One day my wife started getting rid of some old T-shirts of mine (without me knowing) to give away to a local charity that resold used clothes. Many were fire department shirts that I had won from T-shirt bets during football season or other fire department shirts I had traded with our department shirts.

I was upset about this because I valued them. But, more importantly, you never know who will end up wearing them.

If some unfortunate event were to occur to a nonfirefighter wearing a fire department's shirt, that is an advertisement and reflects on the department. For example, some may try acting like an off-duty firefighter and ask for leniency for whatever negative situation occurred. This gives all of us a bad name and can taint a department's reputation.

Even though we take a lot of pride in our profession and have expressed that to our friends, families and other acquaintances, negative reports spread. We need to be responsible and careful regarding anything involving our firefighter role. Sworn public servants across the board — law enforcement, fire service, the military and others — must set the standard of excellence in the eyes of the public as well as their employers.

In this vein, people need to be thoughtful about accepting certain privileges, courtesies and discounts graciously offered in gratitude for the job we do, day in and day out. In some cases it can be OK to accept, but never expect or demand a discount or courtesy because it was offered to someone else or in another situation.

For example, don't bring the whole family over to eat off-duty and expect a deal from a restaurant that offers discounts when you are in uniform and on-duty. What usually happens is they stop extending the privilege because one or two individuals messed it up for everyone else.

Whenever a negative event involving a public servant makes the local news, 90 percent of the time the announcement starts out noting that "a firefighter from _______ department" or "a police officer from _______ department" has been involved, accused or found doing something that is not condoned.

Notice that the person's name has been omitted or follows their job title. What we have just done is given everyone we work with and our fire department a bad name and have tinged all that we stand for: honor, respect, loyalty, devotion to duty, etc.

A story told to me at a church workshop further illustrates the point. The storyteller said he had a car accident involving an elderly person. He immediately got out of his vehicle and started to verbalize "colorful metaphors" to the elderly person.

When the elderly person saw who it was, he said, "Oh, you're the man that reads at church, oh my goodness, I have just hit Jesus Christ." The speaker then realized he had to swallow his words and remember that he represents the church, wherever and whenever he goes out.

Always be cognizant of your actions and always remember that you are a representative of an institution and everything it stands for. If a situation starts to become unruly or out of control, remove yourself from the environment or be assured you have others who support you and know what is best to avoid conflict or bad decisions. The last thing you would want to happen is to lose your job and career over a bad decision that could have been avoided.

There are times that my neighbors seek advice from me or come knocking at my door because they know that I am a firefighter. It could be to render first aid for a minor accident or wound, interpretation of a fire code for a business, checking on a relative because they are not feeling well, etc.

We want people to like firefighters in general, not hate them or think negatively about them. The goal is come out looking like and always being the good guy.