Beware the Curse of the Promise Merchant

June 26, 2006
Sadly we are members of a fire service which has been fractured a thousand times over. We have moved in a myriad of directions while following a number of local promise merchants.

Mine has been an active life lately. Many are the tasks which must be accomplished if I am to set off on my long-anticipated road trip next month. I have created a series of checklists and am diligently proceeding to check of the requisite number of tasks which I accomplish each day. I am a bit behind schedule, but I am working hard to pull even. I have made that promise to myself. Maybe I will make it and maybe I won't, but it is my intention to try.

It is also my goal to leave for my 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip on Thursday July 6. One does not make a trip like this by themselves. The funding for my trip is coming together thanks to the hard work and generosity of a wide number of people and businesses. In addition, I have spent the past few days booking all of my hotel rooms and finalizing the trip itinerary. Further, my buddy Jack Peltier from Marlborough, Massachusetts will be making the trip with me.

Along the way I will have a place to stay because a number of really special fire departments have stepped forward to take care of a night's stay here and there. I will create a thank you list over the course of the next couple of months and will work hard to insure that no one's name is left off of that list. I have made this promise to myself and have every intention of fulfilling it. Of course I just hope I do not miss anyone.

I am well aware of the fact that I need to make and keep promises. That is just the way I am. I grew up in an environment where a man's word was expected to be his bond. Maybe you are old enough to remember such a time when contracts were only needed for the really big things in life like buying a house or financing a car. I know I remember such things.

Having made that statement I want you to know that this article is about another sort of person. The person to whom I make reference is of the sort for whom a promise is just a few more words to utter when they think the time is right. People like this make promises with neither the ability nor intent to make good on them. They are not very reticent and forthcoming.

Given the number of times that some of you have asked me whether I was hiding in a closet within your fire station, I am starting to wonder how I can hit some many nails on the head. Trust me when I say that I have not hidden in your closet or tape recorded your conversations. I just write about those things within my environment which serve as periodic detractors; as speed bumps or roadblocks on the path of life.

Mine is not a special life. However, I do take a lot of notes. It has been my lot in life to periodically encounter people who seem never to have all of the details right in their lives. These folks are nice enough people, but always seem to be coming up a day late and a dollar short when it comes time to getting down to business. Perhaps you too have encountered these people. I have coined a new name for them. They are the "promise merchants."

In an earlier column I wrote of the dangers involved in associating with people whose sole function in life is taking up space. If my emails are any indication, my words touched a responsive chord with a great many of you. In this case I make reference to another sort of empty suit. These are the people who will say whatever they believe to be popular at a given moment; what ever they think other people want to hear. They are all about glitz with an almost total lack of substance.

Before I go any further, let me assure you that I can sometimes be as bad as the next person when it comes to going off half-cocked in pursuit of a desirable goal. However, as I have aged, I have developed a mechanism for guarding against such unbridled and un-called-for optimism. I have developed a close circle of friends who can sense when I am about to go off the deep end.

Whenever I say something that causes my buddies to sense that my eyes are about to roll back in my head on whenever I step forward seemingly to stand on the edge of the abyss of idiocy my circle of friends steps forward, grabs me by the shirt collar (or lapels) and works to smack some sense into me. Not everyone is this fortunate.

Sadly we are members of a fire service which has been fractured a thousand times over. We have moved in a myriad of directions while following a number of local promise merchants. Time and again it has been our sorry inability to reach any form of service-wide consensus that has condemned us to the status of second-class citizen in the search for a better position within the world at large.

We as a fire service need to create a common sense squad whose job it is to ride the range looking for those cattle that always seem to be grazing on the loco weed. We need fewer people making promises to us about what they think we need or what they think we should do. We need fewer people saying what they think will be popular, regardless of the true sense of the situation. We need more people speaking the plain, honest truth. Of course that can be a dangerous position to take.

I am still hard-pressed to explain why we cannot come together under a single banner that lays out the importance of our mission and allows us to join together for the common good of the fire service. As I read the wide variety of email messages, Internet, magazine, and newspaper articles, which pass through my home and office, I often have to stop and shake my head.

