The Erosion of The Brotherhood: Guardians Needed

June 16, 2014
Daniel Byrne says the term "brother" in the fire service needs to be restored to represent a person of high moral tenacity who has a strong set of ethics.

With over 18 years in the fire service, I have been affiliated with several fire departments spanning from my young volunteer days, to career civilian, to military. I have also been fortunate to be invited to present and teach at several conferences in many states. I have met some of the best men and women I have ever known. But I have also watched as we slowly lose and allow to erode something so very important to who we are. 

We are losing the one "thing" that made the fire service the special profession it once was; the "thing" that gave us the confidence to go rushing into places that others raced from in terror because those charging forward knew they were not going alone.  "You go, we go" was the Hollywood expression that encapsulated what we were about and which bonded us when the situation, environment, and even the world, seemed to turn and come against us. The "thing" to which I am referring to is "Brotherhood."

It didn't matter if you were male or female - Brotherhood wasn't a term defined by gender, it wasn't defined by race, religion, culture, or any other classification society strives to equalize globally. It was a title bestowed upon select individuals who had earned it and lived up to it daily; to individuals who proved that they would be by your side in and out of the fire station no matter how tough things may have become. 

This was a title many recruits bled and sweat to earn. It shaped them not only as a firefighter, but it also shaped them as individuals in their personal lives. You don't work hard for something like that unless you want it. You don't want something like that unless it comes from somewhere deep inside. You cannot rise to the level of trust in which another places their life unquestionably into your hands without it transforming you as a person. 

Sadly, today we are bringing disgrace to that title and all it is supposed to mean. If we allow this to continue, our profession will become just another job that involves punching a time card. Success will no longer be defined upon lives saved and differences made, but how quickly one climbs the rank ladder and what a paycheck says every two weeks. Rank will no longer be respected for what the gold says about person and who they are as an individual, but respected because department policy says you have to. For volunteers, the loss of this meaning will be, and has been, devastating. We have to save it and you reading this have to make a stand and be a Guardian of the Brotherhood. 

To better understand what I am referring to let me tell you a factual cautionary tale: The United States Marine Corps. 

The Marine Corps is a military organization so respected and feared throughout the world that the mere appearance of a Marine unit upon a foreign shore is deemed an "aggressive show of force" by other nations. The Corps is an organization with the toughest standards amongst the U.S. military (outside of special operations forces), and it is well established that Marines are a cut above the rest. When the President of the United States boards or leaves his aircraft, or stands in the Rose Garden to talk to the world about the values of America, one simply has to look to his left and right. The Marine Corps defines and illustrates the best of who we are supposed to be as a nation. Even in a Hollywood production to make a movie's character more feared and respected it is written into that character's background that they were once a Marine. 

Any current or former Marine can readily recall the following historic tail from memory: One of the battles of World War I became known as the battle of Belleau Woods, and during this battle, due to the ferocious nature with which the Marines fought, the captured German soldiers referred to them as "Teufelshunden," or "Dogs of Hell," which was then transformed into "Devil Dog!"

There was once a time that for one Marine to refer to another as a "Devil Dog" was an honor reflecting the fighting nature, bravery, esprite de corps, and tenacity displayed by Marines in the face of their enemy. It was a term that propelled one Marine to follow another "over the burm" and "into the breach." Devil Dog was a title of honor sought by many, but earned by few.

Sadly, if you ask any Marine today they will also tell you that the term "Devil Dog" has been so abused, misused, minimized, and disrespected that to be called "Devil Dog" today is akin to either mockery or an irate mother using her child's middle name to preface her impending discipline. To simplify it, when a Marine today is called "Devil Dog," it almost certainly means they are about to become the butt of a joke or about to get their backside chewed. 

Marines did not protect this title – they threw it around and used it inappropriately. Today, while the Marine Corps is still one of the most respected and honored of all the Armed Forces, it suffers from the same dilution of the moral and ethical fiber that continues to impact many once prestigious and elite organizations that demanded a standard.

Our term Brotherhood is going the same way as Teufelshunden. We use, abuse, and throw this term around in such an inappropriate manner that it is eroding what it once meant. The term, born of our forefathers, is in decay and we are allowing it to happen. Just like the United States Marine Corps, while the fire service may still hold a special place of pride and honor, the standard by which it is governed has been reduced by the same moral and ethical erosion of society. In an accurate analogy, we may still look like Eagles but not because we are excelling while flying with other noble birds, but because we are now flying with pigeons.  

