Ricci at FDIC: “It’s Time to Take Back the Fire Service”

At FDIC, Ricci evokes Brennan, urges “political courage”

In a forceful address that touched on topics as diverse as fire service culture, the need for stronger leadership, equal opportunity, merit and the debate over education vs. experience, Frank Ricci urged FDIC attendees to have “political courage” in his keynote address at today’s General Session.

Ricci, a lieutenant with the New Haven (Conn.) Fire Department who became a fire service household name when he led a successful lawsuit alleging that New Haven discriminated against firefighters with regard to promotion, quoted fire service legend Tom Brennan, who once stated that firefighters were “losing the fire service to the politicians.” Ricci argued that the same thing is happening now. “Tom knew that safety goes well beyond strategy and tactics,” he said. “Critical elements of our survival are dictated by politics.”

Arguing that politicians “view us as sheep, content to be slaughtered” and “shake our hands while they slash our budgets,” Ricci implored firefighters to get involved in politics, to take a stand: “How many of you are willing to go shoulder to shoulder against city hall? We must all get involved.”

If the fire service is going to successfully fight that battle, however, Ricci said that it first must get its “own house in order” and take personal responsibility for safety. That involves eliminating what Ricci identifies as they “four horsemen of the fire service”—lack of accountability, loss of faith, indifference and politics over merit.

Lack of accountability
Ricci believes that culture is being blamed for things such as firefighters not wearing seatbelts or not staying in shape. “The culture myth is a crutch,” he argued, saying that in fact, fire service culture represents everything good about the fire service and that the problem lies in leadership. “Too many chiefs are so focused on keeping their jobs that they forget to do them,” Ricci said, arguing that although chiefs must understand politics, they are at heart advocates for their firefighters—not politicians.

Loss of faith and indifference
Ricci says the “second and third horsemen always ride together and they strike at the very heart of who we are.” When members get bitter or burn out, they lose their sense of duty and passion. But Ricci cautioned that although loss of faith is often a reaction to unfair actions of politicians, the results don’t hurt politicians, only fellow firefighters. “Politicians don’t care if your will or spirit has been broken,” he said. “The only guy that’s hurt is the guy crawling down that hot hall next to you.”

Ricci also advocated individual leadership and the willingness to stand strong despite the fact that it’s lonely sometimes. He explained that national leadership organizations such as the IAFF or the IAFC can’t always take a stand on the big issues, that it takes individuals to push the fire service in a particular direction. “The answer is not to walk away, it’s to participate in the debate and move the process forward,” Ricci said. “Leaders won’t always be able to stand with you, but this isn’t an excuse to give up the fight. We must be careful never to demonize those who disagree with us.”

As an example, Ricci took a moment to recognize four individuals who he felt defended him during the smear campaign that he endured during his lawsuit. He presented each of the individuals with a flag that had flown over the U.S. Supreme Court during the arguments in his suit.

Politics over merit
Issues of merit and equal opportunity were at the heart of Ricci’s lawsuit, and he shared some of his beliefs today about how the fire service suffers when merit is disregarded in hiring and promotional decisions. “We must ensure that no one’s hands are on the scale,” he said. “Equal opportunity does not mean equal outcome. Merit matters.” Arguing that some firefighters feel they’re entitled to a free ride, Ricci insisted, “Dumbing down [promotional] exams is a form of bigotry.”

Merit, Ricci argued, is not simply a matter of years of service, but also involves continuing education and training—much like the classes offered at FDIC. “Experience is the best teacher, but only a fool learns in that school alone,” he warned.

Ricci left the audience with an impassioned appeal to take back the fire service. Quoting Edward R. Murrow, who once said “A nation of sheep will begat a government of wolves,” Ricci challenged all firefighters: “It’s your choice—to be predator or prey.”

Shannon Pieper is deputy editor for FireRescue magazine.

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Comment by WestPhilly on April 24, 2010 at 1:03pm
Mike and Mark,

Bear in mind that Ricci didn't say all chiefs or even most chiefs, he said "too many chiefs...". That might actually be only a very small number, but still "too many" nonetheless.
Comment by Mark C. Oswald on April 24, 2010 at 7:25am
Chief I agree he shouldn't have taken a swipe at Chief Officers, there is a minority that might deserve the swipe, but I don't feel the general statement begets the whole of the service.

I do agree with the 4 horsemen philosophy, and wholeheartedly beleive that there is a problem. I have heard from friends of mine in the US that have left the service spesifically over the fact that the service is more ego driven than it used to be. I did have to sit back and think that maybe this is just an American problem, unfortunately it isn't.

I lost my job in the Fire Service in Australia (Defence Force) because of the same reason. The ADF purchaced a set of turnout gear that was wrong for the job at hand, firefighters were getting burnt in it in training fires! God help them if a big fire was to happen. I spoke out about it, having a background in turnout gear design led me to have that knoweldge. As soon as I did all hell broke loose... I have fought for the past 3.5 years to have this gear either modified or taken out of service, with politics and the good 'ol boy system coming into place. Twice now through Defence channels it has been squashed. I went to a minister and they didn't talk to me about what happened, they asked the idiots who run the fire service there and they made me out to be the idiot, citing things from my record that by law are not allowed to be divulged. Legally speaking it's just plain slander.

I petetioned the firefighters, who after seeing me get my butt kicked decided the best thing to do was keep their mouths shut and just not bother with it at all. Digging into this further it was found the gear was being washed with bed linen! The washing cycles were with bleach and so on and so on. Though the immediate health and safety concerns were dealt with, the problematic gear still hasn't been pulled from service.

The contract has been extended for another 3 years, which really made my heart sink. All this goes to show that someone made a mistake, rather than admit to the error they would rather cover it up and sweep anything standing in their way under the rug and play with their own firefighters lives.

Politics and firefighting do not mix, people who cover up their lies should be disgraced from the service and folks should not be procuring products they don't understand based around a limited budget. I used to think when I left the states that I was going somewhere that would respect experience and trust their firefighters, well I was wrong. I'm planning on moving home to the US and taking up a job there as a firefighter, why, because folks are willing to stand up and say what is on their mind, albeit a bit askew (again I don't agree with everything he said), and others will stand up and back up their brothers and sisters.

The gear... Well would you wear a PBI Gold set of turnout gear with a sewn in liner without a moisture vapor barrier? Oops, I refused, I said why, I got my butt kicked through politics, I lost my job and I'm still fighting for those that are stuck wearing this gear in the Defence Force! It's crap, but at least I know what I'm facing back in the States...
Comment by Ron Ayotte on April 22, 2010 at 5:52pm
Bing-freaking-o! on all points!!!

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