Service before self. These three words speak volumes about one’s personal beliefs, decision-making and commitment to a specific cause. In some cases they’re attached to a tragic event or an individual as a matter of reverence, but in every case, they represent the highest level of commitment that an organization can ask of an individual or team.
The U.S. Air Force has adopted this phrase as one of its three core values. The Air Force Core Values Booklet (aka “The Little Blue Book”) says, “Service before self tells us that professional duties take precedence over personal desires.” The booklet goes on to say that Air Force personnel must place the needs of others above their own personal comfort, that they must exhibit discipline and self-control in daily affairs, and that they must have faith in the system—the Air Force.”
Much like those in the military, upon entering the fire service, we all take an oath to uphold the core values of the organization we serve. We agree to protect our respective communities in the most effective and efficient manner possible. We agree to represent our department and our city leaders as professionals. We agree to make decisions and take actions that are reflective of departmental policies and procedures. And we agree to use the resources provided, coupled with the training and education we’ve received over the years, to provide the highest level of protection possible to our citizens—and when necessary, take calculated risk to save lives and protect property.
Having raised my right hand and taken this oath several times, I openly admit that the excitement of the moment has oftentimes overshadowed the depths of the responsibilities I’d assumed and the commitment I’d made to myself, my family and the community.
As public servants, we are oftentimes faced with situations that challenge our resolve and dedication to this oath. Our willingness to perform is seldom if ever in question when the ravages of fire or other emergencies strike our communities or directly affect our loved ones. But what happens when those disasters strike strangers, those with whom we have no direct connection? Do we exemplify the same courage and dedication we provide our immediate neighbors? Or, what about “emergencies” that aren’t life-threatening or related to natural disaster, but are rather administrative emergencies (with which we’ve become all too familiar in this economic downturn)? Are those “non-life-threatening emergencies” addressed with the same courage, bravery and personal sacrifice we swore to provide?
On Jan. 12, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook an impoverished nation more than 700 miles south of our most southern border. With more than 230,000 dead and 300,000 injured in the aftermath, the calls for help were broadcast around the world. As is our longstanding tradition, the United States responded with caches of specialized equipment and some of our nation’s best Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams. Faced with a scene of devastation beyond words, these men and women worked in deplorable conditions, with scarce resources, racing against the clock, to achieve some of the most remarkable rescues in USAR history.
These men and women were deployed far beyond their respective city/county limits. They deployed to a nation where their personal health and safety could not be guaranteed. They deployed into the deepest of voids in a quest to save men, women and children whom they had never met, nor had any personal responsibility to protect. These men and women put service before self.
In a far different scenario here at home, the city of Tulsa, Okla., was faced with a financial burden of $10.4 million that would ultimately threaten the jobs of 147 firefighters. In a landmark vote, the union members of the Tulsa Fire Department voted overwhelmingly to accept a 5.2 percent salary cut for 17 months, 8 unpaid furlough days in the next fiscal year and the elimination of benefits such as fitness pay and a clothing allowance to protect the jobs of their fellow firefighters while at the same time ensuring that the safety of their city was not interrupted nor compromised.
To the credit of the Tulsa firefighters, not a single job was lost. Although each member will be burdened with a degree of personal sacrifice, the message was clear: The men and women of the Tulsa Fire Department put service before self.
Service before self is not a catch phrase; it’s a lifestyle. It’s the characteristic of truly dedicated individuals and it’s the purest representation of brother and sisterhood.
To each of you who have put service before self, I say thank you—you have raised the bar of professionalism for us all. You have proven that despite the toughest of challenges, foreign or domestic, emergent or non-
emergent, our nation’s firefighters stand ready to serve.