One of the most famous photographs of the 20th century came from Beijing, China on June 5, 1989. The subject of the photo "Tank Man," is shown sitting in the middle of the street as a column of tanks advanced into Tieneman Square. This photo serves as an international symbol of the end of the Cold War era.
This article is an apology to a state firefighters and fire chiefs association. It will describe a significant learning experience I had and I hope it helps the fire service see the light and be the light when it comes to firefighter seat belt safety. I also hope it gives me the courage to turn vision into action.
I was invited to be the keynote speaker and a workshop presenter at a state firefighters and fire chiefs associations' joint annual conference recently. Naturally my presentations contained references to firefighter seat belt use. After both presentations, I received very positive feedback from several people on the content of my message and my skill at public speaking. I was feeling very satisfied with myself and the seat belt accomplishments of this state's fire service.
This state's fire service has moved up the national list with the number of fire departments that have achieved 100 percent seat belt pledge participation. In addition, they passed a resolution to petition the state legislature to pass a law that will require seat belt use by firefighters. Good stuff! Then, I went to the Friday night firefighter's parade.
Dozens of apparatus, hundreds of firefighters and I discovered less than 30 percent seat belt use. One fire department pickup truck had eight firefighters standing and sitting in the truck bed; two were sitting on the tail gate that was down. Firefighters in apparatus crew cabs and front seats had no seat belts. Firefighters in apparatus crew cabs holding children had no seat belts. Firefighters standing on the back step and no seat belts. Firefighters sitting in the hose beds and no seat belts. Firefighters sitting in hose beds holding children and no seat belts. If we can't get firefighters to use seat belts at a parade how are we ever going to get them to buckle up going to a fire?
I got angry and disappointed; I put my head down closed my eyes and shook my head. Then I started to bluster, to the fire chiefs I was with, how the next day I was going to give hell to the associations for letting this happen. Didn't they know how terrible it would be if a firefighter fell off one of the apparatus and was killed? Didn't they know what a tragedy it would have been if a child had fallen off the apparatus and was killed?
My anger made it difficult to sleep. In the morning I realized I was not angry at the state associations. I was angry at myself, because I saw a wrong and did not stop it. I closed my eyes and let the wrong pass by. I am ashamed of myself for not having the courage to walk out into the middle of the street, put my arms up, and stop the parade.
I did not get a chance to address the associations on Saturday morning. So this will have to serve as my official apology to the state firefighters and fire chiefs associations for getting angry at you. Please forgive me for letting your firefighters and your children be at risk of death and injury due to no seat belt.
The state's fire service seat belt efforts are to be applauded. The associations are providing the leadership to get firefighters to buckle up all the time; even at parades.
The quote I used in my speech, from Joel Barker is: "Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just takes up time. Vision with action can change the world" is still true and a principle I try to live by. I failed to take action at the parade. I will not make that mistake again. So, if you invite me to a firefighters parade make sure everyone is seated and belted or I will be standing in the middle of the street.
"Tank Man" disappeared; some believe he was executed for taking a stand. In the United States of America we have the right and duty to take a stand. Many countries around the world do not have that same freedom. Many of our brother and sister firefighters around the world cannot take a stand on what they believe.
Some in the American Fire Service are entering into the discussion about the Islamic Center/Mosque that is planned to be built near the World Trade Center. The debate is heated and passionate; it is rooted in values, beliefs, and culture. Both sides use references to the 343 brother firefighters who died were murdered, on Sept. 11. Religion and politics are what humans have gone to war over since the beginning of time, which is one reason I try not to get into discussions on those topics. Not that they are unimportant, I know my values drive my behavior and determine where I stand on any issue.
What does the America Fire Service stand for? Standing for firefighter seat belt use will not get any of us executed and there cannot be two sides to the value and behavior of firefighters wearing their seat belt.
August 2010 marked my 40th year in the fire service. We have had seat belts in our apparatus for over 30 years. We have lost over 343 firefighters in the line-of-duty because we did not make them buckle up.
There are many visions of how to honor the victims of Sept. 11.
If we all stand up for seat belts and take actions to insure seat belt use, the vision of no firefighter LODDs due to no seat belt use will become a reality.
It takes courage to ask these questions. What do I stand for? What actions do I take to get firefighters to buckle up?
See you at the firefighter's parade.