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Are You a Sunshine Fireman?

Let me begin this missive to my fire service buddies by suggesting that the cold winter weather here in New Jersey is wreaking havoc with my front porch-sitting, cigar-puffing, thinking-chair sessions. Ladies and gentlemen, I have been forced to conduct a strategic, retrograde retreat to the safety of my super-sized Lazy-Boy recliner. Let me also share the fact that Mrs. Carter don't allow no seegar smokin' in her home. I can chew on them, but there is no interior firing up of a heater in our home. Hmm, I can see a very long winter ahead, thanks to that groundhog out in Pennsylvania, with the capable assistance of Mother Nature.

Let me assure you that living in an 1880's vintage house has built within me a certain appreciation for the heat which can be thrown off by a well-placed space heater. I keep vowing to add a layer of insulation to the north walls of our house, but it never seems to get done. However, I am soldiering on, snug as a bug in a rug within the comfortable confines of my suburban residential cocoon.

Since the local newspaper delivery company wisely decided not to endanger their home delivery staff, I am confining my news gathering efforts during this storm to the television and the Internet. Sorry to say that these are no where near as satisfying as collapsing into my recliner with a paper in my mitts, and a cup of coffee nearby. But as I stated earlier, I am soldiering on through the best that Mother Nature can hurl at good old Adelphia. However, holding a computer on my lap just isn't the same.

One thing I have chosen to do today is review the notes which have amassed within the pages of my little pocket notebook over the past few months. My dear friend Jack Peltier once urged me to keep my notebooks in a permanent place and review them from time to time. There is, therefore, a drawer in my desk devoted to the last seven years of notebooks I have accumulated. This review is usually reserved for times like the current snow storm, when my intention of traveling is limited to my kitchen, bathroom, and office. So it is to day.

Let me ask you a very serious question. Do you believe in the fire service with all of your heart and soul? Do you give your all to the mission every time it is needed, or are you simply a "sunshine fireman?" That is to say, do you only show up for the times when there is glory to be had? You may rightly ask yourself just what a "sunshine fireman" is. Let me give you the lineage for this new idea of mine.

The inspiration for this thought comes from a passage within Thomas Paine's pamphlet, The American Crisis. This particular literary work was written in December of 1776, at a time when things looked very bad for our revolutionary forefathers. The people who had rallied to the cause of the revolution were having second thoughts, and many of the troops where taking off for their homes. In his quotation Paine stated that, "...These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." I have long admired his words as a clarion call to action for our founding fathers.

It seems to me that Tom Paine was issuing a call for the people of the colonies to suck it up and stay the course. Think about it, this pamphlet was written during the critical winter of 1776-77. This was the winter of the sad days at Valley Forge, when the future of our nation was truly being called into question. Those men who stayed with General Washington were the ones who lead their new nation to its status as a free republic, founded on the bedrock of individual freedom under a Provident Lord.

We remember their names and celebrate their devotion to winning our freedoms. Our history lauds the Washington's, the Von Steuben's, the Lafayette's, the Pulaski's, the Jefferson's, and many, many more. While we may not know all of the actual John Does and Jim Smiths who carried the rifles and did the bleeding and dying, we are confident in knowing that we are enjoy life as Americans thanks to their efforts and sacrifices. We exist because they were not sunshine soldiers or summer patriots.

However, let me remind you that not everyone did their duty during that conflict. Heck, there were people in my generation who sat out the Vietnam conflict in Canada. We have no idea about just who those people were that could not stand up to the hardships of that far-ago winter and decided that it was better for them to go home. Let me suggest to you that these are the people who folded their tents when things got tough and skulked off in search of their own personal creature comforts. These are the people that Mr. Paine labeled as summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.

Are you beginning to see where I am headed with this message? It is my intention to challenge your commitment to our fire service. Let me ask you another serious question. Do you step in to do your share of the work at your fire department, or do you take the glory and leave the dirty work to someone else? Is it possible that you are talking the talk without any possibility of ever being able to walk the walk? There are far too many among who trumpet their deeds without ever having stood in the breech during a pitched battle with the "Red Devil."

Let me suggest that you should spend some time seriously addressing the guts of this question. Why do you belong to your fire department? What are your reasons for being on your local fire department? Let me broaden this one out a bit. Once you have arrived at an understanding of the motives for your membership, has your organization arrived at an understanding of the reason for its existence? Does your department exist for all of the members, or a select few within the ruling clique? This too is another question which is very difficult to answer. But ignoring it does not make the problems which it causes go away.

There are those fire departments which exist for all of the right reasons. These organizations have created a community-oriented emphasis which allows them to provide an effective level of service to the citizens they are sworn to protect. They also provide an organizational family orientation, one where all members are treated as though they were members of the fire department family. This is very good. This is the model for which your fire department should direct its efforts. Let me also suggest that there are fire departments with which I am familiar that are being run along the lines of an old-time, old-boys club.

There are fire departments which exist for the amusement and entertainment of one small group of members. It might be a clique issue, or it might be a case of the "founding family" syndrome. With a clique scenario, a certain group of people decides to seize control. It then elects its friends and their minions to the positions of leadership and who then begin to run the department for their own entertainment. People with whom they disagree are run off or driven into a cone of lonely silence by the people in power.

Sadly, these selfish people are out for themselves and their own interests, and nothing more. Oh, they might be in it for the glory, but most people discover early on that there really isn't much glory in what we do. Oh, they might be in it for the excitement of riding the big red fire trucks (or one of the other colors currently in use). Let me assure you that the excitement eventually passes. Sadly, if left to their own devices, people like this can kill an organization.

Let me remind you that truth telling is far better for you and me than is lying, at least when it comes to assessing your personal motives for belonging to your fire department. Over the past three decades my consulting firm has provided in-depth performance assessments for a great many fire departments. One part of each consulting job involves conducting interviews with members of the organization which is being studied.

There is a favorite question which I ask during each interview I conduct with the individual fire department members. It is simple and may seem familiar to you by now. What part of belonging to your fire department gives you the greatest personal satisfaction? Can you guess what the number one answer is? It is a simple, single word answer in many cases. That word is 'camaraderie'. There are a number of words which you can use to describe what camaraderie means to you. Here is a short list:

  • Friendship
  • Solidarity
  • Companionship
  • Company

Quite simply, people who use the word camaraderie are telling me that they are glad that they belong to something. They go on to tell me that membership provides a great deal of satisfaction to them. They value what they get and they do not want to lose it. More than that, they do not wish to disappoint their associates. These are solid citizens who wish to be part of a sharing and caring team. Is this what you wish for yourself?

It is very difficult for me to provide advice on what to do here. You have to ask the questions and you must be able to provide answers which satisfy you. Let me suggest that you be true to yourself. We can look to Shakespeare for some guidance on this one. This is the advice which Polonius' gave to his son Laertes who was headed off to Paris where felt that he would be safe. He advised him that it was important, "...To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

Let me suggest that you will experience some good days and some bad days when it comes to being a member of your local fire department. Sometimes it will seem like all bad days. As a matter of fact, it may seem like that more often and not. However, rest assured that there will a great many good days where you and your associates will be able to savor the fruits of your labors.

Let me close by suggesting that we in the fire service have no great need for people who are not willing to carry their share of your fire department's burden. We need people who want to be team players everyday. We need people who will battle blazes, handle the rescue tools, and ride the ambulance everyday, not just on the good days.

Be honest with yourself here. Are you a "sunshine fireman?" I sure as heck hope not.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. He recently published Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip. You can reach Harry by e-mail at