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Is it relevant a man accused of a racial attack on a child is a firefighter?

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After almost 11-years of, the most consistent complaint I hear about the news media from firefighters concerns off-duty criminal conduct. They want to know if the criminal action has nothing to do with the job, why is the person identified in the news as a firefighter?

You might find some answers to that question in an editorial in the Kansas City Star. Or, you might be more convinced the fact man that the man arrested is a firefighter isn’t relevant.

By now, you’ve likely heard about the incident. Off-duty Kansas City, Missouri firefighter Terrence Skeen is charged with battery, assault and disorderly conduct. The arrest occurred after witnesses told police about a confrontation Skeen had with a three-year-old boy at a Hooters in Overland Park. According to police, Skeen spit on the child and used a racial slur about him. Early stories reported that, at the scene, the man claimed he was a firefighter. The case has also been turned over to the FBI for review.

The headline for the editorial reads “If Kansas City firefighter calls a child the n-word, he can’t work for us.”

The Kansas City Star Editorial Board:

Again, if this did happen as described, there is no excuse. And how would someone who’d demean a child that way, while off duty, treat the public on our time and on our behalf?

Basic respect and equanimity under pressure would seem to be as crucial to a firefighter as the guts it takes to run toward flames.

Beyond such an outrageous display, though, we have to wonder whether we really do first responders any favors by outfitting them in our minds with capes and Panther suits.

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It’s worth reading the entire editorial and what the editorial board has to say about the general image of firefighters as heroes.

Fair or unfair, this story about a firefighter has gone around the world a few times thanks to the Internet and social media. It has been the top story for days when you search the word “firefighter” in Google News.

Some of the news coverage has pointed out that fellow firefighters, including the union president, say the incident is out of character for Firefighter Skeen. The website even published this February, 2016 post from Skeen’s Facebook page (page now taken down):

When you make inappropriate comments about someone’s race, religions, sexual orientation, or beliefs (joking or not), you get removed from my friends list. Yes, you are entitled to your opinions….I just don’t care to hear them!

A fire department spokesman says they will “wait for adjudication” before a decision is made on disciplinary action. We all know the public will not be as charitable. Whether or not Firefighter Skeen is found guilty, it’s another body slam against the image of firefighters. Another recent story about firefighters that went viral like this was about the fire chief in Pennsylvania who is a convicted child rapist.

My general rule for is not to post off-duty criminal actions of firefighters unless there’s a direct connection to the fire department. The mainstream news media looks at it differently. They will often post the occupation of someone busted for driving under the influence, assault, or other more routine type arrests when that person is involved in public safety. If the crime is serious enough that a reporter spends time looking into the background of the person charged, it’s likely the occupation will be listed no matter what job they have.

The argument I make in defense of the news media is you can’t have it both ways. Firefighters are seen as a special breed. We put a great deal of trust in firefighters, the people who come into our homes at what is often our worst moments.

Not all of you see yourselves as Superman or Superwoman but, as the editorial points out, the public often does. Being seen as special, like it or not, brings with it some extra burdens. This includes suddenly finding a spotlight on you when your cape gets snagged on a barbed wire fence.

For those who still don’t get this, let me close with one question. When was the last time you complained about the news media identifying a person who saved a life at a house fire or a car crash as an off-duty firefighter?

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