You’re driving home on a Saturday, round a corner and come upon this scene: Two of your fire department’s engines are parked in front of a bar with lights flashing.
Your first impression? Maybe a customer had a heart attack or stroke, and firefighters are providing first aid. Or perhaps they just doused a kitchen fire.
Then you get closer and see two firemen holding a guy by the arms while a third is dousing him in the head and groin with a fire hose.
What’s your reaction? Boys will be boys? Sure glad our department has this kind of camaraderie? The esprit de corps that this escapade shows has been missing for way too long?
Or, far more likely, what the heck is going on here? Aren’t these guys supposed to be on duty?
Sure, nobody got hurt in the now-notorious Aug. 29 Copperopolis Hosedown. With the chief’s permission, the firefighters drove their engines to the tavern, pulled a 20-year-old colleague away from his bachelor party and delivered the very public prenuptial “initiation.”
A passing Cal Fire captain (and former Copperopolis Fire Protection District employee) was incensed and blew the whistle, propelling the story onto front pages.
Damage control followed: “It was all about camaraderie,” said Chief Keith Cantrell. “It was exactly what we are trying to promote at Copper Fire,” said Fire Board member and district volunteer John Manness, who just happened to be father of the firefighter “initiated.”
And it was hinted that the whistle blower bore a political grudge.
But all of the above is irrelevant: At the very least, the Aug. 29 stunt was immature, unprofessional and discouraging. It looked bad.
Like it or not, appearance — particularly when it concerns those we trust to protect our lives and property — counts for a lot.
Did the Hosedown inspire public confidence in the Copperopolis department? Of course not.
Cantrell as much as admitted this when he said he wouldn’t give permission for such a stunt again, “because obviously the public is upset that this is happening.”
At worst, the episode was dangerous. Think about it: The firefighters were going to a bar to pull off the initiation, throwing alcohol into the mix.
What if some unruly bar partrons had tried to wrest the hose away? Or climbed aboard the engines? Or picked a fight? And what if, right then, a fire call came in?
Luckily, none of this happened. But it could have.
Initiations, rituals and hazing have long been part of the fire service and may play a role in building that much-valued camaraderie.
But when such activities harm firefighters (as they did in the 2007 incidents involving Columbia College), put them in danger or reflect poorly on their department, justification sinks to zero.
Firefighters are modern-day heroes who time and again have saved our communities with a courage and perseverance the rest of us can barely imagine. Every summer, in the wake of near-disaster, the “Thank You, Firefighters” signs reappear.
Our gratitude and appreciation is undiminished by what happened in Copperopolis. It’s just that we always expect the very best from our heroes.