Bobby Halton: Honor Before All

Indianapolis, IN (April 20, 2016) – In his welcoming remarks at this morning’s Opening Ceremonies, Fire Engineering Editor in Chief and FDIC Education Director Bobby Halton described a mosaic of the firefighter character that has sustained the fire service’s reputation for courage, honor, and civility. At the same time, Halton alerted the audience to the fact that forces in today’s society can work to undermine firefighter code and honor unless firefighters continue to value and uphold those attributes and practices: “For the fire service of today, it is a time of great discovery and of great debate, a time of tremendous advances and of troubling criticisms,” Halton said.

There are various schools of thought about the origin of character, Halton explained. Some believe character is inherent in us at birth. This may be so; but, still, it is not too late, he asserted, citing the influence of parents and education: “Most agree that with training, with example, with exposure, and with habit, you can create ‘character.’ It is self-evident that how one conducts oneself in manners of honor, courage, and civility is dictated by one’s background and education as a gentleman or a gentlewoman.” The right mentoring, the right examples, and diligence, can help good men and good women to become great firefighters.”

And beyond that, added Halton, “We can imbue firefighters with heroic dreams.” He quoted Benjamin Disraeli: Nurture your minds with great thoughts; to believe in the heroic makes heroes.

This firefighter character, Halton said, should involve devotion to the mission, loyalty to our fellow firefighters, respect for authority, and a desire to reflect the highest moral ideal. That ideal for firefighters, the one that rises above all the other ideals is, “Honor Before All,” Honor Ante Omnia:  We will never under any circumstances leave anyone behind. Whether they are rich or poor, they are like us or different from us, they are mentally healthy or mentally ill, whether they contribute to society or live off the generosity of society, we leave no one behind.

High Standard Threatened
Noting that the fire service’s tradition of high standard is ‘continuously threatened,’ he repeated a warning issued almost 20 years ago by Fire Service sage Tom Brennan: We are losing our fire service. It is time to take it back. Although little has been done in response to this prediction, Halton said, it is not too late to act.

The answer to Tom Brennan’s clarion call, Halton said, has been with us since our inception. We are required to do what George Washington has directed us to do: Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God. Raising that standard requires that we embody fairness, exemplify self-control, exhibit sympathy, and embrace duty.

Halton drove home his messages with riveting examples of military men and firefighters who displayed all these virtues under conditions of extreme duress. All involved leaving no one behind, Honor Above All, Honor Ante Omnia.

Mosaic of the Firefighter Character
What constitutes the firefighter character that will “get the fire service back” to where it should always be? Among the components Halton cited are the following:

Charisma and representing all that is good, honest, and noble. ‘Adapting’ the statement of Kurt Vonnegut that the fire engine is a  stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man, Halton noted that it is the firefighter that is a stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man. Trying to uphold this image leads to tremendous moral and ethical demands, said Halton.

Alluding to Thomas Hobbes’ view of the world as a place where every man is against every man, Halton said firefighters and those who care for them and support them all the more should participate in proving that a meaningful life is about mitigating that war in some small, individual ways that makes life more secure, safer, and more satisfying.
Firefighters, Halton stressed, can be the difference–perhaps the exception–by being that symbol of humanity that might soften or hopefully end the war Hobbes depicted.

Honor Ante Omnia. This ideal/principle in which we leave no one behind, Halton said, has signifies strength, unquestionable goodness, and its fundamental integrity. Firefighters will leave no one behind, not by intention or omission; not for self-preservation or self-interest; not physically, not emotionally, not spiritually. We leave no one behind.

This principle, Halton pointed out, does not mean that the mission is a suicidal one or a fatalistic one. “We never intend to place ourselves or anyone else in harm’s way haphazardly or casually.” Instead, he continued, firefighters’ mission “is to care for, protect, and defend our fellow citizens, lives, property, and material well-being in ways that have been carefully vetted, thoroughly examined, and diligently rehearsed in a wide variety of styles and situations.”

Fairness. Firefighters have a chance to practice fairness every day, said Halton. We respond to every call regardless of the neighborhood and regardless of who made the call. We treat everyone there with the same dignity and respect whether they be criminal or victim, abusive or grateful, threatening or compliant. Since it is difficult to teach such fairness in a world where the very word ‘fairness’ has been corrupted and confused by ideologies and political theories or in a classroom, firefighters must do what Aristotle counseled: … become just by the practice of just actions; self-controlled by exercising self-control.

Sympathy. Halton described this virtue as one that is difficult to define but is one of the most brilliant virtues when experienced. He defined is simply as the ability to be affected by the feelings and experiences of others. “We are taught from an early age that we praise only motives that have defeated self-interest,” Halton explained. “We reserve our greatest praise for those motives that make it most difficult to overcome self-interest.”

Embrace Duty. Self-control. Halton noted that the life of the firefighter is a contradiction and that, like all people, firefighters fear a violent death but, at the same time, are willing to risk their lives to save others. “Like all people, we want to be happy and enjoy our families, but yet we are willing to sacrifice time with our loved ones to serve strangers, he said.

Halton concluded that Thomas Hobbes might’ve been brilliant, and he might’ve been one of the world’s greatest philosophers, but his view of life being a war of all men against all men did not hold true for all. This certainly was not so for firefighters. For firefighters, it’s about saving all. It’s about basic virtues, basic principles, honor, and a code,” Halton said.

Firefighters find this conduct a worthy goal and also necessary, he continued. The most powerful disposition is self-preservation, and so our most elaborate and heartfelt tributes go out to those who have sacrificed their lives that others might live, but heroism is rare, Halton noted.  

“What is not rare in the fire service is virtue,” Halton concluded. “Honor Above All” are simply words to some. To us firefighters, it’s a code, the code that makes us the symbol of man’s humanity to man and that binds us in a fraternity of the world’s bravest men and women. With this simple code ‘Honor before all’ we take back our fire service.

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