Aside from the biggest complaint we get, our driving to and from emergency scenes, why is it we get dinged so often for shopping for the meal at a grocery store or for eating at a restaurant while on-duty? Earlier in my career as a young firefighter, I could never understand why the public, an elected official, or any of our bosses would have a problem with it. I mean, really? We have to eat too! But over the years I grew to see both sides of the issue, and now understand why so many have a problem with it. It’s not that they’re just being nasty when they complain about an Engine or Ladder being at the storeâ€”okay, some areâ€”but it reflects more of a lack of education on our part and then the support or lack of it, from our leadership, our bosses.
I cooked for a lot of years in a firehouse, at times for 10 people, and I can’t imagine having to go shopping before our shift at about 5:00 in the morning because we werenâ€™t allowed to go to the store. Back then we received the complaints and concerns once and a while and each time explained why it was necessary. I know right about now someone with a whole lot of paper hanging on the wall in an office is going to throw out the cost of diesel fuel and being delayed in our response, so hang on, I’ll address that later.
Iâ€™ve had bosses who questioned the trip to the grocery store or why a crew was eating at a restaurant and as fire chief I explained why and it was doneâ€¦issue resolved. I know some out there haven’t had the good fortune of working for some of the great bosses I worked for, but, again, I really feel it all goes back to educating them on why we do it. I had a Mayor once who I loved and respected tell me when I first started with that City, â€œChief, I better not see any of them fire engines or ambulances at the grocery store.â€ I replied â€œMayor, I love you to death and would never disrespect you, but if you’re going to hold me to that then you need to have your Police Chief tell all of his Officers that they can’t eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner while on duty. Our firefighters need to eat too.â€ I explained further how it all worked and even took him for a ride to see a company out while they were shopping and from then on no problems. Actually, as it turned out, in the future when a citizen did complain the mayor was the one who offered the explanation and reason why.
Is that the hill you want to die on?
There are those situations where some of our bosses just donâ€™t get it and will not budge on the issue as they can with others (ex: sitting in front of the firehouse in the evening connecting with the public or having a television set on during the day, etc.) and you may just have to decide is this one of those â€œDo I want to die on that hill?â€ kind of things. Is this one worth the fight with someone who isnâ€™t going to change no matter what? Maybe instead we focus our energy in a different area or with a different cause and revisit the grocery store/restaurant battle later. With any issue, every once in a while itâ€™s about timing.
Again, as we discussed earlier you would think that the whole going to the grocery store on-duty or grabbing-a-meal-while-youâ€™re-out would be self-explanatory, but in many cases itâ€™s not. Just as weâ€™ve done with so many other areasâ€”such as why did we just cut a hole in your roof, why do we send an Engine with the Ambulance, why so many firefighters at this fire, etc.â€”we need to get better at explaining and educating the public (and our bosses) on why itâ€™s not that bad and why at times we need to do it and actually if done right can serve as a great public relations tool.
First of all, on our end we need to train our personnel on the doâ€™s and donâ€™ts of eating out and shopping for the meal. Perception to the public can be reality to them as well. They see an Engine pull up at the store or in the parking lot of a restaurant and think â€œWhoâ€™s covering my neighborhood while theyâ€™re there?â€ and â€œThere goes my tax moneyâ€ and so on and so on. Again, being proactive and getting it out there before hand is often all that is needed to make it go away at least for a while, and then come back and educate them or the new concerned parties later as to why we do it.
A couple of the â€œDoâ€™s and Donâ€™tsâ€ and some ground rules:
- First off, donâ€™t park in the fire lane if you can. Look, I know we’re the fire department, but if your red lights aren’t on and youâ€™re not on a call there, then park in the lot and walk in. Donâ€™t give them anything to complain about.
- Look and act professional. Make sure your uniform is presentable and always remember that youâ€™re in the fish bowl and someone is watching. Again, perception is reality, so look and act good.
- If someone questions you as to why youâ€™re there (the store or the restaurant), answer politely and offer an explanation. Donâ€™t take a defensive posture. Just be honest, polite and professional. Explain to them that response times are not delayed and that their tax dollars are not paying for your food or meal. Many actually think that it comes out of the budget, so just explain that it doesnâ€™t and that we pay for our food just like anyone else. Maybe the trip to the restaurant is necessary because the day has been one of those busy ones with calls and training that didnâ€™t allow you to shoot over to the grocery store. Again, educate them. You do it regarding smoke detectors, blocked exits, first aid and CPR, and a whole host of other topics, so add this one to the list.
- Keep your grocery trips to one a day and do whatever you can to eliminate unnecessary trips that could come back to haunt you. Bundle the tasks you have into one outing if you can. The only really legit point they make is that fuel costs money, so be smart here too.
- When youâ€™re at the store, try and leave someone with the rig. This is not just for security reasons, but to head things off at the pass if anyone walks up with that look on their face as to â€œWhy are you here?â€ Be proactive.
- If you have someone come up and ask questions or they seem curious (or, better yet, have a child with them), seize the opportunity to educate one more time. It could be on something fire prevention-related, safety or first aide, an upcoming event, or maybe even invite them to your firehouse for a visit and tour. If they have a child with them make it â€œshow and tellâ€ time and show them the rig. Try to carry the Jr. Firefighter stickers and the plastic red fire helmets on your apparatus. Regardless of whether itâ€™s at a restaurant or grocery store, wherever you are, always try to sneak in an opportunity to educate. Never waste that chance to make another difference!
- One biggie. Have all of your new firefightersâ€”no, have ALL of your personnelâ€”watch the YouTube video from Butte County where the citizen jumps all over them about being at the grocery store. The citizen is all kinds of nasty and, though it all, the crew remains professional. I mean they are incredible in how they handled the confrontation and that video should be used as an instructional tool in every fire department as to how to handle any citizen complaint. Well done Butte County!!
In closing, I know that there will be times where a citizen or boss just doesnâ€™t understand and fight you with every word. Just remember to be professional and, no matter what, they are the customer or boss and, bottom line, we serve them. If youâ€™re a boss, a chief, try to be reasonable and decent about it all and try to put yourself in or back in the boots of your firefighters.
Hope this helps a little.
Be safe and let me know what you think.
If youâ€™d like to have Chief Lasky out for a presentation, please contact him at www.PrideAndOwnership.com