Human Dignity: Fire and emergency services in the 21st century

Robert Rielage Speaking of Fire
by Robert Rielage

Earlier this week, the IAFC’s Board of Directors, at their meeting in Dallas, prior to the annual Fire-Rescue International conference, reaffirmed their 2013 Position on Human Dignity in the fire service following several recent challenging incidents in local communities toward fire chiefs and fire departments. The statement in part reads as follows:

“As an organization, we must take positive steps to ensure human dignity by avoiding any remaining vestiges of discrimination or unequal treatment including, but not limited to, a basis on race, color, spirituality, gender, age, national origin, ancestry, socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity, ethnicity, marital status or legally protected characteristic.”

The specific incident that sparked the IAFC’s reaffirmation involves the use of racial epithets and derogatory statements on social media against incoming Fairfax County Fire Chief John Butler, who will be the first African American chief of the department when he takes over in September.

The fire service must improve its record on issues of human dignity and diversity in three areas:

  1. Internally within our departments.
  2. Externally in providing service to the populations within our community.
  3. In the dignity we should have within ourselves.

In discussing these distinct areas, it’s important to come from a historical and personal perspective.

The early American fire service

Growing up in the Greater Cincinnati area within a fire service family, I learned very early in my life that Cincinnati is credited as the first “Municipal” Fire Department. While others dispute they were the first “paid” department, Cincinnati in 1853 dissolved many volunteer fire companies and replaced them with the innovative combination of career personnel, and horse-drawn steam fire engines.

If you look at any fire history book, it usually cites the replacement of volunteers with a municipal force due to a lack of discipline and the many brawls among volunteer fire companies as they battled for “first water” on a fire scene. First water gave the victors money set aside by fire insurance companies to pay for extinguishing the fire. Cutting hoses, or sabotaging engines was fair game among the rival companies.

What most books won’t indicate is that many volunteer companies in the 18th and 19th centuries were organized along ethnic, religious, racial or political lines – i.e., German, English, Irish, Italian, Polish, Catholic, Protestant, Whig, Democrat, Republican or other exclusionary categories. So in addition to the rivalries, some fire companies literally hated others rather than embracing them as brother firefighters or just friendly rivals.

Changes begin in the fire service ‒ integration

Unfortunately, it took several wars to bring about slow changes in the fire service. Following the Civil War, the country had literally hundreds of thousands of veterans returning on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line that were disciplined and eager to find work. The larger city fire departments were transitioning along the model set by Cincinnati where steam fire engines and paid personnel replaced volunteer companies. Many departments today are still organized into companies, battalions and divisions, reflecting the influence of the military upon the American fire service.

During that time, there were pockets of departments that began to integrate African-Americans into their ranks. In fact, in 1873, one of the two cofounders of the National Association of Fire Engineers, the forerunner to the International Association of Fire Chiefs, was Cambridge (Mass.) Fire Chief Patrick H. Raymond, the first African-American chief of a major metropolitan fire department.

Along with his Boston counterpart, Chief John S. Damrell, these chiefs also promoted the use of a uniform thread for coupling fire hoses that would be adopted across the United States. During the Great Boston fire, many surrounding fire departments had responded to help, but could not couple the fire hoses used by one department to those of another. The innovative efforts of the association and Chiefs Raymond and Damrell resulted in what we now call the National Standard Thread.

The influence of the World Wars

The two 20th century World Wars brought about the process of integrating African-Americans into the fire service. Following the example of superior fighting groups, such as the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, African-American males in larger numbers became firefighters, but in some areas, that process still resulted in entire fire stations being segregated as all white or all African-American. True integration took us several decades longer.

Gender and diversity – mirroring the community we serve

The Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was privileged in 1995 to be selected by a committee of the USFA and NFPA, along with Chief Otis Latin, Sr., District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department; Deputy Chief for Operations Darrell Higuchi, Los Angeles County Fire Department; and Chief Debra Amesqua, Madison (Wis.) Fire Department, to attend the Kennedy School.

The Kennedy School also brought us together with senior officials in law enforcement, city and county administrators, state legislators and state department directors, as well as two governors and members of their staff.

Otis, Darrell, Debra and I also spent some of our free time discussing what a diverse fire service that mirrored our communities would begin to look like. It is hard to believe the topics we discussed two decades ago, including human dignity and diversity, sans the influence of social media, are still the topics outlined by the IAFC resolution today.

But with the IAFC resolution, it is time that we as fire chiefs, officers and senior firefighters take steps to assure that our departments reflect the diversity of our communities – not only in hiring qualified diverse candidates regardless of race, gender, ancestry or sexual orientation – but also in the services we deliver on a daily basis.

Fire service delivery today

Over the past three years, I’ve touched on several service delivery issues in these FireRescue1 articles:

I know it is difficult at times being a firefighter-paramedic, especially responding to the opioid crisis and having issues such as administering naloxone to the same patient three times or more in a six-week period. It would be easy to see how the quality of care may become, “Well if he doesn’t care, why should I?”

So in its resolution, I believe the IAFC is also taking our challenge for Human Dignity not only for the patient, but also for our firefighter-paramedic responders. We, as chiefs, have a responsibility to see that our personnel are fully supported.

How, you ask? Perhaps by talking to our people, gauging their disposition and intervening where necessary – even as simply as rotating their assignments during shifts from medic to firefighter duties to avoid burnout  – or worse.

Taking the firefighter oath

Within the last week, I attended a ceremony at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii officiated by Admiral John Aquilino, Commander of the United States Combined Pacific Fleet. During his remarks, attended by military members of all the uniformed services, he took the time to ask those civilians in attendance, how many of us had raised their right hand and had sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. While at first, I raised my hand because of my former service in the United States Air Force, upon reflection, he was also including all of us; firefighters, police officers and government officials who also took a similar oath of office.

When it comes to our fire, rescue or emergency medical service, we, as firefighters, never withhold our assistance because someone doesn’t have health insurance, or a valid ID or any number of other things. We administer to their needs because – first and foremost – we are firefighters, we are humane, and the dignity of our country and our community lies within each of us when we raised our right hand and swore our oath as firefighters.

Stay safe and take care of one another. No matter what, we are all first and foremost brother and sister firefighters – one of the most noble professions of all!

This article, originally published August 8, 2018, has been updated.

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