How Will We Be Judged?

The older I get, the more I realize that the lessons of history that I've learned have frequently been written by people with a reason for slanting things a certain way. The old adage that "history is written by the victors" ought to indicate clearly that the "losers" might not have their side of the story adequately or objectively recalled. A few examples: I have always thought that Mary Magdalene, the woman who first discovered that Jesus' body was missing from the tomb in three of the four New Testament gospels, was a reformed prostitute who became a dedicated follower of Jesus right up to the crucifixion. I've just recently learned that may not be the case at all, and that early church leaders, for a number of reasons, may have downplayed her role with the disciples and deliberately smeared her reputation. (See "Mary Magdalene" article in Time Magazine, August 11, 2003)

I also grew up believing that Senator Joseph McCarthy, in his zeal to fuel the "red menace" scare in the early 50's, callously and cavalierly ruined countless lives, particularly in politics and the motion picture industry, by accusing people of being Communist agents or sympathizers. Reading Ann Coulter's latest book, "Treason," however, has put that whole series of events in a new light for me.

And finally: I live about a half hour away from Tombstone, Arizona, and always thought that the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday were the proverbial "good guys" at the famous OK Corral gunfight. Being something of a history buff, I've delved into that story enough to know that a lot of people think the Earps bullied the so-called "Clanton gang" into that fight, and that Hollywood has fostered and perpetuated a myth upon us all along.

I don't mean to imply that the lessons we've all learned are wrong. I simply want to point out that there are always two sides to the story, but we don't always learn both of them from a historical perspective. Now, what does all that have to do with fire service leadership? Good question!

How many times have we all sat around a firehouse kitchen table and blasted the actions of those who did our jobs years, decades, or perhaps even centuries before us? I know I have, poking fun at 19th century firefighters who brawled in the streets while buildings burned behind them (go see "Gangs of New York"). Or maybe chuckling over early 20th century firefighters who did circus acts on aerial ladders while demonstrating their bravery for the public. How many of you have seen the famous video scene of a fire chief who approaches an overturned tractor-trailer, sticks his fingers into the leaking (unknown) substance and then draws those same fingers up to his nose or mouth? We could go on for hours recalling so-called "safety" videos where firefighters have done things that seem crazy to us now.

So my question is: how will the people doing our jobs in the future judge us? What things are we doing that will cause them to recoil in horror or hoot with derision at our unbelievable stupidity? I can hear it now:

Hey, old-timer, why did those guys have to carry sections of 5" hose on their backs up to the 21st floor of a high rise instead of cities requiring automatic detection and suppression systems in every building?

Hey, old-timer, why didn't you bozos thin the forests or push for adopting updated wildland interface codes before you let those catastrophic wildfires burn a half-million acres of prime forestland at a time?

Hey, old-timer, why would you let a rock band use live-fire pyrotechnics in a nightclub with no sprinklers and limited egress?

Hey, old-timer, why didn't you dinosaurs work with the legislators to outlaw fireworks so that thousands of people weren't killed or injured by them every year?

Hey, old-timer, didn't you guys ever hear of seatbelts? Traffic signal pre-emption systems? Global positioning?

Hey, old-timer, did you chowderheads miss the connection between cardiovascular fitness and smoking? Diet? Exercise?

Hey, old-timer, what took you morons so long to figure out a way for different agencies on the same call to communicate with each other?

We could do this all day long, couldn't we? So who will tell our side of the story? We live in an age of rapid change, even for the fire service. Some will read that and say, "Thank goodness!" while others will lament the way things used to be. But change is difficult to bring about, especially if it means embracing technologies, no matter how well proven) that may cost money (sprinklers, geographic information systems, etc.). Or not doing something that has a long and storied role in our culture (fireworks, smoking, living in a cabin in the woods.)

In this world of instant everything, it's true that if you can imagine it, you can do it. We need to focus our visionary leadership on imagining the possibilities and finding a way to get them done. If we don't, then we'd better prepare for being the objects of derision by those who follow in our footsteps.

E-mail me your thoughts or issues on today's fire service leadership. I would enjoy hearing from you.

Bruce Thompson is the chief of the Sierra Vista(AZ) Fire Department. Chief Thompson started his fire service career in 1974. He is a Past President of the Arizona Fire Chiefs