FDNY: Let Animals be Animals
I have to confess that the current drive move to clean up firefighter unit nomenclature and insignia on the part of New York Fire Department brass makes me more than a little sad.
The gist is that, in the wake of several embarrassing incidents of (alcohol-fueled and otherwise) misconduct among firefighters, the department bureaucracy wants to do away with long-standing stationhouse identities like Animal House, 90 Proof, and the Clown College. Presumably, their assertion is that such sobriquets act to validate the kind of unprofessional behavior that might have passed for “high-spirited” in an earlier age, but these days constitutes a blemish on the department’s image (and a liability risk besides).
I have to wonder, though, if it might not be better to concentrate on punishing actual bad conduct – and I’m sure there’s plenty to be found – instead of attacking intangibles like unit monikers?
You know I’m not one to bandy around the term “politically correct” in circumstances like these. Even before its wholesale adoption by the right (a cohort to whom it means, essentially, “anything that acts to threaten the unearned privileges we’ve enjoyed since time immemorial”), it had already become one of those phrases that tended to nullify thought wherever it appeared. But, y’know, it’s difficult to think of a better way to describe what’s going on here.
I totally get how things like locker-room centerfolds and whatnot can reinforce a hostile work environment. I have no problem with regulating such displays out of existence – you wanna do that, do it on your own time, and not in a space that us taxpayers provide for you. And actual workplace behavior can and should be (and, of course, already is, at least in theory) subject to the strictest standards.
But anybody who’s ever spent time in any kind of uniformed service will understand immediately and intimately how crucial elements like unique insignia, heraldry, and slogans are to small-unit cohesion – how displays of unit pride that seem trivial or silly to outsiders function to hold a group together under pressure, and how easily morale can be crushed when they’re taken away. I can’t imagine that the nominal offense caused by allowing a stationhouse to dub itself “Southern Comfort” outweighs the benefit to the community inherent in that stationhouse having a vivid sense of itself and its heritage of service.
More importantly still, names like these are part of the swagger, the vigor and the vibrancy of the city I love – I’d almost say, of any city worth loving. If the suits and quants upstairs decree that “professionalizing” the Fire Department means that a hook-and-ladder company can no longer dub itself the Happy Hookers, I’m not really sure who benefits from it, but I’ll tell you who loses out: we do. Our city is subtly but immeasurably the poorer for it. And if you don’t like it, I’m sure you’ll feel at home in plenty of other places – Salt Lake City comes to mind, or Colorado Springs. This is New York, baby.