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Leading in the U.S. Fire Service - Unwavering Integrity

If me advocating for firefighters or the general public on a fire and an emergency services related issue costs me my beloved appointment as fire chief, then so be it.” - Oakland Chief Reginald D. Freeman, PhD.


As someone who has been a fire chief for 15 years, I can tell you that one thing that I have never compromised and will never compromise is my Integrity. Some fire chiefs struggle with some aspects of decision making outside of emergency scenarios because of the conflicting interests. There is self-actualization and job security that may compete with advocating for your membership. Simply put, what do you do when doing the right thing may cost you your job?


I have never struggled with this question because Integrity is non-negotiable. If me advocating for firefighters or the general public on a fire and an emergency services related issue costs me my beloved appointment as fire chief, then so be it.


I recall one particular scenario where my Integrity was directly challenged. It involved a discussion that I had with my boss going back to when I was being interviewed for the fire chief position. The individual asked me a lot of questions and at the very end of the interview asked me did I have any questions for them?


I responded, “Yes. I only have one. Are you looking to lay off firefighters or close any companies because I don’t do that.” The person responded back with, “No, no, no. I’m just looking for someone to lead the fire department and restore its reputation.”

I was delighted and relieved to hear this and humbly accepted the position. Literally after being on the job for 3 weeks, the same individual summons me to their office and says, “Chief, we are not in a good disposition fiscally and we have to close 2 companies.” I was shocked to say the least.


I respectfully informed my boss that we could not close any companies, for it would be a public safety issue and a safety issue to the membership. I also reminded them of our previous conversation prior to me officially being appointed and presented the objective reasons for my pushback.


When you can present facts that reinforce your ask or defense of a position, it is not your opinion but a matter of fact. Removing emotion from these sorts of discussions is critically important to achieving the outcome you are pursuing. However, the outcome was not guaranteed by my logical reasoning. I knew that I was risking my “job” by professionally saying, “no”.


But, my Integrity was and is more important to me than any title or position that I may hold. When your Integrity is unwavering, your character is reinforced and undisputable. After presenting objective data that reinforced my position as the Chief, the efforts to close two companies went away and my Integrity was still intact. Integrity is rarely the easy way to go, but it is always the right way to go.


The American fire service has been revered and honored since its inception in Philadelphia, PA. Ben Franklin established the first volunteer fire service to help protect the many buildings and investments that he owned. Fast forward to today, the fire service still enjoys a high approval rating from residents, bureaucrats and elected officials alike. This is in large part due to Firefighters having “servant’s hearts” and anytime that we respond to an incident, we are always there to help without any threat of prosecution or detainment.


The Maltese Cross is the international symbol of the fire service’s willingness to make great sacrifices in order to protect others from fire. There are 8 points on the Maltese Cross, and each has a different meaning. These 8 points are identified as Gallantry, Perseverance, Loyalty, Dexterity, Explicitness, Observation, Tact, and Sympathy. As with any honorable profession, Integrity plays a critical role in meeting objectives and maximizing organizational effectiveness.


I (Dave) encountered situations more than once where exercising Integrity could put my job at risk. Unfortunately, I failed some of those tests in my younger years. Chief Freeman’s statement that his Integrity is more important than any title or position he may hold is a perspective we should all have.


The word Integrity comes from the root word Integer. Integer means “whole or pure”. If we only exercise Integrity when it can’t cost us anything, that is not Integrity. Chief Freeman gives us all a great example of that!


Chief Reginald Freeman is currently the Fire Chief in Oakland California. Prior to the City of Oakland, he served as the Fire Chief for the City of Hartford from 2016-2021 and was the Fire Chief for Lockheed Martin and served as a civilian Fire Chief in Iraq for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2004-2008. He has also earned a Masters and Doctoral degree. Learn more here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/reginald-freeman/

 

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