Station Pride posted a blog about the importance of uniformity and professionalism in today’s fire service called “Stay Classy, Fire Service.” This article is a rebuttal that both authors have, kindly, spoken about and respectfully understand one another’s points, with a few minor disagreements. The concept of uniformity and discipline within our occupation has certainly been a hot topic of debate, both in social media and at firehouse kitchen tables alike. While I do not agree on the “T-shirt” is not a uniform, I do agree that members should look and act like reasonable adults when dealing with the public.
According to the United States Fire Administrations 2013 annual report, there were 106 firefighter deaths while on duty in 2013. Of the 106 firefighter deaths, 36 (34%) were attributed to a heart attack. The ages of firefighters suffering heart attacks are ages 41-45 (45%) ages 46-50 (42%) ages 51-60 (75%) ages 61& over = 80%. With the above statistics, it is reasonable to assume that Heart Attacks are a significant hazard to firefighter safety. Why? According to National Center for Health Statistics, 68.5% of adults are overweight or obese. Think carefully about firehouse and fire service culture and you will find some obvious and other not-so-obvious reasons that we are at such a tremendous risk.
Throughout the United States and Canada, fire departments of all types (career, combination and volunteer) are becoming increasingly aware of the hazards that firefighters face. However, due to a steady increase in workload besides structural fires, it is not necessarily just the “fires” that are killing us. Research has shown that the physical conditioning, as well as the clothing worn underneath a firefighter’s turnout gear directly, affects the cardiac health of the firefighter. Studies such as, “Evaluating the Results of a Modified Bunker Gear Policy”(David Mager, 2002) and the “IAFF Thermal Heat Stress Protocol for Firefighters and Hazmat Responders” have proven that the exertion of firefighters, in conjunction with total body encapsulation and non-compliant work clothes, increases the core temperature of the firefighter. This fact results in a 200% increase in the rate of oxygen absorption in the body, which affects cardiac output and brain function due to deoxygenation thus resulting in heat stroke and ultimately death.
Recently, my department received correspondence through department email in regards to adhering to our uniform policy. Amongst several pages, the email talks about wearing our issued clothing (not NFPA 1975 compliant.) Our uniform is a polyester/cotton blend that is against several studies as well as NFPA 1975.
As I am sure you have all seen and felt, morale can become toxic very quick over issues that some may deem insignificant. Uniforms are one of those issues, but it is more than just morale; it’s also your long term health. Many of these issues, including uniforms, are the result of decades of appeasement to politics resulting in closed-mindedness and falsely educated administrators creating policy with no basis for comparison.
What exactly does that mean? Let me explain. We are relying on leadership that has only ever been taught to look out for themselves and not the men and women they were sworn to lead. They are concerned with meeting quotas, proving successful statistics and “looking professional.” We are following the examples of leaders who are not well rounded enough to understand the concerns of the entire fire service. They make policies based on what they perceive is important as told to them by other closed-minded leaders who happen to have gained fanfare. We are becoming a product of the environment that the guys before us fought so hard to overcome.
In the latest addendum to our uniform policy as discussed in the previously mentioned department email, we are reminded that golf shirts on day works are not allowed until a 105 degree heat index has been reported by the city health commissioner, at which point the shift commander “may” allow members to remove the non-compliant polyester uniform shirt. Can someone explain the scientific reason behind 105 degrees? If you do your research, you’ll find the temperature scales that prove we should not be wearing our current uniform at all in any temperature due to its thermoplastic construction, let alone at 104 degrees.
