Corporate Firefighters

Kevin Buckholtz’s workplace is not on fire. So why are his co-workers always “putting out fires”?

I work in a place that is not on fire.

Aside from the fluorescent lights we sit under all day, and the free soda and Red Bull that fuel our sedentary work, there are no immediate threats to life.

Still, I regularly hear my coworkers breathlessly say “I’ve been putting out fires all week,” or “Just another day of fighting fires.”

We wish. We wish we were doing something—anything—so important. Moreover, we wish we were doing something so well organized.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re doing important work that keeps money moving in our economy. My co-workers and I are feeding our families and from an insider’s point-of-view I can assure we are not involved in great conspiracies that pollute or drive people from their family farms. We don’t create new financial instruments that cause Iceland to go bankrupt. What we do is simple in one respect. We help people and the institutions they work for get paid. My employer is a big corporation you’ve heard of. Because of that we enjoy the benefits of being a big company—perceived job security, employment benefits, and ergonomic chairs—and we suffer the type of mundane absurdities you see in “The Office.” We collectively wonder what some of our co-workers do. We wonder why there isn’t a clear leader in many departments. There are titles, but real leadership is often absent. And we wonder why no one will follow up on voice messages, emails, or the agreed upon action items from meetings—when there are action items at all. In the corporate world all of that non-action is happening in a panic—In a firefight.

I’ve worked with firefighters. The kind who wear heavy turnout coats. Here’s what I’ve observed:

Firefighters know their roles. It’s pretty clear who the Incident Commander is, who is responsible for cutting someone out of a vehicle, and who is readying oxygen and a gurney. They don’t second guess one other. They don’t point fingers. They live the inspirational acronym, Trust Every Available Member.

The men and women on fire crews that I’ve met also have a common sense of purpose. It’s not a mission statement or something crafted with the help of McKinsey. It’s lasting. It’s simple. It’s the kind of thing your grandfather knew about. For firefighters it could be “we save lives” or “we fight fires.” How many corporate missions are that easy to understand?

Lastly, because of trust among the team members, because they’ve trained together and generally have the resources they need, firefighters don’t panic. Ever see a firefighter running on scene? If she is running, you should be, too.

When life is on the line, the prevailing mood is calm. Movements are slowed down. Needs are anticipated. People speak clearly to each other. They listen. They act. They get the job done by getting out of each other’s way.

So it’s not that I wish my co-workers were actually fighting fires because I see that as more heroic; I desire it because it would mean we possessed a positive sense of urgency to achieve a common goal.

“I am fighting fires today” would mean we are working as team with calm, confident competence.

Read more on Business Ethics.
Image credit: AMagill/Flickr
About Kevin Buckholtz

Kevin Buckholtz writes in case the big corporate day job doesn't work out. His essays have been featured in motorcycle magazines and on National Public Radio. Kevin lives in Northern California with his first (and last) wife and their two children. The kids' best qualities are blamed on their mother. Kevin has volunteered with Marin Search and Rescue since 2004; he swims the San Francisco Bay with the South End Rowing Club and is a certified Emergency Medical Technician.


  1. That was a nice piece, Kevin. I work in the Financial District so all of this–sans the free Redbull–is my life. I enjoy the sense of urgency and reaction taken away from “fighting fires” which are replaced by collaboration, communication, and teamwork. It gives both fire fighters and “fire fighters” the well-deserved day-to-day heroism.

    P.S. Glad to see you’re doing wonderful things in Marin County (the place I call home!).

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