The term “Brotherhood” means different things to different people. Ask 100 firefighters what brotherhood is and you’ll get 100x different answers. You know it when you see it; you miss it when it’s gone and you certainly feel it when it’s turned against you. Used gender-generically to refer to this special, sometimes inexplicable bond that we firefighters share, to me there are four distinct but tightly integrated layers of brotherhood: Branded, Core, Intrinsic and Authentic.
Like peeling back the layers of a firefighter’s turnout gear to reveal the outer shell, moisture barrier, thermal barrier, and face cloth – each layer of brotherhood provides a different covering of personal protection for life in the fire service.
Some layers of brotherhood are public while others are very private and personal. Some come only with maturity while others are inherited by virtue of the fact that you raised your right hand and said “I will serve.” What does brotherhood mean to you? Is the brotherhood you extend a coating of deep penetrating varnish or a thin overlay of veneer?
Here’s what brotherhood means to me:
BRANDED – is the outer shell of fire service brotherhood you see promoted on a t-shirt, a social media meme or the kind of brotherhood often shared over an adult beverage. Generally genuine, sometimes boastful, it’s a term that some in our profession sling around like they’re tossing candy to kids along a parade route; thinning its true value with insincerity.
This is often also the public’s perception based on our “PDB: Public Displays of Brotherhood.” It’s the common camaraderie they think of when they see how a bunch of firefighters act when they’e together, regardless of the setting. They don’t understand it any more than the deeper layers, but they respect it nonetheless. Some are even jealous of it and many wish they could replicate it in their own profession.
But don’t write off this form of brotherhood as being just superficial, because at its base, it’s this layer of brotherhood that also transforms the Maltese Cross into what I refer to as “the universal symbol of instant acceptance.” It’s this layer of brotherhood that unlocks any firehouse door and earns you the key to the city just by saying the words, “Hi. I’m a firefighter from…
CORE – brotherhood relates to how we treat each other in the firehouse and in the fire service. Instilled properly, Core Brotherhood says that we will establish a baseline for our personal interactions, human relations. It says that, at the very least, we will give each other the same courtesies that we would give to a stranger we meet on the street for the first time.
It says that while we may use dark humor as a defense mechanism when we’re exposed to sights and sounds that no human being should have to be exposed to; we also acknowledge that when dark humor is instead used as a weapon, and becomes the norm and not the exception – we’ve crossed that line and need to be reeled back in.
Whenever conducting teamwork-related classes in a single fire department, I administer a simple experiment I refer to as the “Brotherhood Test” which I also call my list of “20 Firefighter First Date Questions!”
Usually conducted right after returning from a break, I shuffle the deck on the audience, causing them to be paired up with a fellow firefighter they may not be as familiar with as their best friend they traditionally gravitate towards when initially choosing where to sit in the classroom.
Each firefighter is then given the list of twenty very simple things they need to answer about the firefighter now sitting next to them – and without asking them for the answers. They sit in silence, answering simple questions like: their real first name; correct spelling of their last name; what is their spouse’s name; birthday; city of birth; house color; occupation, etc. Easy things any person could know about another person who they’ve known for more than 5 minutes or ever had a conversation with.
Once both parties have answered all twenty questions to the best of their ability, they swap and grade each other’s papers. It’s important that each party fills in the correct answers and those left blank by the respondent so that the test spurs a discussion and the opportunity to actually get to know each other. Not too surprisingly, most attendees only answer 5-10 questions correctly; so how well do we really know the person sitting next to us, those we call brother? While one could argue that you don’t need to know a fellow firefighter’s pet name to crawl down that proverbial hot hallway to hell we’ll discuss under “Intrinsic Brotherhood” – it’s imperative that we dig below the surface if we truly want to achieve “Authentic Brotherhood”also discussed later.
Core Brotherhood embodies honesty, integrity, common decency and respect for each other’s contributions as well as the challenges we all face in serving to the level we hope to serve. Hanover County VA Fire-Rescue defines brotherhood as “Loyalty above all – except honor.” Violate that code by being dishonorable and you forfeit the benefits of brotherhood and the privilege of being called “brother.”
