What's So Damn Offensive Anyways
We are living in an age where everyone seems to be offended by everything and everyone. The fire service is certainly no exception. What was once advertised as a brotherhood of selfless individuals committed to serving the community often seems more like a fraternity of entitled brats complaining about who’s way is better than it does a group of public safety professionals. We waste our time arguing about who is better, who is more educated, and who’s way is right instead of combining our efforts to form the most efficient, productive methods to accomplish the tasks of our mission. Unfortunately, this trend is eventually going to destroy the fire service as we know it if left to fester and spread!
I think it is safe to say we are all basically raised knowing that everybody is different. So why is it that these differences seem to be such a problem? The underlying cause is simple: we have replaced opinions with offenses. Essentially, we have become unable to disagree with each other. In a world where the answer to most things is at our fingertips, we have become not only unable to fathom that there could be more than one solution, but also that someone might not agree with the one we provide. There seems to be an expectation of blind follower-ship which is partially to blame for this phenomenon. We have lost our ability to teach, explain, and grow our people and replaced it with a premise that they should listen to us simply because we have managed to maintain employment for a certain amount of time or have a certain title. We have placed a greater emphasis on years of service than we have quality of service, resulting in egos that self-inflate when a certain tenure has been achieved rather than an accomplishment or skill set. We have stopped caring about each other and started caring only about being right. If you expect others to conform without education, you are creating a lose/lose scenario.
Now I know what some of you are thinking, “but WE have a way that WE do things! It is TRADITION!” Well, yes and no. Tradition is defined as “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation.” Nowhere in that definition does that say methods, procedures, routines, or techniques. This is because those terms represent an actual way to doing something whereas traditions are the overall beliefs of a group or organization. You can have a tradition of wearing black helmets, however you aren’t likely wearing metal helmets. Your fire engines may be red because of tradition, but they are no longer pulled by a horse. Consider for a moment that if things never changed we would still be using buckets as a primary suppression method, relying on open windows as an air supply, and wearing hip boots. Although there are some seriously demented and ignorant individuals wearing our patches who think things should still be that way, I would say the majority of us realize that change does, and needs to happen in this business every day. Many seem think if they ignore it, they can never become outdated or unimportant. In actuality, the more you choose to ignore change and create your own fictitious reality, the faster you accelerate the rate at which you become irrelevant. Remember, traditions are supposed to bring us together, not pull us apart.
The biggest problem with everyone constantly acting offended is the division it is creating between us. The give and take which once existed has been replaced with finger pointing and name calling. Nobody wants to work together, they just want to be right. Every comment, suggestion, and observation is turned into a personal attack. We have closed our minds, along with our fists, turning every interaction into a confrontation. The art of communication has been lost. We are blankly staring at each other waiting to respond as opposed to listening. We hear noise, not language. We take almost pre-planned pauses during our rants, granting the other party an opportunity to empty their agenda. While this may be some sort of informal etiquette, it should not be confused with genuine interest or admiration. This is simply a learned response which is designed to make the other party think you are paying attention to them. In reality you are taking a breather to prepare your next list of demands so you can spew them out when it is your turn to accept the pause in your counterpart’s tirade. This results in lower morale, freelancing, turmoil, and decreased production as we hear each other yet don't listen to anything that was said.
Accept the fact that not everything is about you once in a while! When you operate under the delusion that your preference is the only way, not only do you drive others away, but you also create an environment which does not support growth and performance. Why are we so concerned with HOW others do things rather than WHAT they are doing? There is a significant difference in stopping someone from taking part in an unsafe action and stopping someone because you don’t like the way they are doing it. You aren’t actually offended by their actions, you are simply passionate about the way you think things should be done. Passion is not exclusive to those who seek to advance an organization or skill, it is processed by anyone who attaches strong emotion to a particular subject. Therefore, you could have two individuals who are passionate in completely opposite ways about the same topic. If there is no mechanism in place to bring the two sides to somewhat neutral ground, than one or both will claim they are “offended” when they really just cannot cope with things not going their way. Have an open mind. If they don't like your plan or way, SO WHAT?! Agree to disagree now and then. Have the hard conversations and admit when someone else's way is better than your own. Someone doesn't always have to be wrong in order for someone else to be right.
Also, can we all please stop pretending that there has never been a conflict between generations in our profession?! The only thing that is actually offensive in the fire service is the honest belief that one generation or the other is going to “destroy” it! If I have to read one more story, article, post, or gripe about which generation is to blame for the current state of our craft, I may just vomit! Every generation will inevitably have conflict with the one it is going to replace. Why? Well simply because the outgoing generation has come into their own, the middle generation is trying to make a name for themselves, and the incoming generation is ignorant with inexperience. Each generation has likely had a slightly different upbringing resulting in different values in life and on the job. If left unchecked due to lack of standards, expectations, and policies which are enforced fairly across the board, each generation will do as they see fit which will almost always cause conflict with the other two. This results in division where we should have unification. No one is entitled without someone enabling them to be privileged. If you want to the "kids" to change, than you are going to have to lead them! You can't simply break people down without building them up. The military has laid the groundwork for this very idea in the way they conduct basic training; use it!
We have become so scared to be flawed that we have focused on exposing everyone else's flaws in order to hide our own. The competition for career progression is now so entrenched with looking good by making others look bad, many are solely focused on the “me” rather than the “us”. The is further compounded by those in “leadership” positions who condone and reward this type of underhanded tactic. If you want people to act like adults, treat them like adults! The reality is, if we are the “brotherhood” we claim to be, then we need to start treating each other like family instead of enemies. Sure, we all have conflict in our families, but we almost always come together when it counts. I intentionally used "we" often while writing this because WE own everything that occurs in our profession, good or bad. YOU may not have an offended attitude, but WE as an occupation are ate up with it! So how about we focus on being offended by something that makes sense, like the fact we have people taking up space on our rosters who are stealing our benefits and our good name! It is time we stop whining about all the things that are amiss and start doing what needs to be done. If we stop tolerating a lower standard, eventually it will disappear. We need to learn how to work together, bridge the gaps, and accept the fact that our differences are in many cases the individual strengths which combine to make us a complete team! Stop wasting your time on being offended and start using your time to help make things better for your replacements. Perhaps it is time we stop blaming society and start taking some ownership of our profession!