Frequently, we make comparisons of our department to other departments and yes, there are pro’s and cons to every agency. There are also a lot of people out there who will very quickly say “forget (insert agency name here) they ain’t us, they don’t know anything” and subsequently write off any idea presented to improve conditions simply because they are ignorant and jaded. “We’ve always done it this way.” “Suck it up.” “You like the way they do things then go work for them.” All cop outs. If you listen to Baltimore’s most successful businessman, Kevin Plank (owner of Under Armour,) you’ll hear him say that the quickest route to failure is to say “we’ve always done it this way.” You have to be able to mold to the times. In an agency that has recently decided to take such a large stance on safety, we’ve missed the boat. We’re protecting ourselves from incidents that are of some of the lowest frequency while ignoring a major contributor to the number one killer of firefighters. Why? Because of opinion. A subjective statement that is “this uniform makes you look professional” (regardless of the fact that it is slowly contributing to your death.) I don’t know about any of you, but I would be more inclined to learn about success from Kevin Plank.
“What is the price of professionalism?”
Contrary to the title, this is not a debate on career vs. volunteer, nor is it a comparison of budgets and who is equipped with what amongst several jurisdictions. The price of professionalism is so much more. It is deeper, more relevant and affects the membership and civilians alike.
In the fast paced, dynamic environment that is the new American fire service countless numbers of our command staff leaders are cracking down on administrative and operational issues that they deem imperative to achieve a goal of social acceptance. So, what exactly does that mean, “social acceptance?” “Social acceptance” is merely two little words that I randomly picked to describe a theory that has been blindly accepted throughout our profession. Fast-paced and dynamic, yes, progressive and professional, not so much.
There are two sides to the new American fire service. I will refer to these two sides as “Us” and “Them,” and no, this is not sang to the beat of Pink Floyd. So, who are these characters “Us” and “Them?” “Us,” are the members of the fire service who love this job. We love coming to work and everything that goes along with it. “Us” lives the sense of brotherhood (which, unfortunately, has become more of a cliché than a lifestyle in many places.) “Us” lives for the firehouse life of training, going to fires, being aggressive and getting the job done at any and all costs. “Us” enjoys prepping and eating the meals with his co-workers, taking pride in the cleanliness of the tools, the rig, and the station. “Us” goes home at the end of his tour and while driving home is going through scenarios in his head because he wants to be better prepared for the next one. “Us” attends the “hot” classes at fire conferences because he feels as though the real world training he will get may save his or his brother’s life someday. “Us” is constantly watching videos or reading trade magazines trying to better himself as a knowledgeable and effective fireman. Then there is “Them.” “Them” is the guy that is here because he needed a stable job with benefits that also had room for advancement. “Them” believed the stereotype that all we do is sleep and play cards and thought “hey, I’ll take a paycheck to get a nap.” “Them” has an education, but isn’t here to be an aggressive fireman, and yes, there is a difference between firefighter and fireman, and no, I’m not talking about the man who stokes the boiler of a steam engine locomotive. Fireman vs. firefighter is truly the same comparison as “Us and Them.” “Them” is the guy that comes to work and brings his own food and is never in on the meal. He is, generally, not a good relief. He is the guy that becomes a commanding officer without ever taking the time to truly learn what the job is all about. “Them” is more familiar with buzz words such as “safety initiatives” or “survivability profiling” because they heard them in a lecture than they are with “gap, set, pry” or “vent, enter, search.” “Them” didn’t go to the “hot” classes because they aren’t geared toward promotions or making more money. “Them” wants to be in charge but has never had consistent fire duty to back up his decision-making process because he avoided transferring to that busy company across town to gain real experience. “Them” “doesn’t get it” but thinks he does because he has the t-shirt and the sticker that affiliates him with the guys that do “get it.” “Them” is the staff chief who truly thinks that it is his job to make his men be as “socially accepted” and professional as possible.
Here we are, it’s 2015. The American fire service has had arguably 335 years of experience, training, success and failures of all sorts since the first publicly funded fire department was organized in Boston, Massachusetts in 1679. Since then, we have gone from leather buckets to million dollar apparatus. We’ve been assisted by institutions of higher learning, scientists and doctors, just to name a few to evaluate data compiled by us in the fire service to give us
the best equipment, training, standards, staffing models, tactics and communications that is available for us.