What in the heck is in the water out there that so many of our misdirected brothers and sisters are drinking? These folks seem to be out there creating all sorts of screwball goals and plans without any idea of how they are going to achieve them. Worse yet, many seem to have no basis in the world of reality. Even worse are those ideas which have no place in the fire service.

As I watch these folks at work, I am forced to stop and dwell on one of my great, personal shortcomings. I find it extremely hard to explain the inexplicable. I stand off on the sidelines of the fire service ballgame watching the various people playing at a game which seems so obviously to have no chance of success. I just wonder where it all will end.

These folks stand up and publicly profess to tell the world of the solidarity within our service. They sometimes seem so convincing. However, at some point many of these same folks then skulk back to their camps and wrap themselves within the cloaks and banners of their individual fire departments, associations, groups, and states; many times taking positions directly opposed to the lofty ideals they have already espoused to the world.

Why, when it is so critical to come together as one fire service, do we retreat to the comfortable womb of our individual groups? I guess it really does have something to do with operating within our own individual comfort zones. At least that is what I think.

Let me share another bit of sage wisdom with you on this trip through the tulips of your personal fire service garden. It is something I have worked to weave into my own life's patchwork quilt. Do not commit to a journey unless you are ready to do all of those tasks necessary to have a shot at success. Let me suggest that none of us should ever commit to any journey in life unless we are properly blessed with three commodities:

  • Time
  • Talent
  • Resources

I hope you remember the commentary I created not too long ago that dealt with the pruning of one's tree of life. Let me assure you that I am attempting to take my own advice. Over the past couple of weeks I have turned down requests for me to do a number of things. What these things are is not important. The important aspect of this visit with you is that my mouth actually formed and uttered the word "no."

Let me once more use the example of my road trip to illustrate the use of the "time-talent-resource" continuum. I am taking this trip in an attempt to do a good work for our American fire service. I have had people ask me a very direct question. They ask me what is in it for me. That is a question I cannot answer, because in this instance I believe I am doing something for the general good of the fire service. However, I know that such an answer never satisfies those people committed to making both sides of the nickel.

As a long-time supporter of the FIRE Act program, I fear for its existence. I see it drifting away from its roots. It is my belief that forces are at work which (who) do not give one hoot in Hell for the fire service. They see the FIRE Act as just one more pool of federal money that can be grabbed and used in the war against terrorism. My friends, I am sick to death of hearing about the war on terror.

How many fires have you battled, versus how many terror attacks have you encountered? The same holds true with extrication calls and community service responses. These folks who would take our money miss the basic facts of the case. If we are trained and equipped to do our everyday tasks, and if we are part of a regional approach to delivering our services, then we will be ready for the terrorists if they choose to try us on for size again.

If we are trained, equipped, and ready to operate in our own world, then we will be able to step up to the plate for those major incidents wherein we must come to the aid of the federal government. Maybe I am still naïve after nearly four decades in the fire service, but that does not matter. That is just who I am.

I believe in the fire service. I believe that there are a lot of really good people out there trying very hard to protect their little corner of our nation. These are the people I hope to meet on the road trip. Some of the places that I will visit are little more than crossroads where a few people have managed to acquire a fire truck.

There is a place in Southern Indiana where a community of 450 people received a grant. Another small town of 200 people in Southern Illinois also received a boost from the infusion of grant money. Then there is a place in Kentucky that is so small I had a hard time finding it on the map. My friends, these are the people who need the FIRE Act.

My promise to you is simple. I am going to meet fellow members or the American fire service that have received FIRE Act assistance and report my findings to you. There will also be a small number who have yet to receive a grant. I want to present both sides to you. I make this promise to you based upon my belief that I have the necessary time and talents to do the job. Thanks to a number of generous people I also believe the resources will be in place.

Let me challenge you to tighten up on the number of promises you make. Let me ask you to avoid saying the popular thing, when the truth should be used. Above all sort out the promise merchants in your life and give them a wide berth. Just a few thoughts from a chubby guy from Jersey who has been burned a time or two.

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