Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 14, 2012

Brothers and Others

Filed under: State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on March 14, 2012

Does anyone else find it ironic that cops and firefighters (but firefighters especially) refer to themselves as “brothers”, when this term connotes something very different and entirely sinister when applied to government and its officials by the general public?

George Orwell’s Big Brother in the dystopian novel 1984 was an intimidating and invasive presence in the lives of people deprived of freewill. Nevertheless, cops and firefighters see brotherhood and its virtues as practically unrivaled. Loyalty to many is the essence of integrity because it defines consistency of action with respect to one’s peers.

Consider this conception of integrity in contrast to the values of equity or justice, which to most of us demands consistency of action with respect to others – in essence requiring us to treat others as we would our brothers. Cops and firefighters use the concept of brotherhood to exclude, not include, others.

The other is humankind’s oldest device for defining and projecting the presence of evil in the world. As Elaine Pagels’ groundbreaking scholarship on The Origin of Satan makes clear, the essence of evil is fear. We see “evil” in others in direct proportion to the “self” we see in others. Evil reflects our fear of embracing, if not becoming, that which destroys our current sense of self.

This is the point at which I find the tendency of cops and firefighters to rely on the notion of brotherhood begins to diverge as well as unravel. In both instances, it is brothers who provide the primary defense against the other. But in the case of cops, it is the very existence of others that defines brotherhood, for we would not need cops if it not for the presence of evil in others. But firefighters oppose a different foe. To be sure, fire can produce evil effects, but it also is a great source of good when properly harnessed. Those affected by fire as well as those who fail to keep its power under proper control are both seen not as villains but rather as victims. Why then should firefighters see a need for protection against those who call upon their services?

Firefighters seem to cling to the concept of brotherhood even more fiercely than most cops. Who then is the other whom firefighters fear? What’s going on here?

Most firefighters I talk with take a paternalistic perspective when referring to their relationship with the public. To many of them, the public is a body of people who want or need services they cannot anticipate, do not fully appreciate and cannot understand, which makes it the responsibility of fire service leaders to inform (read this as “educate” or “convince”) the public about their need for or dependence upon firefighters. A good fire chief, then, is someone who stands up for firefighters against the public, and who convinces them to give firefighters what they want.

This perspective has made me a “bad” fire chief and a traitor akin to Judas Iscariot in the eyes of many firefighters. What I find peculiar is not that they believe this but that they do not see in others, much less me, a figure more like that of the Apostle Thomas.

I have sat through many meetings lately where articles of faith in respect of fire service delivery are defended as reasonable despite the utter lack of objective evidence to support them. I consider myself a skeptic about most things, but most especially about the virtues of a notional brotherhood that conditions acceptance on adherence to articles of faith about things like fire company staffing and response times when reasonable doubt exists as to whether they influence aggregate outcomes.

Don’t get me wrong, faith and reason each have their place. One need not conflict with the other. I believe in many things I cannot possibly prove. But I remain skeptical that they cannot be proven at all, and as such remain unconvinced they are completely much less innately true. Where reason provides me with a portal to understanding, I find it only bolsters my faith.

I believe what we do as public safety professionals makes a great deal of difference to the communities we serve. I think I can prove what makes this difference in some, but not all cases. And where I can prove it, I almost always find that it is what and how we do things rather than how fast, how much, or how many, that makes the biggest difference.

To many firefighters, I am now the other as opposed to their brother. I will not take on the role of father, protector and defender of the faith, largely because I am unprepared to become the Big Brother people fear and despise. I would like to believe that taking the position I am will ultimately help the firefighters I work with see the brothers in others, and adapt to the new realities of our economy that emphasize what and how we do things over how many and how much.

I believe this is what needs to happen. And I accept that it remains to be seen whether I am right or wrong.

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8 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 14, 2012 @ 12:18 am

WOW! A complicated post! You may be ahead of the curve on reform of the FIRE SERVICE which survives to some degree because of and in spite of its anachronisms.

As the largest public safety segment this issue is important to solve to make this relatively well trained and numerous public safety element even more useful to society.