As a direct result of the hard work just mentioned, we have become organized, (both union and operationally) and “professionally” and “socially” accepted throughout this great nation. We have earned accolades and even an endearing nickname, “The Bravest.” We have learned countless lessons at the mercy of our brothers & sisters blood and, as a result, have initiated change to attempt to prevent more brothers and sisters from achieving that same fate.
Herein lies the problem. The problem is not simply defined in a dictionary style explanation. The problem is much more deep-seated, like the fire burning in that middle room that the “Them” incident commander won’t let you go in and put out because it’s too dangerous in there and continues to flow master streams at thousands of gallons per minute with no change in conditions. Yes, it’s that deep.
Our current issued work uniforms do not meet current fire service standards. We are wearing the same old light blue button down shirt with navy work pants. Generally speaking, it does not seem like that big of a deal. However, this issued work ensemble is constructed of a 65% polyester 35% cotton blend. The question frequently arises “with all the scientific data that our peers have proved over years of research linking heart attacks, heat-related injuries, cancer and more, why are you wearing that?” “Why are you wearing a thermoplastic work uniform that traps heat close to the core of the firefighter when you know it could potentially kill you? The simple answer provided is because “The chief thinks this looks professional and that this uniform is what the taxpayers expect us to wear because it is what we have always worn.” Once again, we find ourselves in 2015. 335 years of experience, research, successes, and failures within our craft and we have leaders that do not see any issue with this. Apparently with all the degrees they’ve earned, they never majored in common sense.
A man named Steve enters a bank to apply for a loan to open his own business. Steve has a Masters degree from a prestigious Ivory League school that has left him with student loans and credit card bills resulting in less than perfect credit. Steve is greeted by the bank manager who by definition exudes the theory of professional. The bank manager is a tall middle-aged Caucasian man dressed in a dark navy pin striped suit with a perfectly starched white shirt, red tie, cuff links and is clean shaven and well groomed. His office is lined with framed degrees from the universities he’s attended and accolades from the bank for his outstanding performance. Over the course of the loan application, The bank manager speaks to Steve in a condescending tone and makes reference to his credit and how it relates to his blue collar appearance of a sweatshirt and blue jeans. He goes on to indirectly criticize Steve’s debt and make a mockery of his business idea. Approximately an hour into the process, Steve decides to leave the bank and terminate his loan application. Steve can’t believe what a jerk this bank manager was and how he treated a potential client. The following day, Steve decides to try a different bank around the corner. As he walks in, he is once again greeted by a bank manager. However, to Steve’s surprise, this bank manager doesn’t come off like the other guy. The bank manager is a young middle eastern man dressed casually in a red golf shirt with the banks logo embroidered on the left chest. The bank manager greets Steve with an energetic handshake and offers him a bottle of water while welcoming him into the office. The office is tidy and is adorned with local sports memorabilia and pictures of the bank managers family. After a brief conversation of the “what brings you in today” type, the bank manager abruptly replies to Steve, “I’m very sorry about your experience with the other bank. Not to worry though, we can help you out. The loan application was difficult, and the process had its flaws. With all that considered, Steve got his loan and developed a business partnership with the bank. This was all made possible by the relaxed approach of the bank manager who employed a theory that his mother taught him as a small child, “don’t judge a book by it’s cover.”
In an era where the American fire service has gone through a drastic cultural and theoretical change, I constantly find myself replaying the FDIC opening ceremony speech of FDNY Lt. Ray McCormack titled “True values of a fireman,” over and over again in my head. We find ourselves being brainwashed with the concept that our safety is more important than that of anyone else. Regardless of opinion on that topic, I find it ironic that with this safety conscious era we are working in, we find many fire departments not heeding the advice or following the lead of other jurisdictions on simple ideas and concepts. We have become subjected to what I call “gold leaf rules and regulations.” What that means is an administration creates rules and regulations simply to get their name and title signed on a department order based on what their opinion is of the subject matter. The frivolosity of the order is irrelevant. All that matters is that “Them” got his name out there as accomplishing something on paper that everyone must abide by. “Them” is sitting in his climate controlled office with his starched white uniform shirt and his shiny gold collar brass on far from the hot, dark and smoky danger of his subordinates (“US”) and even further from reality.
