By Tom Johnson

In our quest for fairness in the workplace, let alone life, we have begun to forget what equality really means. But first, let’s discuss fairness. I used to hear from my kids that “life wasn’t fair” when one or both of them did not get what they wanted. Key words: used to. I squashed that early on by establishing the fact that life is not fair and not everyone is afforded the same level or amount of opportunities due to circumstances or abilities. But in the end, hard work always works, and these discussions no longer come up in my household.

Equality is defined as the state of being equal in quantity, degree, value, rank, or ability. Rank and ability play major roles in the firefighting profession, so this generic dictionary definition fits quite well. Promoting equality does not imply that whoever shows up for a job interview gets to be a firefighter, just because they want to. It means that they will be given the same and equal opportunity to prove that they can hold the same and equal standard as all those that have come before them. If they can’t, then both sides must part ways. Sadly though, we have twisted this definition of equality in recent years to think that it means “everyone gets the job.”

This “everyone gets the job” mentality mirrors society’s “everyone gets a trophy.” In either case, nothing is earned, those that got the job or the trophy never really accomplished anything, and those that truly earned the job or trophy now have become disenfranchised with it altogether and feel their accomplishment has been completely diluted. So where is morale these days? In the tanks, you say? I can’t seem to figure out why.

No longer is firefighting the profession for the few individuals that are willing to sacrifice; it’s now for everyone that simply wants it – no work needed. Apparently that’s equality…or at least how some view it.

Let’s examine this a little further, for the trophy firefighter that didn’t actually earn it. What are we setting him/her up for by bending the rules – the same equal rules everyone else had, and placing them in a situation where they are inaccurately labeled equal? Underneath it all, everyone is aware that the same standards weren’t met. Do we blame the individual who received the trophy or the organization that awarded the meritless trophy? The answer is both. We hold both sides accountable.

Here’s the truth. You may want this job as a firefighter, but it might not be for you. I wanted to be a professional baseball player, but when I was told I wasn’t good enough, I did not cry foul and state that it wasn’t fair. Imagine if I sued that baseball team to get a roster spot, won in court, and then I’m out there playing games with the team, but I’m only there because a lawyer says the team must allow it. What would my teammates think? We all know what they are thinking, so how can we keep showing up day after day knowing that we did not earn our spot?

That’s where accountability of the wannabe firefighter comes into play, just as my accountability as an aspiring professional baseball player came into play years ago. One door closed for me, so I opened another one. Life was indeed fair to me, I did get my shot, but I couldn’t meet that standard that everyone else had met.

This ME mentality has seeped into fire culture. The collective performance of the team isn’t valued over the individual when recruits continue to believe they are owed something prior to earning it. I am calling out the ME firefighters who are unable or unwilling to do this job. Your acceptance of this job without earning it is selfish and says to all others that you value yourself over the team. It comes down to looking in the mirror and taking ownership for the situation. Sitting in a seat you have not dutifully earned is not fair. And indeed, this is where life is actually not fair – not fair for everyone else.

As an organization, if we are more worried about checking boxes in the political arena than putting the best candidate in the seat, we have lost our way. At the same time, we are paving the way for these “trophy firefighters” to divide the team, not diversify it. Firefighters really don’t care who sits next to them in regards to race, gender, religion, etc. – only that they have achieved the same standard as everyone else. And that right there is the true definition of equality.