Rurally Speaking: PPE for Morale, Volunteer Retention, and Department Image

By Carl J. Haddon

When we think about personal protective equipment (PPE), we often think about bunker gear, helmets, boots, and the like. That type of PPE is used, or should be used and worn, to protect us while on fire, rescue, or EMS calls right? I believe that there is another class or type of personal protective equipment that we can and should use in many other less dangerous—but equally as important—situations that we encounter on a daily basis. The type of products that I’m talking about here can also be instrumental in department morale, volunteer firefighter retention, and the overall image of your fire department.

Remember the old adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover?” That statement is spot on, but it has an inherent flaw. You can’t judge the contents of a book by its cover, however, the cover is the first impression that a book will make. Another old adage to live by is that “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” I believe that these same adages hold true for firefighters, which gets us to the meat and potatoes of this article.

The PPE I speak about are uniforms. Not all departments have budgets for firefighter uniforms. Not all departments with budgets provide uniforms for their personnel or have uniform policies. Believe it or not, not all fire departments issue badges to their firefighters who have earned them or are qualified to wear them. Please know that I’m not talking about the random issuance of Class A, Class B, and station wear uniforms to each of its members. That type of uniform policy is typically reserved for rural departments with VERY healthy budgets, and bigger municipal fire departments.

I have to admit that I am taken aback when I see and hear that there are still rural volunteer fire departments that don’t or won’t understand the wealth of value that can come from providing a “basic” firefighter’s uniform (other than blue jeans and a t-shirt). A pair of slacks or commercially available  uniform pants, uniform belt, and a basic firefighter uniform shirt is not a huge capital outlay or a budget breaker, and, if it is a budget breaker, let me know and I’ll hook you up with some fundraising opportunities and possible private grant providers to help fund that need.

Forgive me if I sound highbrow, as I understand that there are many departmental needs and wants that go unfunded each year. There are, however, no more valuable assets in your department than your personnel. I know this from personal experience. A fire department that I formerly belonged to did not believe in uniforms other than providing a single t-shirt and a ball cap to the members once a year. They also did not believe in firefighter badges. The public opinion of the department was: “They’re just volunteers. What do you expect?” That department had a terrible morale and retention issue as well. With public opinion like that, was it any wonder why? Shortly thereafter, uniform shirts with department patches and badges were introduced to the department. The change in morale and the change in public opinion was nothing short of amazing. For the first time in the history of the department, the firefighters were proud to belong and, more importantly, they were proud to be known and seen as firefighters! 

Back to the old adages, “dress for success” holds true in this case. Imagine, if you will, that two fire departments are asked to send someone to address a local church congregation or a local service club to offer a presentation on the benefits of smoke detectors. One of the departments sends an officer or firefighter who shows up dressed in uniform pants, belt, and uniform shirt. His shoes are clean, he is clean shaven (except for the requisite firefighter moustache), he stands tall in his uniform, and he addresses the group. The other sends an officer or firefighter to a similar event on the other side of the county. This firefighter arrives sporting a well-groomed beard (not NFPA-compliant for SCBA), and is wearing blue jeans, a fire department t-shirt, and tennis shoes. Both firefighters are nice guys and knowledgeable on the subject matter for their presentations. Which “cover” of these two books (presenters) projects a better departmental image to the public that they will address? What would be the impression if these same two firefighters showed up representing their respective departments at a funeral? Remember, you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the cover of the book is the first impression that the book makes. You NEVER get a second chance to make a first impression. In case you didn’t know it, this is the same reason why we wash fire apparatus all of the time. The image given when the clean and shiny truck rolls down the street is far different than the one given when the dirty and muddy one rolls by.

I’m an older fire dog, but to this day I take great pride in wearing the uniform and the badge of a fire officer. My uniform is part of my PPE as I go out into the public and represent myself, my department, and my profession. When I wear my uniform to a funeral or to an event on behalf of the department, that uniform adds to the respect I want to impart by being in attendance. Finally, I’ve been married for almost 25 years. My beautiful wife says that I’m never more handsome than when I’m dressed in uniform. So you see, there is also truth to the old adage “Chicks dig guys in uniform.”

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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