In an era where the masses are tremendously supportive of causes like cancer awareness, heart and lung disease and other major health issues, why is it that “Them” is ignorant to how these causes directly affect their own members? Did the memo about decades of research by educated peers which proved how toxic things are to our health not make it through the department mail? Did they never read an IAFF newsletter when they were still a member of the local? I’m willing to bet that “Them” owns a fire department pink ribbon shirt of one form or another and he also owns a shirt that says “In Loving Memory of Firefighter…(insert deceased members name here)…” on it. “Them” probably wears those garments while off duty and talks a big game of heartfelt praise and sense of tremendous loss in the grocery store when approached by the old lady who inquires about the name of the fallen. I’m also willing to bet (a bet that I would be happy to lose) that at some point in history, a member of their extended family has fallen ill to one of these horrific illnesses and may have passed on.
So… once again we find ourselves in 2015. Centuries of hard fought battles behind us. Centuries of our peers dying in the line of duty from injuries sustained while operating at fires & emergencies, contracting communicable diseases, and occupational cancer. Occupational cancer. A term that is only relevant if you are an active member or within the first five years of your retirement. How many of you knew that fact? The presumptive cancer bill only covers you if you are within those parameters. I know that all too well because my father, a 34-year career fireman before me was misdiagnosed with Adenocarcinoma last year. At 63 years old and a lifelong non-smoker, he is seven years into retirement and thus NOT covered. Fortunately, after extensive testing he was cleared of that diagnosis, but not of the stress and worry he endured. How is this relative to everything you have read so far one might ask? It is relative because the risk of cancer in firefighters is 250% greater than in people not in our line of work. 250% is a number that as educated professionals, we should be taking every step, every precaution and reading every study possible to reduce. Is that not what an educated, responsible, proactive, prudent and professional leader would do?
We spend money on SCBA’s that are certified at the CBRNE (Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear and high-yield Explosives) level and on effective diesel exhaust mitigation systems to protect our respiratory system. We spend money on the newest turnout gear to protect us from the harsh environments we enter. We spend money on computer record keeping and scheduling software to effectively manage our department. We spend money on expensive ALS medications to stock suppression units first-in bags only to be replaced after expiration thus requiring more money to be spent. We spend money on DriveCams not just to save money when apparatus is involved in accidents by reducing the liability in the claim, but also to institute a safer more defensive driving culture amongst our members. We spend money on take-home vehicles for administrators to drive as a perk of the job. We spend exorbitant amounts of money on new apparatus equipped with all the latest technology to help us save lives. So why, in 2015, are we not issuing our members uniforms that are compliant with current fire service standards and help reduce the percentage of firefighters contracting occupational cancer? It is because “Them” thinks they don’t look professional.
“Us and Them.” They always are and always will be at odds. One group claims to lead professionally while the other group carries out the mission bravely, diligently, honorably and professionally.
If you find yourself offended by this article, then I have partially achieved my goal. I have given a slap to someone who falls into the “Them” category. You may ask why I did not address any of the “Us” leaders. I did not have to. The “Us” leaders are the ones who have done all the research. The “Us” leaders are the ones who have spent the long nights awake reading study after study and making decisions based on their real world experience as well as scientific data which has resulted in the advances this job has been afforded. The “Us” leaders generally don’t make it to the top anymore. The “Us” leaders don’t make it to the top because they refuse to give up on their men and will always lead by example. The “Us” leader will not bow down to a politician for the sake of “social acceptance.” That is what “Them” does.
I was recently transported by medic unit to a local hospital for a heat-related emergency. I was operating on the roof of a 4 alarm fire in row frames for approximately 40 minutes while wearing my non-compliant uniform under my turnout gear in a heat index of 104°. As a result of that, I ended up in SVT for four hours and took 6 liters of fluid via IV before my SVT broke, and I was finally able to urinate. My initial blood pressure was 168/90; room air sat was 90% and my end title CO2 was 27, thus causing respiratory acidosis, just like all the scientific data said would happen. The subsequent stress test that I completed a week later proved that my health is excellent. My resting heart rate was 68; my blood pressure was 102/62 and my room air sat was 98.
