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It was clear something was up a few days ago when Bon Air Fire Company in Delaware County, Pennsylvania took down the defiant statement it had posted after being shut by Haverford Township. Now, there’s a new statement and a new attitude from the fire company. In other words, they caved.
The fire company was closed a-week-ago, after it refused to accept the resignation of a young member who had reportedly started and then abandoned the initiation process with the the Proud Boys. Haverford had demanded the resignation, finding this connection to an extremist group–described in the news media as racist and misogynistic–unacceptable.
Fire company does a 180
The original response from the fire department made it clear they thought the member had done nothing wrong. Bon Air Fire Company believed it was out of line for Haverford to both demand the resignation and then shut down the fire company when the firefighter was allowed to stay on. Yesterday (Monday), Bon Air’s leaders changed their minds and accepted the member’s resignation. It was followed by this apologetic statement that describes a new direction for the fire company that includes sensitivity training and new leadership:
Bon Air Fire Company reinstated
At a public meeting last night, the township reinstated the fire company.
The changes to Bon Air “reflect a board willing to take responsibility for its actions,” Lewis said in a brief prepared speech. The township, Lewis added, will return to Bon Air the three fire trucks and apparatus it repossessed last Wednesday when Township Manager David F. Burman announced in a statement that he had shut down the 37-member company.
After Lewis finished his statement, the board immediately moved on to other business.
The audience did not.
Attendees used their time for public comment to yell at commissioners — with some accusing them of policing thought and threatening public safety — while others spoke of their appreciation for the township. A few defended the Proud Boys and said it was not a hate group.
Reputation management lesson–treat it like a house fire
How this story evolved hits a key point I try to make when asked to opine on reputation management issues in the fire service. You are firefighters. Treat such a problem as if it were a fire, because it is. Done wrong, it can result in your agency burning to the ground.
This means one of the first things you must do is figure out where this fire is going. That should include stepping back and getting an honest read on the impact your decisions/tactics will have on the situation. You also have to treat the whole episode as if it’s not your emergency in order to take the emotion out of your actions and decisions. Of course, that can be hard to do when it actually is your emergency and you’re being personally attacked.
It appears Bon Air FD did none of this and it greatly hurt the department’s reputation. They gave the impression no one had a clue what Haverford Township’s next step would likely be when they originally said no about getting rid of the member. The original response to being shut down–while well written and making some good arguments supporting the department’s position–gave the impression the decision process was more emotion than practical leadership.
I say this because what absolutely didn’t make sense was the message the department sent to the people they serve. The original decision screamed public safety be damned–shut the fire department just to save one member. How does a fire department treat the community that way?
If Bon Air felt this was an important issue they must fight (still lot of potential problems with that position), doing it by staying open–a stronger negotiating position–would likely have been a better choice. Accepting the resignation, not turning this into a national public spectacle and then quietly negotiating further with Haverford would have been the much smarter way to go.
Instead, Bon Air Fire Department looks silly and now has made enemies on both sides of this issue. They beat their chest explaining how right they were, only to do a 180 a few days later. Decision making like that only makes it harder to win back the trust of the community.