We don’t need more FIRE HOUSE chefs but we do need more education in those Fire Houses as to dangers of the complexities of modern society. Hybrid vehicle dangers for example with their explosive batteries.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 14, 2012 @ 4:47 am

Mark:

A couple of thoughts:

First, I perceive that as our social reality is less anchored in authentic community (where very real mutual dependence is distributed across fairly diverse networks), we seem to become more obsessive regarding whatever ersatz identities we claim (sports teams, political ideologies, religious belief, etc.). This suggests a fear of alienation and separation that is probably reinforced by choosing unsatisfactory imitation relationships.

Second, in the story of Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37), the following passage, verses 17-19, may have some analogies for the relationship with your colleagues:

So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him. “Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other.

Blasted technicolor dreamcoat. But the full story is redemptive. Hope yours ends half as well.

Comment by Ben

March 14, 2012 @ 7:30 am

Mark, I’ve found your Wednesday articles fascinating, and I appreciate you sharing with us, even though it sounds like an unpleasant situation for you personally.

Reading this, what really came to mind is the concept of groupthink. Irving Janis, the psychologist who came up with the theory describing it described 8 symptoms of this phenomena:

Type I: Overestimations of the group—its power and morality
-Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
-Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
Type II: Closed-mindedness
-Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
-Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.
Type III: Pressures toward uniformity
-Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
-Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
-Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”
-Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

Reading through your posts for the last couple of weeks, I could probably check off each of these.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

March 14, 2012 @ 9:45 am

Mark;

Excellent piece with some deep introspection. I am reluctant to comment because it is a sensitive subject and many, many friends serve in these lines of work as well as family members. But, I would surmise that transitioning from a front line guy to a supervisor to a leader of an organization has tagged to it the ugly moniker of sellout…Don’t sell out, don’t sell us out, don’t forget where you came from etc. Your selection of cops and firefighters is appropriate because they do heavily foster this isolation and the us vs them theology.

It seems to be universal, but their vehement stance and “paternalism” usually involves defending their status and justifying their existence. What they project in their minds is not what’s received in their critics minds. I think one of the key ingredients you speak of is the kind of service firefighters provide and their great hours of inactivity. What is projected? In laymen’s terms, it rubs a lot of people the wrong way when times get tight and budgets shrink. It’s no doubt a dangerous profession, but here’s some reasons their seems to be a universal circling the wagons;

http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/golden_fire_exit_Xgr8HobTyGE09gtAHLZLtM

http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/sounding_alarm_on_fdny_pensions_DMsMFS7G3cXsbEUn8mi8qJ

The average pension for those FDNY folks who left the force in 2009 was a whopping $91,988. The average enlisted pension (E-7@20 years is about 23K…really good work if you can get it!

Are these exceptions? I am not sure. Is it simply a NY thing? Again, not sure. It would appear that the ability to keep others from reaping such benefits is as important as the service provided. Now, these anecdotes were cherry picked on purpose and may paint a less than rosy picture. That’s the contrast. So is that a unions fault, a cities fault, or the firefighters fault? Are they a victim of their own making? Tough call.

Then there’s the William Langewiesche book — “American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center”, that indicted, perhaps unfairly and with no tangible proof the FDNY and their removing merchandise from stores prior to the towers collapse. I have listened to others lament the behavior of firefighters at other calls for removing property from homes, offices, etc…But it’s all conjecture and hearsay. So is this envy on part of those who are not part of the culture or a case of where there’s smoke there’s fire (pun intended).

Removing this conjecture, the isolation and culture of maintaining the culture or cult of personality is alive and well. Having spent most of my adult life in the Marine Corps’ I can tell you that the combination of how we fight and train, maintain myth, risk taking, “branding” and other marketing euphemisms are exercised all day and every day to separate and maintain the uniqueness of the MARINE CORPS. Our past is as important as our future and it’s a maintained history. There are those who are and those who wish they were… Again, messaging and branding. Is the brotherhood you speak of a similar phenomenon? Is it simply a cultural or organizational behavior to maintain the iconic status? Or is it an authenticity issue? How authentic is that brotherhood? Is it Shakespearean or an outcrop of strong union organizers keeping the image of an “us vs them” alive? Again, tough call.