In a time where education is vehemently recommended in our profession, why are we constantly seeing leaders falling into the category of what I like to call “Subjective over Science:” personal opinions superseding research and data that has been tested and proven; merely because “I don’t think that looks good.”
If you are not convinced of my standpoint, allow yourself an open mind. After all, we were all told as a young firefighter that we will never stop learning, thus making us a student of our craft. Well, as a student, do your homework and research the details. I’m certain you will come out with an educated change of opinion.
This link is for a study called “Evaluating the results of a modified bunker gear policy.” By David Mager of the Boston Fire Department (in conjunction with Phoenix FD and FDNY.) Out of the 52 page document, pages 17-25 are the most relevant including statistics, recommendations and quotes from Chief officers.
This link is bi-lingual (English and French) and is to a study done for the Toronto Fire Department. It’s data is strikingly similar and concludes with similar suggestions for changes to operations and clothing.
This link is to the International Association of Firefighters Thermal Stress Protocol, which evaluates the effects cardiac stress as a result of several factors including core temperature regulation, clothing, and the environment.
This link is from the turnout gear manufacturer “Globe” and discusses how turnout should be worn and related it to the health of the user.
Based on the years of research and conclusive evidence found in “Evaluating the Results of a Modified Bunker Gear Policy” as well as the “IAFF Thermal Heat Stress Protocol for Firefighters and Hazmat Responders” the fire service now has free industry tested research at its disposal. This information can create a safer working environment for its members while maintaining fiscal responsibility and continuing to deliver exemplary service to the citizens we were sworn to protect.
Suggestions for helping create a safer firefighting force:
1. Reference the “Evaluating the Results of a Modified Bunker Policy” study (https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/tr_02dm.pdf) and heavily consider the content of the document and how it relates to your agency. There is cost saving measures identified in the study that are not clearly labeled as such; one must be able to decipher content to maximize the theories discussed.
2. If not already in existence, create a research and development division of your agency to effectively compile data on firefighter injuries based on the activity engaged in at the time of injury. Additional focus will be placed on field testing of fire service products prior to purchase. Research & development will also apply for grants to procure equipment or other materials they believe will be beneficial to the membership.
3. Conduct continuing education to officers and acting personnel on the importance of proper report writing and coded entries. Proper disposition codes used through NFIRS will provide much-needed data to translate to operational need. For example, Code 600 (good intent) should be discouraged from being a catch-all disposition code.
4. Allow for members to work and conduct business in attire that is ergonomic and promotes core temperature regulation in both hot and cold environments. The term “professional” attire is subjective (definition: based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.) An overhaul of work uniforms is necessary with regard to materials to which the garments are constructed (thermoplastic and flammable uniforms cause reduction in the body’s ability to regulate its core temperature.) In the interest safety combined with cost saving measures, uniform policies should include uniforms of the right material (100% cotton) and in the interest of “professionalism” outlining a short sleeve collared shirt and shorts combo to be included as acceptable attire. (Potentially at the members expense.) This will accomplish member cardiac safety while maintaining a clean appearance and potentially reducing overhead from the uniform budget.
Reference Fairfax County, VA. uniform initiative: http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Fairfax-County-Firefighter-Uniforms-Get-Facelift-212072171.html
5. Maintain a stance of employee satisfaction in order to maximize return of investment. Employees who are reasonably accommodated will generally exude confidence and display a sense of pride and ownership in the profession they have chosen. “A happy employee will do whatever you ask of them, a jaded employee will continue to buck the system.”
In conclusion, I ask you, truly… “What is the price of professionalism?”
Jack Dewan Jr. (4th generation and the 10th in a family of “Firemen”)
Baltimore City Fire Department
IAFF Local 734
You can Read “Stay Classy, Fire Service” Here.