To Be Or Not To Be A Tattletale

Oct. 1, 2003
Shakespeare and tattletale are not usually combined in a title but these two concepts represent the dilemma I faced.
Shakespeare and tattletale are not usually combined in a title but these two concepts represent the dilemma I faced. In the first concept, "To be or not to be", Hamlet is contemplating whether it is better to be alive, facing all the trials and tribulation of life, or to be dead and not have any responsibilities. Second, we learn the concept of "tattletale" at a very young age. I would get into trouble if I ran to Mom or Dad and told on my younger brother. This was a useful childhood rule because my brother was not allowed to tell on me. As adult fire service professionals, who make life and death decisions, we cannot let childhood concepts misguide our responsibility to each other.

I had just completed teaching a class on the constructs of vision, mission, and values to a group of fire officers, my plane did not leave for several hours, so the local fire station invited me to dinner. The menu included Sloppy Joes and homemade coleslaw, excellent. I asked if I could ride out on calls, no problem. The crew was proud of their new rescue pumper and eager to show it off.

We get a call for a stuck elevator. We were the fourth due unit. We respond lights and siren. The new rescue pumper has three point seatbelts that are bright orange so it is easy for the officer to see that the safety devices are being used. Four of us respond, only one seatbelt is used. One firefighter stands up, while the vehicle is moving, to put his bunker pants on. After the call, only one seatbelt is used on the drive back to the station.

The Fire Chief picks me up after dinner for the ride to the airport. Do I tell him that the seatbelt policy is not being enforced? Does he already know? Will he think I am a tattletale? The crew treated me to dinner they are great guys. I'm not a squealer. I do not have any official authority or responsibly to address this issue. The 20-minute trip to the airport is long. I say nothing.

The plane ride home was even longer. What if the crew has an accident on their next run and one of them is injured or killed how would I feel? If we had beer with dinner would I tell; would I have gotten on the apparatus? I make my crew wear their seatbelts; I am not very popular.

What do we hold each other responsible for? What am I responsible for? When one of us is injured or killed because we did not follow the rules, did anyone know, did anyone care, did anyone try to correct the behavior before it lead to a tragedy? Am I my brothers' keeper? The following poem captures the potential tragedy we all may face.

"I chose to look the other way?"
Don Merrell
Pocatello, ID

I could have saved a life that day,
But I chose to look the other way.
It wasn't that I didn't care,
I had the time, and I was there.
But I didn't want to seem a fool,
Or argue over a safety rule.

I knew he'd done the job before,
If I called it wrong, he might get sore.
The chances didn't seem that bad,
I've done the same, he knew I had.
So I shook my head and walked on by,
He knew the risks as well as I.
He took a chance, I closed an eye,
And with that act I let him die.

I should have saved a life that day,
But I chose to look the other way.
Now every time I see his wife,
I'll know I should have saved his life.
That guilt is something I must bear,
But it isn't something you need to share.

If you see a risk that others take,
That puts their health or life at stake,
The question asked, or the thing you say,
Could help them live another day.
If you see a risk and walk away,
Then hope you never have to say,
I could have saved a life that day,
But I chose to look the other way.

(Used with permission Don Merrell, August 2003)

From now on, if I am on your fire truck and the seatbelts are not used I am going to ask you why. Then I am going to tell the chief that the seatbelt policy is being ignored. Then I am going to publish the name of the fire department, the chief, and the company officer. I got that idea for Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD). You have all been warned. It is your choice, wear the seatbelt or do not invite me to dinner and do not let me ride along.

I have decided that professionals, career or volunteer, do not look the other way. We pride ourselves on our willingness to risk our life to save each other heroically; yet we do not have the courage to be responsible for each other's safety behavior. This contradiction must change.

I will lose friends and miss dinners because I never want to say "I could have saved a life that day, but I chose to look the other way." Do you look the other way?

Dr. Burton A. Clark, EFO is the Management Science Program Chair for the National Fire Academy and Director of an Emergency Support at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. . Burt writes and lectures nationally on fire service research and professional development. If you would like to contact Burton, he can be reached at [email protected]

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