I think community plays a large part of some of the angst as well. Years ago, I would guess many of the firemen and cops were integrated and lived in the very community they protected. Now I would guess not so much. That disconnect coupled with the organizational culture may be the last bastion of justifying the team, the band of brothers mantra.

Having read and re read your article it has the leadership context to it. The greatest challenge you or any leader faces is being authentic in your pursuit of meeting the needs of your elected officials, the needs of your citizenry, and the needs of your subordinates. That is a challenge to be sure. And that what good leaders do…wade if not jump into these euphemisms and cultural 3rd rails to evoke favorable change and move past the rhetoric.

Comment by Michael Brady

March 14, 2012 @ 11:55 am

Mark,

Thank you for another marvelous post.

The Biblical analogies are not quite capturing the issue for me; let’s try another.

The military, police, and security wage their holy war against human evil. They regard themselves as sheepdogs defending the helpless flock against the predations of wolves. They are the Praetorian Guard, thin blue line, the last defender of profit against loss. They believe they can only be understood by their brother and sisters in arms. You must be one to be allowed to know one.

At first blush most people would assume that the firefighter’s enemy – the Other – is fire. But firefighters appreciate fire, the physics of it and its control. They respect it and perhaps even admire it. The Other is actually the citizen who unleashes the power of fire, accident, and sudden illness upon the world. Firefighters are sworn to protect plain old, flawed, negligent humanity against itself.

We need to borrow from another mythology to explain this sort of Other. The Trickster – an embodiment of chaotic evil – has no particular plan, except to sow discord, confusion, and disorder. People unleash fires, people crash cars, people abuse themselves (or family members) and then call 911 when hope is all but lost. Thus firefighters are stuck herding sheep that play with matches, run with scissors, live high risk life styles, and only call for help once the emergency is well under way. One can’t quite hate these hapless creators of chaos for abiding by their disastrous nature, but we can certainly resent them and their impact on an orderly society.

I’m not sure where a servant leader with a customer service mindset, and armed with statistics, fits into any of these metaphors or mythologies, but I know we are regarded as ivory tower buzz kills by many and craven traitors by some. Such is our lot.

Michael

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 14, 2012 @ 5:51 pm

Michael, To potentially help with the Biblical analogy: Joseph escaped his brothers’ wrath and went onto Egypt where he became Prime Minister. In that role he was a “servant leader with a customer service mindset.” There are even some suggestions of him using statistics. Joseph departed from expectations in a wide variety of ways, but when drought came, Egypt was ready. Because Egypt was ready, Joseph’s father and brothers relocated, where they found Joseph and were reconciled. Lots of other analogies, but that should do.

Comment by Bruce Martin

March 14, 2012 @ 10:36 pm

Many good points have been made by the commentors. Leadership is change and is usually anathema to incumbents, who are generally conservative and prefer status quo. Add to that notion the claim from an old study (couldn’t find it to cite) that ff’s performed well in complex, chaotic situations by being quite routine oriented and anchored back in the firehouse. When people go after the speaker personally it may be that they don’t like what he is saying but cannot refute it. Sometimes that’s small comfort – command is lonely.

Having obtained a different position with a different lens you may find you are concerned about the community, the department as a whole, and the troops as individuals. Your ff’s have the same concerns but I’ll surmise that you weight them differently. Alternatively, subordinate welfare vs. welfare of the organization are weighted differently by supervisors than by executives.

Leaders often plant seeds for those who follow. Best wishes!

Comment by Greg Garat

March 17, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

I ask that the readers keep in mind that they are only receiving one side of the story. As insightful, thoughtful or brilliant any man may be, they are at the end of the day still a man subject to error and bias. An analysis by a neutral party might conclude that Mark’s woes are the result of his actions on a personal level as much as they are the result of his perspectives on a professional level.

A final thought, is this the best venue for airing personal grievances?

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