Women and Children First by Dave LeBlanc

Unselfish service toward others


What does this mean? Quite simply it means that the less able are supposed to be assisted off the sinking ship before the able body males and the ship’s crew. Maritime law (or operational norm) grew from a sense of responsible the mariners had for the value of human life, and while we can argue that there are as many able bodied women as there are non-able bodied males, the bigger picture was with the exception t of those needed to operate life boats the crew was the last to leave.

Yes that is right, the passengers came FIRST!

The Fire Service that I grew up in felt the same way about the public, yes those very people you swore to protect (probably with a line like – no mental reservation whatsoever).   The Fire Department was formed out of a need to keep towns and cities from burning to the ground.  They were needed because otherwise massive devastation would occur and countless lives would be lost.

The Public came FIRST!

As the Fire Service evolved from its infancy, firefighting changed.  Firefighters developed new and better way to stop fire.  Firefighting went from ‘save the block’, to ‘save the building’, to ‘save the floor’, to the oft used ‘one room job’.  Firefighters learned how to protect interior exposures, how to get inside and stop it dead in its tracks.  The benefit was twofold.  By going inside, firefighters gave victims a chance to survive and also saved valuable property and contents.  Life and property – you might have heard those words before.

These changes and tactics did not come without risk.  After all ‘inherently dangerous’ had to come from somewhere, right?  Firefighters were injured and killed protecting the Public.  Yet they continued to do it, because it was the oath they took, the profession they choose.

Do we come FIRST?

We come first when it comes to preparing to do the job. When you work out, you can come first. Of course by being in better shape you are better able to do the job, but it is in your best interest. When you eat better you come first. When you train you come first. When you check your gear, check your rig, test your SCBA….your are ensuring you are ready to do the job, but doing everything for yourself.

Here is the catch, by making sure you are prepared to do the job, you are also fulfilling your obligation to your crew, your shift, your department and the Public. Who would have thought that personal accountability could affect so many other people?

Now that we understand when we come first, we should get one other thing clear. When we cross the threshold they come first. After all that is what this job is all about. It is about a commitment to the public to do your best to make sure they are safe. You take an oath to put yourself in harm’s way.   You take an oath to protect life and property, to do your job, to the best of your ability, as conditions allow.

“If I make it good for them, it is by definition good for me. I am protected, they are not, and they are why I am here.” “The interior space belongs to me once the bell hits. If it has survivable space inside the building, anywhere, it is my job to protect it.” Aaron Fields

CONDITIONS – What you face on arrival, based on construction, fire conditions, and resources

I don’t know anyone that would ever say this job is a suicide mission, or that it is predetermined that you must die to be good. That being said, if you are unwilling to accept the fact that there is significant risk involved in doing your job then you are in the wrong profession. If you think that it is more important for you to be safe, than it is for you to serve the public then you have this whole thing backwards.

THEY – Who is they anyway?   There are those that say ‘they’ are customers, like they are shopping for a TV or a good place to eat. The reality is that they are the public.  They are not customers.  They don’t choose which fire department to call, they call 911 and we show up.  They get what is available; hopefully what is available is up to the challenge.

Do we need to ‘market’ ourselves? Absolutely. Fire Departments have historically done a bad job at informing the public about our mission, what we need to do it and how we get it done. But that still doesn’t make those we serve customers.

Our sense of service does not come out of some equation or relationship where people pay for a service and for a fee it is provided. Certainly there is a cost associated with what we do, but our duty comes from a commitment to help our fellow man. We decided to enter into a profession, to serve those that need us, regardless of pay or reward, because we were driven by an internal calling to do this job. Some may not be as driven, maybe the whole internal calling thing is a bit much, but regardless the public expects that when they call the fire department that we will show up and fix whatever is wrong. We accept that understanding and do that very thing, even if it involves placing ourselves at risk. So that relationship is based on a calling and an expectation, not a financial obligation and customer service.

It doesn’t matter whether our victims are taxpayers, homeless, tourists, nice or a-holes. We don’t get to chose, nor do we care. When the phone rings, we go. That is Public Service, not customer service. And that is what you signed up for when you took this job.

So, after all of this, do you still wonder where we stand? Is there still a question in your mind as to what this job is all about? Those that preach safety as a standalone solution are missing the bigger picture. Mike Rowe wrote a blog called “Safety Third”. In a letter about this blog Mike wrote. “Every day, workers fall through the cracks of a one-size-fits-all safety policy. Complacency is the real enemy, and I’m pretty sure the way to eliminate it will not involve more rules and more soothing assurances that an individual’s safety is someone else’s priority. Workers need to understand that being “in compliance” is not the same as being “out of danger.” “***

Changing how we manage risk to risk avoidance only does two things, it transfers the risk from us to them and it lulls us into a false sense of safety. Safety in this context makes us hesitant, tentative. These are not traits we should embody as professionals. These are traits that ultimately lead to more harm being done, to less safety on the fireground.

