Why is it so wrong to go to the grocery store on-duty?

Photo 1 near title...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 store—okay, some are—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 weren’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.

I’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 done…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, “Chief, I better not see any of them fire engines or ambulances at the grocery store.” I replied “Mayor, 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.” 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 don’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 “Do I want to die on that hill?” kind of things. Is this one worth the fight with someone who isn’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 it’s about timing.

The justification

Again, as we discussed earlier you would think that the whole going to the grocery store on-duty or grabbing-a-meal-while-you’re-out would be self-explanatory, but in many cases it’s not. Just as we’ve done with so many other areas—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.—we need to get better at explaining and educating the public (and our bosses) on why it’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 do’s and don’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 “Who’s covering my neighborhood while they’re there?” and “There goes my tax money” 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.

Photo 2 near a couple of the “Do’s and Don’ts”...

A couple of the “Do’s and Don’ts” and some ground rules:

  • First off, don’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 you’re not on a call there, then park in the lot and walk in. Don’t give them anything to complain about.
  • Look and act professional. Make sure your uniform is presentable and always remember that you’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 you’re there (the store or the restaurant), answer politely and offer an explanation. Don’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 doesn’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 didn’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 you’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 “Why are you here?” 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 “show and tell” 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 it’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 firefighters—no, have ALL of your personnel—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 doesn’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 you’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 you’d like to have Chief Lasky out for a presentation, please contact him at www.PrideAndOwnership.com

48 Comments

  • Jim Moss says:

    Chief,

    Well said! You are correct: when out and about, always be courteous, professional, and proactive in our interactions with the public—not only at the grocery store, but everywhere! Thanks for posting, Chief.

    Fraternally,
    Jim

  • Jason Mays says:

    Thanks for bringing this up, Chief! This issue comes up all of the time in our city and our firefighters professionally mitigate the situation with information. As you said the majority of citizen concerns can be turned into a positive exchange with a win-win outcome for all involved. It takes patiently explaining the situation.
    Here at home, we’ve had a citizen call in to complain about a crew being at one of their children’s games. One of the crew members was there to watch his daughter play a game. The top admin recinded the privilege of taking trucks to their children’s games rather than allow dialog to come up with a collaborative result. This wasn’t well received among the line and left most with a feeling that those making decisions have forgotten where they came from. Not too good!
    It was discussed around the department of how 99 percent of the time, these visits turn into a truck/equipment demonstration, or handing out a stuffed animal to a little one. We, in the fire service, must come to the realization that perception is everything and that rather than get mad or change rules (if you’re administration ), take the time to calmly inform those that take time to voice concerns.
    It’s not a matter of exaggerating what ‘we’ do, it’s simply informing our citizens of our shift schedule, to inform them how much time we spend away from our loved ones, it takes explaining why we go everywhere together as a crew. Handing out stuffed animals and giving truck tours never hurts either!

    • Rick Lasky says:

      Thanks Jason! Great points and great message. At times in our quickness to handle a situation we jump too quick and end up punishing the good people and as you said so perfectly, ruin some great opportunities to get out into the public. The day of hiding the firefighters in the firehouse is gone and the proactive leaders realize it.
      Thanks again Jason and be safe!

  • Scotty Bush says:

    Chief,

    Great post and we must always demonstrate courteous, professional and proactiveness while in uniform. I have made reference to the fact that I want my guys spending money in the city they work in and I also want them to interact with the public at restaurants , stores and ball parks. If we don’t they only see us when it’s a true emergency and they don’t know who is behind that gear or stethoscope!!!

    • Rick Lasky says:

      Great point Scotty!! No one ever mentions that we’re spending money in our town. Great point to remember when you’re asked about being at the store.
      Thanks brother!

  • Jon Darryle Marsh says:

    Thanks Chief Lasky, excellent article. Just before I retired, we had a Chief who constantly lamented,” Don’t let me catch any of you with any of our apparatus parked in front of a restaurant…” his reasoning was in the possibility of having to explain fuel costs to his superiors. He, being a yes puppet, never reasoned on wanted to hear what positive results can, and do come from daily routine-non emergent action with the public. He was only interested in covering his own butt. He was the definition of a self-serving Chief. Your suggestions are sound essentials nowdays where everyone is offended for as many reasons as there are grains of sand on the beach. I still believe that in the course of fire prevention or explaining home sprinkler systems, or any fire department operation; we can do more in having one on one conversations with folks while we are at restaurants or grocery stores etc., we have to use our heads in doing so.

