Union Democrat staff

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