Placing ourselves above those we serve does not make us safer, it makes us poor firefighters. It confuses our sense of purpose and it breaks the number one commitment we made when we signed up for this job.

Anchorage Alaska has it right….

“I am not here for me, I am here for we and we are here for them” – Anchorage Alaska Fire Department training motto.

“It had nothing to do with the stop,”
Watch Aaron Fields’ FDIC 2014 webcast “The Working Engine”


*** “Safety Third”

Photo of FDNY firefighter Peter Demontreux (L.132), courtesy of FDNY, after a rescue in which he was later given the James Gordon Bennett Medal, the Harry M. Archer Medal, the Ray Downey Courage and Valor Award at FDIC and the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Remember, it’s been said that for every medal awarded there were 10 other guys who did the same and weren’t recognized. Unselfish service to others.  Read more about this incident in “Courage and Valor…Understated”


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LeBlancProfilePhotoDave LeBlanc is a Captain with the Harwich, Massachusetts Fire Department. Dave entered the Fire Service in 1986 as a Call Firefighter with the Dennis Fire Department. He worked full time during the summers in Dennis, while attending the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. While at the University of New Haven, Dave studied Arson Investigation. He also was a volunteer with the Allingtown and West Haven Fire Districts in West Haven. He spent his sophomore year as a Live In student with the Allingtown Fire District. His education included internships with the Aetna Insurance Company and the Boston Fire Department Arson Squad.

In 1993 Dave went to work full-time with the Harwich Fire Department as a dispatcher. In 2000 he transferred into suppression and was promoted to Lieutenant in 2008. In addition to his regular duties, Dave also manages the Department’s Radio system, is responsible for conducting Fire Investigations, and assists in maintaining the computers systems.

Dave’s blog tends to focus on current day issues and maintaining a commitment to the ideals and principals that created the fire service, while keeping today’s firefighters safe.

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  • Ric Jorge says:

    Atta boy David, customer service or customer satisfaction? The line is fine, and more often than not we can accomplish both with action, and a kind demeanor.

  • Brian Gary says:

    Very well written. I couldn’t agree more with your statements. The problems are many, but they perpetuate and increase with every new class of recruits that are poisoned with the idea that anyone who feels unsafe has a responsibility to act and stop whatever is going on.

    When I came on, my instructors told me I was lucky to be there and that I was joining the best of the best. They made sure I understood that after graduation, the real training would begin. They made sure I understood that I needed to keep my mouth shut, my eyes and ears open, and listen to the senior members and officers. They made sure that I understood that above all else, I HAD to complete each assignment, because there were always brothers and victims whose lives depended upon me.

    What has happened to us? Why would anyone think it’s smart to tell new guys that it’s their responsibility to throw a safety flag if they feel unsafe. Hell, after 26 years of this, the only sure thing is that every run we go on COULD be unsafe. If we all followed the mantra being pushed out, I suspect there would be one hell of a lot more “urban renewal” going on nationwide.

    Stay safe,

  • Ron Ayotte says:


  • Ben Waller says:

    Actually, the “Women and children first” idea cane from the sinking if the HMS Birkenhead.

    Now known as “The Birkenhead Drill”, this stemmed from the ship beginning to sink, an inadequate number of lifeboats, and the Royal Marines and soldiers on board being called to formation and standing in ranks while the ships crew put the women and children in lifeboats.

    The event was memorialized in Rudyard Kipling’s ” Soldier and Sailor, Too”

    “Their choice was plain
    between drownin’ in heaps,
    and being mopped by the screw.
    But to stand and be still
    to the Birkenhead Drill
    Is a damned hard bullet to chew.
    But they did it, Her Jollies,
    Her Majesties’ Jollies.
    Soldier and Sailor, too.

  • John Pignataro says:

    Bravo sir …This battle began in the early 1990’s having been a career DC Fireman for 30 yrs and a still active volunteer fireman for 37 the mentality has changed since 1977. Your article is clear and to the point but I am afraid the fire service maybe lost to the folks who preach the safety first crowd.

  • aaron fields says:

    I usually cringe when I get quoted. I am just saying what I believe, but often what you say gets filtered through what folks want to hear.

    In regards to being quoted in Dave’s piece here, I am not only humbled, but happy to be included in such a fine piece. If you disagree with any of Dave’s points, we are not kin, we just do the same job. This is spot on, it is the basis for the ethos that we have. Be brave say it aloud, and if need be quote this fantastic articulation. Let the chips fall where they may and fuck the haters. Do our job

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