  • Great article! So much so that I don’t have much to offer. I have had so many mixed experiences, both good and bad. Fortunately most of the time it is residents who are curious about what we will be making that meal. Again, great job Chief! And if you don’t mind I will be sharing this article.

    Stay safe, eat well,
    AJ

  • Curtis Dunn says:

    As usual your spot in Chief, thank you. I’ve read your book and tried to instil it in my crew. I was a lucky one as I worked the district my daughters went to high school and played volleyball. We went to most games and not only enjoyed the games but were accepted and welcome by most everyone. We would get there early and stay after just to let people see the rig and ask questions! Again chief thanks for your service. Buy the way taught cancer prevention in Lewisville last week…. What a great bunch you had there!!! Curtis

    • Rick Lasky says:

      Thanks Curtis. It’s really not that difficult if the crews act professional and as you said, turn it into a pub ed event as well! Now we just need more bosses to jump onboard and realize that it can work.

  • Mark Schell says:

    Carry a small folding table, brochures and a couple working smoke detectors on the truck. While a couple members shop, the rest of the crew sets up a Fire Prevention display. Boom.

  • Mark Black says:

    Verbal judo is a prerequisite if you’re not proactive with the customer service angle when grocery shopping. The biggest complainer I ever ran into was actually a civilian thinking we were out of service while grocery shopping. After asking what part of our district he lived in, and corrected his misperception, I was able to convince him we had a faster response time to his house when we were at the store!

  • Bob says:

    If someone asks you an honest question, give them an honest answer, because that’s all that is required for rational folks to understand. In the event you encounter someone irrational, simply pat them on the head gently, congratulate them on their promotion to fire chief, and be on way.

  • Great words of wisdom Chief. We must always remember like it or not, we are firefighters 24/7 in or out of uniform. Thanks

  • Jason mcmillan says:

    Good article.

    However it skips the legal reason why crew must be allowed to secure meals while on duty.

    FLSA states that all employees must given a meal break.

    If the employer does not give a meal break then the employer must pay for the employees meals.
    A ” break” means that the employee has no work obligations.

    The long established tradition of firefighters going to the store on shift is founded in this bit of employee law.

  • Phil says:

    good article. The only thing I disagree with is the Fire Lane. I had that discussion with many citizens over the years and after explaining it would be quicker for us to respond to thier emergency without having to sprint all the way across the lot they always seemed to understand.

  • Kenneth hedgepeth says:

    The firefighters, paramedics, and police officers that serve our communities have every intention of giving their lives for all of us no matter how big or small the situation. They as well as the community have families that depend on them. I once volunteered as a fireman for several years, it was an uplifting experience, no I didn’t have to spend 24 hours away from my family and that’s why I think people should not complain about the ones that help us when we need to shop,eat and do normal everyday activities. Thank ya’ll for doing what ya’ll do.

  • Ron Ayotte says:

    Chief… this is a grand slam…excellent article.

  • George says:

    Great article Chief! Have this battle continually were I am at on the federal side. So bad to the point now we have been instructed. Not to stop at a store in our POV. On a day to day assignment to another station as we are on “government time” and we can make arrangements to get food when we get to the station we are at that day. Normally amounts to a subway McDonald’s or someother fast food chain.Crazy how some managers take their employees for granted and scrutinize every single rule and regulation. An would rather see the workforce miserable and beat down. Rather the letting guys get together an shop an break bread together. Luckily enough my station is short staffed currently and we do shop off duty an bring in to keep that brotherhood bond alive and well!! Again great article thanks for all the tips and pointers.

