The Value of Our Uniform

By Troy R. Jellison

flag               Lately as I browse through the blogs and fire related web pages, I have seen several articles where a well-intentioned fire company member is letting off some steam with regard to their department’s uniform policy. It usually goes something like this: “Around our station it is practically grounds for a written disciplinary action if you have your t-shirt untucked. I mean, who really cares? Does my t-shirt being tucked in make me a better firefighter? Will the fire go out faster? Will I hear the cries for help any easier?” These comments are usually followed up by other jakes chiming in with disapproval of the strict policies or by degrading any officer who would make appearance a priority. I am sure you have seen similar stories and maybe you even chimed in or at least thought to yourself…..I sure am glad I don’t work in a department like that one! So why does this topic keep popping up? Why is there a debate on the specifics of how we wear our uniforms? Does the t-shirt really matter? I would like to share three versions of a story and then leave the decision to you.

Version 1 –

Pat is, by all outward appearances, a model firefighter. He ensures that his uniform is crisp and tidy each night before coming to work. He arrives early for shift and is friendly with everyone in the station. Whenever the crew goes out of the station, Pat is the visual ideal of pride in his department and exemplifies the appearance of a professional firefighter. At the station, however, Pat can be difficult to find when it is time to start the training. When he is around he usually hangs at the back and rarely volunteers to lead the exercise. It is safe to say that he enjoys the attention he gets for being a firefighter, but he is much less enthusiastic about the work that comes with that title.  The firefighters who work with Pat like him, but they also know he not to be counted on when the heat is turned up.

Version 2 –

Rick is, by all definitions, a hard-core smoke eater. He arrives early to begin checking his gear before his shift begins. He usually travels in his PT attire which can appear ill fitting because the person who orders uniforms fails to consider the shoulder and arm measurements of a man who takes his weightlifting seriously. Rick’s helmet has a nice layer of “experience” baked on it and he hasn’t washed his bunkers in over a year.  He knows that he could try harder on his appearance, but believes that the uniform doesn’t dictate how good one is at their job. Rick loves being a firefighter and is constantly looking for ways to outperform everyone else. The rear window of his truck and almost half of his helmet is covered with decals from the schools and training he has attended. In his department, there is no one who can equal his technique and skill. His fellow firefighters will tell you that Rick is the guy to call when the heat is on.

Version 3 –

Patrick is, by all outward appearances, a model firefighter. He ensures that his uniform is crisp and tidy each night before coming to work. He arrives early each shift to converse with the outgoing crew while he inspects his gear. Everyone likes Patrick and they feel like he is a good example. Whenever the crew is out of the station, he exhibits pride in his department and uniform and always leaves a good impression on the public. During down times, Patrick is easy to find. He is almost always on the apparatus floor going over the trucks or training the probie. He loves his job and just wants to be the best at it that he can be. Whenever something needs done at the station, Patrick is quick to volunteer. He has earned the trust of his co-workers and they know that when the alarm sounds, Patrick will be ready.

In these stories, I attempted to lead you down three slightly different paths. Pat placed his energy into appearances and let everyone else carry his slack. Rick cared less about his professional appearance, but could carry his team to success with his skill set. Patrick, however, embodied all the best of both the others. He understood that appearances are important, but that you must also have the skills to back it up.

As an industry, the fire service has fought for years to craft an image of professionalism. We call ourselves “professional” firefighters. We say that what we do is not a job, it is a profession. It is said that perception is reality to the receiver. If so, what does that say about our three firefighters? Pat looks the part and would be immediately trusted to provide the professional service that the public expects. But due to his lack of skill, he may fail to rise to those expectations. Rick, on the other hand, may have performed flawlessly, but because he appeared disheveled, the citizen didn’t have faith in him. Patrick took great pride in what he does and showed ownership by training to not only look professional, but to provide the expected level of service as well.

When every department is fighting to justify each dollar in their budget, how would you like the public to see you?  I ask you, does your uniform really matter?  Does your appearance add or subtract from the value you provide your community?

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