Right now I am sitting in a coffee shop writing a paper; well, sitting in a coffee shop pretending to be productive by occasionally adding a few sentences to a paper. I’m probably a little insufferable, because I’m using a MacBook Pro, an iPhone 4, and listening to the latest Ray LaMontagne release on NPR. If I borrowed another’s eyes I would surely make that snap judgment about this person sitting in the corner booth with a bottle of imported mineral water and a latte. This person is projecting an image. (Full disclosure: I am wearing a fire department tee shirt and college gym shorts and did not ride a fixie up here). Back in my own body, behind my own eyes, I self-identify as something else. You’re not my therapist or an ex-girlfriend on the other end of a 3am drunken phone call, so we won’t delve too deeply into that. Suffice it to say that my identity is not entirely congruent with the image suggested by my current disposition.
So it is with the fire service. Retired fire chief, and current professor of fire and emergency management administration at Oklahoma State University, Bill Pessemier said something in a class I took that struck me as particularly incisive. Our identity, as a fire service, is not our image. We tend to project our identities onto the public, mistaking our self-identificaiton for our image in their eyes. Too many firefighters think that we are heroes to a grateful community. To a lot of community members we are just guys with cushy jobs and excellent propaganda skills (WARNING: that article will piss you off and came out in 2003, so don’t stir it up again).
Communication requires two parties, a sender and a receiver, and it rests on underlying assumptions about the contexts of the two. You cannot communicate effectively if you attempt to send information with a profoundly deficient idea of what the receiver thinks of you. We say we need more people to fight fire (this much is self-evident to us) but a lot of people out there hear us saying we need to expand the union rolls and build a little kingdom of people to grill hamburgers on the taxpayer’s dime.
We are responsible for our images and it is imperative that we control what we can. Malfeasance, misfeasance, and clownish behavior don’t help matters. The public will misconstrue an incredible amount of what we do; check the linked article above for some great examples.
Control what you can, be conscious that not everyone trusts in our good intentions, and, for the love of Layman, don’t embarrass us.