  • Thomas palisi says:

    Thank you chief. I work for 2 departments and volunteer at another. They are all neighboring each other. One dept. does not allow anyone to go to the store in a fire truck period, one allows us to go to the store but not out to eat, and one allows us to go to the store and go out to eat if we want. I have found that by going out to eat and sitting in restaurants, we have created relationships with citizens of the district by being in the public eye. Most of the people know us by name and happily come to our table to “shoot the breeze.” We also understand that if we catch a role during the meal that we have to stop eating and handle business. And like I said, our relationships are so good with the citizens and the restaurant workers of the district that many times we may even have to leave before Paying the tab but they just hold onto it and know we will be back to settle up as soon as we can. Thanks for the article Chief.

  • Kevin Rounds says:

    GREAT tips Chief!! Shared with our whole department.

  • Garry Ruble says:

    Spot on. Should be required reading for everyone. Thanks!

  • Chris Haile says:

    Chief, great article many good points were made. Those guys from Butte County are my guys, and I’m very proud of them and the way they remained professional while being berated by the gentleman. We have received comments via e mail and letters through the mail from all over the world admiring how they handled a tough situation. Keep up the great work with your column. Chris Haile, Division Chief, Cal Fire/Butte County Fire.

  • Michael McDowell says:

    Great points. The departments I work with, volunteer and professional, are now making sure to wear the uniform shirt and badge when we leave the station. It looks a lot sharper and the public sees dedicated professionals, which is what they are paying for.

  • Ed Woods says:

    A good read Chief, Thank You. I guess I’m lucky, but your topic isn’t a problem in my neck of the woods. (Major East Coast Metro Area) We do shopping trips as a regular thing with no fussing from our customers. However as you have pointed out, making a positive event out of any public contact is always a plus for us. We do leave someone with the apparatus at all times, and almost every time there is a small child wanting to look at the Fire Engine….. Being a combination department, we also add Volunteer Recruitment to the conversation when it seems appropriate. Thanks again.

  • Squad51kmg365 says:

    Fantastic and spot on, Chief! I’ll add a few other things to the many great methods you and others here have mentioned. We’ve used these two successfully for explanations: In this age of new and more frequent threats, our presence out and about in our community acts as additional eyes and ears to help secure the Homeland. As for shopping at the supermarket, (assuming we’re buying “healthy” ingredients), one can make the case that we can prepare healthier meals by picking up fresh, wholesome ingredients than resorting to fast food or microwave lunches and dinners. And who doesn’t want their Firefighters, EMTs, and Paramedics healthy? Keep up the great work, be safe, and keep “paying it forward” with your experience and perspective!

    • Rick Lasky says:

      Thank you brother!
      Great ideas and message. Two more great explanations for those who ask. More eyes on the street!
      Thanks for your kind words too. I truly appreciate them brother.
      Be safe!

  • Eng66-RiSi says:

    Chief,
    I “stumbled” on this article and your site while doing research for a Fire Officer 1 class. My assignment, to find a policy in our FD that I would like to change, then submit a new revised policy and an explanation as to why and how it would be implemented. The choice to address our policy of no eating out was an easy one for me and a popular choice amongst my crew members. Thank you and everyone on here for a wonderful point of view, from respected veterans of the fire service. Most of the points y’all made were ones we had discussed or known personally, but seem to have been forgotten or ignored by our Command Staff. In my humble opinion, the most prescient point made by you and your panel, is that of communication. It is still amazing that communication is the buzz word of the day, yet so little is actually done to further that goal. Thank you and all for the clear and concise arguments given, I took furious notes and am sure I’ll get 100 on this project. I hope you don’t mind if I quote you, credit given of course. And this will definitely be a regularly visited site of mine from now on. Thank you again.
    Sincerely,
    David Spidle

  • Ron says:

    Chief thx for the great article. I completely agree with the fact that everyone on the crew should be professional and gracious at all times. The only issue I had while on the clock was that the village bosses knew very little about us and only thought we went shopping during our breaks from “playing checkers” or “washing our cars”. The unfortunate part is that even when we had large training sessions and thought it would be beneficial to invite them to see what we do and they never showed up. I also felt that as Lt I had no problem maintaining standards in public but we were never fairly represented to the forefathers from the Chief because he was always looking over his shoulder to be released. Sometimes they just don’t know and they just don’t want to know.

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