Think about the last time you heard the term "Brother" utilized. I can tell you when I have heard it. Let's see if any of this sounds familiar: when an offending "firefighter" is being held accountable and is trying to make the disciplinarian feel regretful it is used something like, "Gee, thanks brother!" Or a fellow "coworker" uses it in hopes their error or mistake will be hidden, something like "hey, brother, could you cover for me?" Or it may be said mockingly when a fellow firefighter appears to have acted in an unacceptable manner, something like "well that's a brother for you," with the very tone of the word "brother" eroding the prestige it should have.  

Our problem lays not only in how this term is being used, but also how we are accepting it. There are people within our departments we call brother yet who are well known to lie, cheat, steal, get over on the system, abuse alcohol or drugs, are abusive to others because of gender, race or religion, or are known to be inappropriate with the spouses and special persons of others within their department, just to name a few of the disgusting and damaging personal and professional problems they have. I am not referring to a brother who hits hard times and makes a mistake, or one who has some struggles, because that is when Brotherhood is needed the most. We never leave our fallen, injured, or hurt behind. But I trust in the professionalism and intelligence of everyone reading this that you know of the differences from which I am speaking.   

We need to restore this term as a level of standard to achieve and maintain so a fire service "brother" represents a person of high moral tenacity and a strong set of ethics true to the nature of which the fire service is about. A term that will cause those in our society with the strongest of moral and ethical fiber to join our ranks and do everything they can to be one of us and be called "brother;" as well as maintain that standard and encourage others to do the same. To become a person who in any venue or company you would be proud to identify with and say "he/she is my Brother," and with whom others in our society will identify as a member of a profession who they rely upon in their darkest hour and whom they trust above all else.  

To accomplish this takes bravery. Not the same type of bravery to which we are accustomed, because that type of bravery comes natural to us, but a more difficult type of bravery because it touches upon our perception of acceptance by others which is a basic fundamental human need. 

This type of bravery will not make you popular because your fellow firefighters may snicker and mock your attempts because society now mocks such things as nobility, honor, and doing the "right thing." Just as sure as saying prayer in school became mocked, so will any attempt to influence moral and ethical behavior through example in your fire station. But now look at our schools and public education, and look at your fire department and station. See what I mean? Isn't this fight worth it? You may be mocked by many, but just as in the Marines it's not the many you want but it's the few; and just like the Corps, you take those few and continue to set a standard to achieve that others aspire to and want to be a part of. The standard is then raised.

You cannot do anything about those who do not make the cut and refuse to do so. They will rage against you and attempt to minimize you and what you believe, and they will try to turn others against you. But you need to stand confident! Be sure of whom you are and what the fire service and the Brotherhood are about and you hold the line – be a guardian. In time, their attempts to minimize you will in turn minimize them and they will be left alone at the station table proud in their ignorance until they just go away either by personal choice or department policy. 

It starts with you. Conduct yourself by what it means to be a brother. Don't hide. Wear it on your chest and sleeve. Make no excuses or apologies. Accept the initial rebuke, but maintain your course. Eventually, you will start to see change in others who secretly believe the same things and have been quietly cheering you on. Being a "brother" comes from deep within and you can make it again safe for others to come forth because at some level most do believe in who we were and are supposed to be. That's why they are here wearing our badge. They've been waiting for someone to make a stand. Let that someone be you. 

Whether you are on duty or off duty, take stock of yourself and the term Brotherhood, and start to walk the walk today. It is time once again for us to truly fly like Eagles. The transformation of our service will not happen overnight and it will be a long road to get us back to being the special entity we once were and that once set us apart. But strive to leave your career full and rewarding by knowing in the end you will have left what you loved better then when you found it. It is a long road indeed, but it is said that the longest journey begins with the first step. So my brother, so guardian, just as a Marine Corps drill instructor would shout firmly with pride for all to hear I say to you now with hope…. "Forward march!"

DANIEL BYRNE, a Contributing Editor, is a firefighter/paramedic, with the Burton, SC, Fire District. A 20-year veteran of the emergency services, he holds both an associate and bachelors degree in fire science, is a National Fire Academy Alumni, and a veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm war with the U.S. Marine Corps. Daniel is the recipient of local and state awards for public educations and relations. Daniel is moderator of the Fire Prevention and Life Safety forums on Firehouse. You can reach Daniel by e-mail at [email protected].

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