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Questions and Answers

September 23, 2009

“Questions are never indiscreet: answers sometimes are.”Oscar Wilde

“You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”Naguib Mahfouz

Cops and firefighters love to hate one another.   Sibling rivalry only begins to describe the intense and intimate nature of their mutual competitive streaks.  Despite any family resemblance they might share, the differences between cops and firefighters remain as deep-seated as they are striking, which helps explain why coordination between the two services can be so troublesome at times.

For starters, cops are about questions.  Firefighters, for their part, are all about answers.

Cops have to be questioning by nature.  They deal with more than their share of dishonest people, and have learned the hard way that they cannot take anything for granted, much less at face value.  Every fact must be checked, every lead followed up.  Even when a criminal confesses, they must support the claim with material evidence.

Given their power to deprive citizens of their liberty, we have to hold cops to a pretty high standard.  We demand them to prove their cases beyond reasonable doubt.  In a world quickly becoming almost as cynical as cops are skeptical, this threshold keeps getting harder to leap.

Firefighters, on the other hand, have little patience for questions.  Many of them have a ready answer for everything close at hand.  Predisposed to action, firefighters loathe pretense and consider delay, even for deliberation, dangerous if not deadly.  They like their coffee strong and black with no sugar, thank you very much.

More to the point, firefighters generally have a low tolerance for ambiguity.  They assume uncertainty is simply par for the course, and feel no need to prove their case to anyone.  They hold all truths to be self-evident.

In most of the situations firefighters deal with, an ideal solution is neither available nor necessarily desirable.  Good enough is, well, good enough.

Cops would like to have it so easy.  Not only do we expect them to get it right, but we often hold them personally accountable for failing to do so.  When firefighters “fail” they are often the only ones to notice.

Compounding these fundamental differences, we expect cops to work and play nicely not only with the public but with one another.  Cops have layer upon layer of bureaucracy to deal with in the performance of their duties.  Municipal cops have to work with neighboring municipalities, the county sheriff, state police, and an alphabet soup of federal agencies with overlapping and often conflicting jurisdictions.  All of this confusion arises even before they try to take a case forward through the criminal justice system.

Firefighters in contrast lead relatively simple lives.  As they go happily about their business in plain view of the public, the essence and value of their work goes largely unappreciated, sometimes even by them.  In most states, no superseding authority exists to hinder much less evaluate their performance.  They are in a very real way accountable to no one but themselves in most instances.

Most of the  hierarchy or bureaucracy they have to confront is largely of their own making.  This, of course, does not stop them from complaining, often bitterly, about supposed slights suffered at the hands of building officials, cops, elected officials, or anyone else who deigns to question their answers.

Such problems are not unique to firefighters and cops.  At one time or another, most of us have experience of people with prized solutions on the prowl for problems to prove their worth.  Finding none readily available, they are often content to create them without ever realizing that a solution for which no problem exists is in and of itself already a problem.

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