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Date: October 19, 2009
Byline: Billy Goldfeder

Baking Bread, American Flags and Perspective

Chester, PA, issue is much more than a flag flap

A rally is being planned in support of firefighter James Krapf today at 9 a.m. at Chester Fire Department (CFD) headquarters at 14th and Providence Avenue in Chester, PA. Who is James Krapf?

Well, unfortunately firefighters in Chester are involved in a dispute over American flag decals, upside down flag displays and freedom of expression. A cartoon that some found offensive, that had been posted in the locker room at fire station 2, touched off a series of silent statements and dissension.

Media is reporting that a black firefighter, Robert Butler, replaced the cartoon with a sign reading "Black man has no free speech" and was subsequently suspended without pay for a day. Fire Commissioner James Johnson, who is also black as well as a veteran U.S. Marine, banned all fire station locker room decorations Aug. 29, following an argument about the cartoon. That probably made sense. But, the problem appears to be that the directive was not enforced until last week when Firefighter James Krapf, who is white, was suspended without pay for refusing to remove a U.S. flag decal from the locker that he uses.

Then, Firefighter Butler wore a knit hat on Saturday displaying the U.S. flag turned upside down, which he said was not a sign of protest, but was meant to indicate the "common meaning of distress." Stacy Landrum, president of the Chester Firefighters Union, said firefighters who complained to the fire commissioner were told no departmental rule prevented Butler from wearing the upside-down flag.

Well, some will argue that the fire department owns the lockers and therefore can decide what is on them. Others will argue free speech and patriotism on all counts. What many may not realize is that little of this has to do with either of those and has a lot to do with lost perspective, long time personal battles/issues and related "rest of the story" stuff. Without a doubt, the CFD is becoming a hostile environment. Try leading, managing or working in that environment. When that happens, good focus on the important stuff, like being ready for a fire, can be affected. And Chester firefighters go to a lot of fires.

That tends to happen in our business a lot. We get so focused on a "hot" issue (and some may be very valid) that we lose touch with focus on the mission. This kind of controversy and emotion can do nothing to help the next person who dials 9-1-1 in Chester, or anywhere else. It also allows "harbored" feelings to affect the way we operate, work with, train with and respond with each other.

I remember years ago, an old timer telling me that the infighting between the firefighters at his fire department was no big deal and "when the bells go off, we all operate as if nothing is wrong." That's a bunch of crap. I have witnessed it and most of us have as well. While we don't need "Kumbaya" attitudes, when people allow continued dissent to continue within an organization, that organization rots. And when it rots, it affects everything.

In the case of this happening in a bakery, the quality of the bread stinks and customer service goes out the window. That's fine. We'll find other bread. But in the case of a fire department, it absolutely impacts they way we operate as one unit. Read any of the sport-coaching greats personal thoughts on the issue of being a team. Coaches work their tails off at the emotional side of winning. When they lose it's a game. When we lose, it affects those we went to help — and us as well.

As Vince Lombardi said: "Build for your team a feeling of oneness, of dependence on one another and of strength to be derived by unity."


"Teamwork is what the Green Bay Packers were all about. They didn't do it for individual glory. They did it because they loved one another."


"The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual."

Which means, when operating as a fire company or department, the loss of unity and combined effort means our end result can be a lot worse than bad bread in a bakery.

We feel that the proper display, as defined by Federal and state laws of the American flag is a very good thing. The flag flies at all of our firehouses and in front of my families home — always has, always will. And it never offends my Chinese, Indian and other American cul-de-sac neighbors. They are immigrants like my dad was, and they are here because of what that flag stands for. The more properly displayed American flags out there, the better — as far as we are concerned. After all, this is America. It's our flag. And along with that, it is also critical to remember what that flag stands for, why it stands for that and remembering those who have died protecting it. Displaying the flag is a solid reminder. Remember all the flags we all saw on 9/11? Where did they go? WTF!? Are people less patriotic now? Fly and properly display the flag!

Of course, flying the flag needs to be done in an environment of clear policies, procedures and fairness — and based upon the below U.S. Flag Code. Anyone who is offended by the proper and appropriate display of the American flag needs to reevaluate their home address. But keep in mind, someone with bad eyesight can see there is much more to this issue in Chester than is being written about. If the CFD will not allow any decals (American flag included) on FD property, that's their right. It's not firefighter's property. However, the decision should not be made reactively and like all SOP's & SOG's, needs to be fairly enforced, or just get rid of the policy.

Upside down flag? Negative. The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property. Not as personal distress or a protest at work, at home or anywhere. There are other ways for any American to express their personal/professional distress without disrespecting the flag.

What is you fire department's policy for decals, stickers and American flag displays? This might be a good time to find out or determine it, just in case. Maybe policies should require the display of the flag.

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