Applying cowboy ethics to today’s firefighters
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Growing up in rural Wisconsin, I dreamed of being a cowboy someday. For whatever reason, my real fascination was horses.
I have lived with horses and dogs most of my life, but I would never consider myself a cowboy. I was fortunate enough to know some real cowboys and even got to ride in a two-day round-up of 300 head of cattle. That was a blast.
Most young boys dream of being a soldier, cop or firefighter. But for me, it was living in the West and owning some land with my horses and dogs. That dream came true, and I became a firefighter. In that regard, I have been very lucky to have had both a great job and my dream.
Several years ago, I was given a book called "Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West." I have taken the liberty to apply those "cowboy ethics" to firefighters and our profession.
"The code of the West is based not on myth, but on the reality of life on the open range," James P. Owen writes in the book. I think it applies to life as a firefighter as well.
Living by this code comes naturally to most of us. However, let's get something straight from the beginning. Cowboys and firefighters are not perfect. Both like to drink a bit, curse and can be politically incorrect. But at the core are some real positives that make up this code we live by.
1. Live each day with courage
Courage comes with the risks we face every day. Each shift is different, and there is no certainty of what we may face.
Being prepared through training and teamwork is a must for firefighters. Anyone who has worn the uniform knows that the structure fire at 3 a.m. with smoke showing will test your courage. Cowards will not be tolerated.
The following words were written by John R. Erickson who was a writer and lived the cowboy life. I like them because you can insert the word "firefighter" in place of "cowboy."
"The heroism of the working cowboy (firefighter) isn't a joke ... it isn't something that has been cooked up by an advertising agency, and it isn’t something that cheap minds will ever understand. Cowboys (firefighters) are heroic because they exercise human courage on a daily basis.
"They live with danger. They take chances. They sweat, they bleed, they burn in the summer and freeze in the winter. They find out how much a mere human can do, and they do a little more. They reach beyond themselves."
2. Take pride in your work
Most firefighters are humble but proud of their work. To wear the badge is not a boastful act, but it shows that we are proud and have worked hard to get that honor.
If you ask a firefighter, "Why do you do this job?" The answer is almost always, "To serve a greater cause." The old saying "Cowboying doesn’t build character, it reveals it" is true of firefighters as well.
3. Always finish what you start
"No cowboy ever quit while his life was hardest and his duties were most exacting," J. Frank Dobie writes.
Firefighters have the immense responsibility to finish the job. The worst thing a firefighter wants to hear is that a fire that was supposed to be out has rekindled. Even the mundane chores are important to finish. If you don’t finish it, then someone else will get the mess.
Cowboys hated quitters. "They hated the whining and complaining almost as much, because those things had the stench of quitting," Owen writes.
4. Do what has to be done
This is as straightforward as it gets. Do the job, whatever it is, to the best of your abilities.
On the range, the true test of a man’s honor was how much he would risk to keep it intact. Life as a firefighter is not only answering the calls but making sure life in the house was comfortable and friendly to all. The firehouse is your bunkhouse and the engine is your horse.
5. Be tough, but fair
What kind of toughness does a firefighter need to have? It is hard to define but there is an inner toughness that says, "I have a job to do and sometimes it is dirty, hard and dangerous. I am cautious but not afraid. I have trained hard for all the challenges I may face. I will go the extra mile if needed and I will push myself beyond its limits."
Fairness is simple. The golden rule is all you need to know. Treat everyone with respect and dignity. Expect the same in return. In the station and out in public, we demand respect and kindness. It is a two-way street.
6. When you make a promise, keep it
This is so important. A promise is a commitment to your fellow firefighters to be there when needed. The job requires teamwork. And, just like other teams, firefighters count on everyone doing their job.
The promise is an unwritten code that says we are all in this together. Taking care of each other on and off the job is a must. As the saying goes, "A man is only as good as his word."
7. Ride for the brand
This is one principle that is often misunderstood. Loyalty is what we are talking about. For firefighters, this is our badge and what it means to wear it. Pride, honor and tradition are part of the firefighter brand.
The fire service has always been a para-military organization with rank and chain of command. Fire departments share this brand with our own unique patches. But in the end, we all are firefighters. We share a way of life and a calling that makes us a little different from others.
8. Talk less and say more
This is my favorite. Enough said.
9. Some things aren't for sale
"To the cowboy, the best things in life aren't things," Owen writes. How true.
I remember with great fondness the time I spent at Central Station One. Back then, we did not run the call load they do today. Our time was spent cooking great meals, playing cribbage and playing some fierce ping pong matches.
During the day, we trained, flowed hydrants and did our company inspections. We did run our share of calls, but our down time was a time of connection. I hate to say it, but in today’s digital world, things have changed. Every generation sets a new standard, but I still believe we do the job, not for the money, but for the brand of being called a firefighter.
10. Know where to draw the line
"There's right and there's wrong, and nothing in between," Owen writes. This may sound a bit black and white in a world full of gray, but when it comes to firefighters, it holds true.
We take an oath to serve all of mankind. That oath says to do the right thing to the best of our abilities. We serve the public, and we care for each other. The line is drawn in our camaraderie and our respect for all.
There are certain "hard and fast" rules we live by. If we don’t, there can be very bad outcomes. Every shift is full of uncertainty but the line says we come to work in a full ready mode. Our equipment and our truck are checked, our pass along is complete and off we go. Never cross the line.
"Cowboy Ethics" was written with the idea that this simple code can and should be the code for Wall Street, the fire service, law enforcement or just your own personal code in life. These 10 principles can offer some inspiration to anyone who cares to understand them. These are my own guiding principles that keep me focused.
Firefighting is a way of life just like that of the cowboy. Ride for your brand!
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