Doing what’s right. We’ve all heard it. Many of us believe that we do it consistently.
And perhaps, when we’re on the job or in uniform, most of us do exactly that. But what about when we are off the clock and think we are out of the public’s eye? Those of you who have read some of my previous articles know that I love to use officially accepted definitions of words. The definition of Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles or moral uprightness. The one that I like better is the C.S. Lewis quote: “Integrity is always doing what is right even when you think that no one is watching.”
So who is watching?
Everyone. Everywhere. 24/7/365.
The best question that I have ever been asked during an interview was if I felt my personal conduct off duty should have any impact on my status with that agency. In a world of scripted (and often stale) interview questions, this not only took me by surprise but even made me giggle a little inside because the interviewing panel had clearly put some effort and thought into this and many other questions. Now, I pride myself on being pretty well spoken and can articulate my thoughts pretty well. For once, I was temporarily speechless as I formulated my response. After a noticeable pause, I responded with stating that was the best interview question that I had ever been asked, and that I was glad that someone finally asked it! My opinion on the matter is this; what happens in your own home, on your own time SHOULD be a private matter.
Scenario # 1.) A woman who works in the private sector drives home drunk and gets involved in a motor vehicle accident where there are no injuries. 99 out of a 100 times, the media will report on this with very little embellishment. It will pretty much consist of the pertinent facts of what, where and when, unless it involves a person of interest or celebrity. And that will satisfy the public’s need to know what caused them to be stuck in traffic on their evening commute home that night.
Scenario #2.) An off-duty police officer driving his truck, with LEO specialty license plates, is traveling at nearly 95 miles per hour on the interstate as he enters a clearly marked construction zone. Witnesses report this and identify the vehicle involved, and it is later discovered that the driver was, in fact, an off-duty officer. You can imagine the media feeding frenzy and headlines. And as a result, the agency that the officer works for will likely be forced to dole out some disciplinary action that could even result in being a career ending situation.
Scenario #3.) A brother is lost in a LODD, and thousands of firefighters show up to honor his sacrifice and support his family. In the local area that night, after the memorial service, some of them head out to the local bars for camaraderie and to tell the usual war stories and other lies. Nothing negative happens, and everyone goes home that night without incident. Aside from the out of touch John Q. Public Citizen, who is unaware that a firefighter was killed in the line of duty and sees a bunch of clearly identified firefighters in various states of questionable sobriety. This prompts an official complaint to the Chief’s office the next day, and perhaps certain city council members.
Is it fair that the three different situations get reported differently? Probably not. Everyone is human. We all make mistakes and have lapses in judgment. I can even speak from personal experience on this very topic. But the reality is that the public and media do, and will, hold public safety personnel to a higher standard. Once it is identified that the person in the news story is a (fill in the blank i.e. firefighter, law enforcement officer, medic, fire chief, teacher, doctor, etc…), then it will be reported as Fire Chief Jane Doe or Officer John Schmoe. The headlines will lead with the words: “Firefighter Arrested”, or “Teacher Suspended”, or “Paramedic Investigated”. The public and many politicians love to read about these kinds of things, and they can be used as political tools against our agencies when it comes time for public approval ratings and support for funding.
The fact is that we are in a position of public trust, and will be held to a higher standard even if it seems like it’s no one else’s business. Keep that in mind when driving your vehicle with fire stickers or light bars. Never forget that wearing a t-shirt or hat can identify your affiliation to an agency. Remember that the media will dig for juicy scandals because it’s in their interest to, “report the facts”. Be cognizant of the fact that when there is a public scandal that involves a member of public safety, the general public tends to see the rest of the members the same way as the headlines read.
Do what’s right even when you think that no one is watching.
I recently did a bunker gear demonstration for a small group of kindergartners. As I was talking about all of our gear and placing it in the perfect position to execute the most epic bunker drill of my career, a little boy asked me, “Why are your boots so shiny?” With that simple question, a flood of answers came to me. None of which would be understood by a kindergartner, but would rather be understood by up and coming firefighters.
Why are my boots so shiny? It goes much farther than the time it takes to add a little bit of black shoe polish and water to a cotton ball. It goes farther than the circular motion you make when covering the toe of the boot with polish and creating a shine. There are many reasons why my boots are so shiny; honor, compassion, and integrity. These are the reasons why my boots are so shiny.
My boots are shiny because I am honored. Honored to be in a profession where I can help people in every way, day-in and day-out. Whether we are helping extinguish a fire, cutting someone’s loved one out of a car, or just helping up an elderly person after they have taken a nasty little spill. When I was in the military, a Staff Sergeant opened my eyes to showing honor. We were talking one day, and he asked me if I had seen the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan? I replied, “Yes, of course.” Who can forget the scene of hundreds of young, brave Americans getting ready to put their lives on the line on a distant shore only to be met with explosives and gunfire? After I gave my answer, he told me, “That’s why we press our uniform and shine our boots.” I have taken this advice with me into the fire service because there are countless firefighters that have put their lives on the line and have lost their lives doing this great job. Having shined boots is just a reflection of the honor that I give to all those who have paid the ultimate price wearing the same boots as I do.
Every young Firefighter wants the big call. The call that is going to separate the lions from the lambs. The call that is going to require them to utilize all their training, but the reality is, all fire departments are not Ladder 49. We are all made up of fire departments that are may run one call a month, or run 100’s of calls per week. Some of the most pivotal calls we may have is the time we have care for a person who just needs a hand on their shoulder and a voice saying that everything will be alright. It is on these calls were our compassion goes a long way. I would like to believe that as our patient sees us walk in with all of our medical equipment and shined up boots, they think “If these professionals care that much for the shine on their boots, imagine the care they are going to provide me.” Hopefully, this silent response will be enough to put their minds at ease.
During the beginning of my career, I would get teased about shining my boots. They, of course, did not know of the “Saving Private Ryan” story. I would hear things like, “give it six months and you won’t be shining your boots anymore.” Or, I would hear, “they’re just going to get dirty anyway, so why shine them.” Yes, they did get dirty, especially after a vegetation fire, or after walking through a field of mud for whatever reason. After all that, guess what I was doing later on that shift. That’s right…polishing my boots. I did this because I knew that I had set a standard for myself, and I wasn’t going to allow anyone to take that away from me. Even if no one noticed my boots, I knew that my small action reflected doing the right thing even when no one was looking, and that is the definition of integrity.
I know that shining your boots is a small gesture, most of the time it gets overlooked. The beauty of this is not in the shine of the boots, but in the ability to do your best on a seemingly inconsequential task. If you do your best on this small task, imagine the HONOR, the COMPASSION and the INTEGRITY you will display on a task that requires you to make life or death decisions.
– Ricardo Campos
Federal Fire San Joaquin, Ca