Halton: Firefighters Cannot NOT Help People

Chief Bobby Halton, editor in chief Fire Engineering/FDIC International education director, bolstered the energy and passion of the audience at this morning’s Opening Session with his “Welcome” address, providing the surge in their spirit of renewal and dedication that attendees have come to expect from FDIC.

Halton assured the firefighers and other first responders that, in contrast to many civilian settings in today’s society, “they would never feel uncomfortable or out of step among their fellow firefighters, policemen, and warfighters, where words like ‘duty,’ ‘honor,’ ‘God,’ ‘service,’ and ‘country’ need no explanation or apology.”

Approaching the theme of “obligation,” Halton first tweaked the answer to a question posed to many firefighters: Why did you want to be a firefighter? The most authentic answer, he said, is simply, “Because I just like to help people.” But, Halton said, “The problem is, that is not true. We don’t like to help people. Firefighters MUST help people. They are compelled to help people…Firefighters cannot NOT help people. They accept that they are obligated to help people.”

However, Halton noted: “That sense of obligation now is being misunderstood and confused. We hear it online, in after-action reports, and elsewhere. [It is] vilified especially in hindsight as ‘a way of being’ or acting that is regressive, antiquated, and ignorant. This is understandable,” he said, “given the western society’s cultural drift into homo deism, absolutism, and elitism.” Some of the attitudes of a social mindset confident of its moral and intellectual superiority to all who came before are creeping into the fire service, Halton said. “Our beloved fire service, as is our national cultural identity, is under the same assaults, under the same ridicule, under the same attacks. From this lofty perch, our detractors see all of our traditions, proven and vetted tactical profiles, cultural norms, historical legends, our relentless innovation and creativity by default as flawed, corrupt, and deficient.

“Our detractors and the polite people who lack skin in the game have no concept of our sense of obligation to our sacred covenant with our fellow citizens, and they confuse it with our social contract with our subscribed customers. Our critics are convinced they are doing good by protecting us from our vintage selves, enlightening us less informed, and saving us from our outdated morals. They are confusing our sacred covenant with our social contract.”

“True firefighters are grateful and free,” said Halton. “We are free to use the insights gained from research and to embed them in proven tactics. We are grateful for the increasing knowledge of fire behavior, toxicity, and reactivity. True firefighters embrace all this knowledge. We use it to honor the social contract between us and the customers we serve. We use it to modify our tactics, improve procedures, and grow as craftspeople. We do this enthusiastically while being aware that doing so does not interfere with something more sacred–our obligation to honor our sacred covenant. Firefighters have first a covenant, a sacred obligation. A primary obligation between them and their fellow citizens. They have second, a contract, a fiduciary obligation, a secondary obligation between them and their customers.

There is a difference between a customer and a provider in a social contract and a citizen to a citizen in a sacred covenant.

“Firefighters enter a sacred covenant first; the social contract is second,” Halton related. Although the two are often confused, they are quite different. He explained: A contract involves an exchange, such as your plumber for his services. A covenant, on the other hand is more like a marriage. It is sacred and respects the dignity and integrity of others in a bond of loyalty and trust. A covenant isn’t about me, my interests, or my identity. Society and covenant is about our desires; government and contract is about our wickedness. “We have a covenant with our fellow citizens and our fellow firefighters, and covenants are sacred because they involve sacrifice–real sacrifice and real blood,” Halton noted.

Neither side on this misunderstanding inside the fire service is bad or immoral, or right or wrong, Halton said; the confusion has to do with when we are respecting our social contract and when we are honoring our sacred covenant.

“Firefighters,” he stressed, “must be completely aware and consciously respectful of these two universal forces: one to control our wickedness and weakness and one to raise up our lives and our eternal souls.”

The American firefighter has embraced this obligation and has chosen to be among those who over the centuries

dating back to ancient Greece have taken an oath, have made a covenant, have accepted an obligation …. And have pledged like the ancient Athenians “to fight for the ideals and sacred things of the city … to revere and obey the city’s laws and do our best to incite a like respect in others, and to pass on our city-state as “far greater and more beautiful” than we had received it.”

“All of your gathered here today represent that character and consequence, that honor and dedication,” Halton acknowledged. “The American fire service operates forward in the real world, not in a laboratory or a classroom, not in theory, not in some elaborate elitist construct of how the world should work. We operate forward in the real world with real people and real problems in real time against real threats. Those threats require that we are morally grounded, emotionally and spiritually prepared, if the time should come that we must place mission over self and honor our ancient obligation. We can never accept defeat, must always improvise, adapt, and fight and, when necessary, must honor our obligation to our last defiant breath.”

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