people with psychological disorders that are never remedied because our culture shames them or encourages them to “suck it up and get on with the job.”

Well, guess what; telling someone to just “suck it up” doesn’t do people any good when you’re looking at them in a casket or from the free side of a jail cell. It’s too late then. And when it’s too late, we need to all ask ourselves how our fire family relationships may have contributed to this final scenario.

Like you, I take my job as leader, mentor and coach very seriously. So seriously that I have written this to inspire each of you, regardless of your rank, to take your leadership responsibility to the fire family very seriously.

I suppose that in writing this, I’m challenging you to encourage your folks to have the same difficult conversations among themselves that I’m trying to have with you now.

I’m hoping your reaction will result in you taking your job serious enough to perhaps tell someone you’re taking them off the truck because you’re worried about their physical condition or reporting a brother or sister to someone who can find them help before they get busted in a drug or alcohol screening. Or even referring someone to EAP sometime before they place a gun to their head to commit suicide.

Even better, start working on an organizational culture that understands that fire family means we care about each other; by not doing so, our leadership, love for each other and family relationships fail both us and them.

In our jobs, we see things that are difficult to talk about. As human beings with frailties, we deal with the challenges that can come from substance abuse. Our jobs are stressful, and we need desperately to help each other through difficult times. That means actually talking to someone who can help find a solution for people who have an issue. Not for the purpose of hurting them through discipline, but rather to help them because we love them and we are a family.

If you understand this message and you’re practicing this type of leadership, I thank you.

If you’re questioning your leadership with regard to this message, that’s OK as well. We understand. Let’s just try to get to a better place. Let’s talk about it among ourselves and our members and challenge each other to be better. Not because some chief said so, but because we love each other and this is after all our fire family.

Thanks for listening. Stay safe out there!


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