One of my personal definitions of brotherhood says that:
Brotherhood=Loyalty -and- Loyalty=Trust
This definition says: “If I can’t trust you with my back in the firehouse, how should I ever be able to trust you with my life on the fire scene?”
Core Brotherhood says that we will respect our brother for his or her rank or position even if we don’t like them, or always agree with them. And Core Brotherhood says we won’t pick and choose when to be present at our brother’s funeral, memorial service, award banquet or promotional ceremony. At its core, brotherhood says we won’t wait until they’re gone to celebrate their life.
INTRINSIC [Alt: Implied, Iconic] – is the thermal barrier of brotherhood that says “I will crawl down that proverbial hot, smoky hallway and I WILL lay down next right next to you as we take a beating from the heat and flames. And I WILL NOT leave you behind, no matter what.”
All of us mouth these words, and acknowledge the responsibility that comes with this form of brotherhood, but let’s be honest – until we’re tested, some of us will never know if we’re up to the task until the opportunity to be that kind of brother presents itself. For you and all your brothers, let’s hope it never shows.
AUTHENTIC [Alt: Deep, Real] – It’s nice to have Intrinsic Brotherhood on the fire scene, Core Brotherhood in the firehouse and even Branded Brotherhood on our chest – but that’s not enough.
To get back to our roots, to right the ship of today’s fire service I believe that we need to recapture and share this deep, real form of brotherhood. Authentic Brotherhood is how we treat, and most importantly, care for each other outside the firehouse. More than one coach has told their athletes that “You don’t have to like each other, but you do need to love and respect each other in order to take our team to the next level and beyond.”
This is the type of brotherhood that the more seasoned firefighters remember, cherish and often long for today. It’s this type of brotherhood we need to return to and teach to today’s “lightly seasoned” firefighters: working shoulder to shoulder til the job is done; helping put a new roof on a brother’s home; spending time together with our families teaching our kids the history, traditions and heritage of this great gift we’ve been given; and taking care of each other when we’re down.
Authentic Brotherhood creates an environment that extends far beyond your engine room doors, intertwined into our lives to the extent that your fellow firefighters’ kids don’t know that you’re not actually their aunt or uncle by blood relation. More than just caring, authentic brotherhood loves.
It includes mentoring our youth and our young officers. It means training our replacements.
Sometimes brotherhood is easier to display and share with firefighters we don’t really know or who we’ve never met, or don’t know as well as some of our fellow firefighters we know better than we care to. It’s easy to extend brotherhood to these firefighters from a foreign land or just a foreign firehouse under the untested-mantra “Because I know he or she would do the same for me.” I affectionately refer to that as “Facebook Brotherhood!”
Authentic Brotherhood is intrinsic, core and even branded brotherhood all rolled up together – with the bonus content of true friendship, unfathomable loyalty, and genuine caring as the final long lasting, scratch resistant, unbendable, unbreakable layers applied to a shiny piece of diamond plate. Authentic Brotherhood is the foundation on which the fire service was built. Authentic Brotherhood is the foundation on which our communities and our country were built: Neighbors helping neighbors –no matter what.
This leads me to another one of my own definitions of real brotherhood, although not really limited to just our nation’s borders:
“It doesn’t matter that we wear different patches on our left sleeve. What’s important is that we wear the same patch on our right sleeve: the red, white and blue one –the one with the stars and stripes on it. It’s that patch that brought us together and it’s this patch that will keep us together. The fire service is what’s right about America and no one can ever take that away from us – unless we let them.” –February 25, 2008
Whether you understand how humbling it is to be on the receiving end of real brotherhood, or you know the modest satisfaction of being on the giving end: You are your brother’s keeper.
So I ask: How many layers deep does your brotherhood go, brother?
[As of: 9/11/15]
Like this article? Download, print and share it here: The Four Layers of brotherhood150911
Here’s more of my stories of being on the receiving and giving end of real brotherhood.
Here’s some photos of me with my brothers!
Check out my other sites: