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Us Versus Them: Can We All Get Along?

“Can we all get along?”

Those words were spoken nearly 25 years ago by Rodney King during the Los Angeles riots that followed the trial of police officers accused of beating King during his arrest. The quote is often misstated and frequently used to inject some levity in a tense moment.

Many a fire officer or firefighter has thought, “Why can’t we get along?” The question is: Who is the “us” and who is the “them” in these situations?

  • Career versus volunteer?
  • Labor versus management?
  • Line versus staff?
  • Shift X versus shift Y?
  • Station 1 versus station 2?
  • Minority versus majority?
  • Paramedics versus medical control?
  • Engine versus truck or ladder?

First and foremost, we must remember the mission. When the mission is clear, these words all become us. Easier said than done, right? So how do we start? By asking our self a few tough questions:

  • What is my role in the organization and the matter at hand?
  • What is my interest in this matter?
  • Am I more important than the mission?
  • Why is it important for them to be like us?
  • Is winning the most important thing?
  • Is my goal to save face, feel important, get what I want?
  • What does the organization need to succeed?

We must also remember that fair is not the same as equal. Fair treatment is guides by facts and circumstances while equal treatment is unwavering.

While everyone in your organization should be treated fairly, do the facts and circumstances dictate that everyone be treated equally? What’s important is the mission and organizational needs.

Let’s consider two combination fire departments that appear the same but have different operational models.

ABC FD operates with full-time members’ weekdays between 0700 and 1700 hours. These members are cross-trained, dual-role firefighter/EMTs. There are four of them on duty each day, and they staff a rescue pumper and an ambulance, depending on the call dispatched. On any given day, one member is assigned as the shift officer, one is assigned as the driver/operator of the rescue pumper and the other two are the balance of the crew, also staffing the ambulance when it’s needed.

Because of this operational model all members are trained and certified to the same level under NFPA 1001, 1002 and 1021 and licensed as EMTs. After 1700 hours and on weekends, paid-on-call members respond to answer calls.

XYZ FD operates with a combination of full-time and part-time members each day. While the full-time shifts run 24 hours, the part-time members cover each 24 hours by working a block of 8-24 hours; one to three persons work in each 24-hour shift. Like ABC FD the members on duty staff a rescue pumper and an ambulance and full-time members are cross-trained, dual-role firefighter/EMTs.

The part-time members’ role is limited to either staffing the ambulance or serving as a firefighter without driver/operator responsibilities. For a variety of reasons, XYZ FD doesn’t use its ambulance crew to support fire suppression operations within the hazard zone.

While other departments may have any combination personnel to achieve their needed response, given these two operational models, is it fair to require different performance out of each different group of members? Can we accept single-role firefighters or EMTs if our model supports it? Can we accept being a driver/operator as mandatory for certain member groups if that’s what’s needed?

In the end, members performing the same work need the same (equal) training and certifications to meet the mission. However, when the work of the group lends itself to position-specific requirements is that fair to do so? The command staff needs to ask itself if the requirements are based on needs and not based on wants.

Former Chicago Bear Gale Sayers broke ground as not only for his athletic ability as a running back, but for when in the mid-1960s, in the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he roomed with Brian Piccolo. Piccolo was white while Sayers was African-American. The press looked for every angle but Sayers and Piccolo expressed that they were just two guys on the same team with a common mission.

Pretty amazing stuff, given the era. In his autobiography I Am Third, Sayers offer his personal mantra: “The Lord is first, my friends are second, I am Third.”

We can all learn from Sayers words and deeds. We can learn to accept and work with our brothers and sisters regardless not only of their race, religion or gender, but also of their rank, affiliations, organizational position or level of enthusiasm towards our profession.

That’s not to say we embrace those who don’t perform. It’s to say we don’t lump them all together and treat them like the trash, like second-class citizens.

We all can get along if we embrace the mission.

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