The Warm Blanket of Ignorance

Dec. 13, 2006
In short, there are the folks to whom I have awarded the questionable distinction of being the "we've-always-done-it-that-way warriors" of the world.

Many times in my life, I feel more like a pastor than a fire chief. Many times I feel as though I was in a confessional and people were sharing their sins with me. At other times I feel as though I am sharing and bearing the collective burdens of the world.

Guess what. I love it. I love to work with my friends and professional associates. Together we can sometimes beat down the demons in their lives. At least I hope that is what I am doing.

A few days ago I was having a real serious conversation with a good buddy who is undergoing a series of unfortunate organizational interactions. He apparently ran afoul of the powers what am and is now paying a penalty for his honesty and candor. Now there is one problem with which I am extremely conversant.

We were discussing a number of issues that appear to have been precipitated by people for whom a working knowledge of the tasks necessary to succeed in the American fire service is only a wistful dream. People for whom the comfort of ignorance is much like a warm blanket used to ward off the cold on a chilly January evening.

You know what I am taking about. People like this surround each and every day. These are the folks who are proactively reactionary in their daily lives. They should be forced to wear pins and have bumper stickers on their cars that tell us that "1978 was good enough for my father and it is good enough for me".

These are the people who plod along every day desperately trying to relive the wonders of a bygone era. In short, there are the folks to whom I have awarded the questionable distinction of being the "we've-always-done-it-that-way warriors" of the world. Why worry about change, they will say; Just keep doing it like grand dad did.

My goodness, I am sick to death with these people. I can see them now, parading around in their tin helmets and rubber coats, as though it were 1970 and the Vietnam War was still raging.

It is simply amazing to see just how much energy ignorant people will expend in defense of the status quo in our world. These are people with whom I have crossed swords throughout the decades of my fire service career. The only difference is in the age of the protagonists involved. Originally these folks were veterans of World War Two, however, as the years progressed, the ages of the people involved in the battles changed. Sadly, their ideas didn't.

What I now find hard to believe is that I am battling people who are decades younger than me. They are trying to tell me how great things once were, and how we need to return to the past. I am waiting for someone to put canvas turnout coats and aluminum fire helmets back on the market.

How is it my friends that people such as this can have the audacity to tell me how things have always been? How is it that they can talk about things which occurred before they were born as being the Holy Grail of fire service knowledge?

Am I not the one who has battled upward through four decades in the fire service? How can it be that things you and I have fought for over the years are now being dismissed by people who lack any semblance of experience? None-the-less, people like this are now being given important positions of authority within our service.

We have people who have never spent a moment on the end of a charged hoseline calling people like me a Neanderthal. We have people who have risen to the top on a tide of political favors telling those among my circle of friends that we do not know what we are doing.

Worse yet, these same people are telling my friends and me that we have bad attitudes because we refrain from engaging in the appropriate form of mouth to rectum resuscitation. I cannot speak for you, but I am just about fed up with the non-thinkers who are driving the reactionary train of far too many fire service organizations.

Let me recount the story of an extremely responsible fire service person, a person with great responsibilities, who was heard to say to the people around them that we should all return to the era of 1970's training methods. What? How come my friends and I have bothered to advance the cause of knowledge in the fire service through the last several decades if we were at our zenith in 1978?

Lord please Grant me strength sufficient to continue in my chosen field in the face of ignorance and despair.

There is one serious problem with people like this. They fear people who know what they are doing. Far too many are lodged within positions of authority. In addition to all of their specified duties and organizational tasks they usually pause to take on one more burden. They become zealots whose whole charge in life is to become defenders of the status quo.

As a sidebar to this, they also seek to take a crowbar to all who challenge their defense of institutional ignorance. There is another critical fact that each of you out there in reader-land who is a thinker and dreamer must understand. People who fear knowledge, and the change it can bring, are vengeful souls. I learned this first hand in an earlier life.

Those who cherish ignorance feel threatened by those who have knowledge. Groups of ignorant people tend to circle the wagons and withdraw within the comfort of that tightly defined place. Much like the settlers in the old west, these sacred folks will use the weaponry and rifles contained within the rules and regulations of their agency to ward off attacks by those pesky agents of knowledge and change.

There were many years during my career in Newark where I was bottled up within a tightly regulated area, unable to put forward any new ideas. I attributed this to the fact that I was a younger man attempting to battle the forces controlled by the veteran members. I was only partially right.

After my promotion to the rank of Battalion Chief, it was as though I had been permitted to enter a new fraternity. People who rarely spoke with me were suddenly permitting me to have a place at the table. I wondered about this. Thankfully a friend eliminated a number of misconceptions for me.

He told me that there were people in the upper ranks who actively campaigned against me. As a junior chief he told me that he was privy to meetings where my name was a frequent topic of conversation. A number of the chiefs questioned the front office as to why I was writing so much, and speaking at so many conferences.

These people told the boss that it was they who should be doing this. They were the chiefs. How come I was the one doing the traveling, learning, and teaching? The department should be sending them and paying their way to these professional fire service conferences.

When I was made aware of this proactive professional jealousy, it was as though a bright light came on and many things were made clear to me. These gentlemen felt threatened by me and worked to keep me in a box of their own making. Thank the Lord that I was a persistent pain in the patooty.

My friends, I made my own way in the world. Only once in my entire career in Newark did the folks at Headquarters ever pay for my attendance at an event, and even then I had to lay out the money myself and wait several months for the remuneration from the municipal coffers. I want you to know that I paid for every trip I made, every course I took, and every degree which I ever earned. I did these because of my desire to learn and share.

I think that these were alien concepts to these crusty municipal curmudgeons. It is possible that they were products of an earlier age where young people kept their mouths shut and did what they were told. Heck that is how I was taught to operate while I was in the military. That is exactly how I operated throughout my 22 years in the active and reserve military forces of our nation. While I never rose to great heights, I have the satisfaction of knowing I did my job.

Perhaps I am a smart ass. I know I have been accused of that on more than one occasion. However, I have always felt that I owed the people with whom I served the best efforts possible. I learned more so that I could do more. I just want to point out that doing more for your fire department comes at a cost to you. When you do more, you will get into trouble more frequently. It took me a long time to learn that lesson however I am glad I did. It made my future journeys even more pleasurable.

I urge you to be proactive when it comes to learning. I urge you to travel to where the educational opportunities exist. I would remind you that there will be many naysayers at every turn in the road of life. That is just the way it is. Do not let the ignorant scare you. Stand up for that in which you truly believe.

Let me close by saying that I would much rather prefer to be remembered as a "smart ass" than as a "dumb ass". I find neither comfort nor warmth within the blanket of ignorance to which I made reference in the opening paragraphs of this week's visit with you. But then again, that is just the way my parents raised the chubby kid from Freehold, New Jersey.

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