Some Bel Air firefighters recently got in trouble for posting comments on Facebook that expressed disappointment that a local fast food restaurant had failed to extend them a discount routinely offered police and military personnel. The comments included a snide suggestion that the owner might feel differently if he found his dumpster set on fire or if the volunteers declined to respond to a fire on the premises.
Eddie Hopkins, chief of the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, took swift and appropriate action, giving reprimands to the nine firefighters involved, suspending several members and demoting an officer. In a statement posted on the company web site, Chief Hopkins said he was "extremely disappointed and ashamed that any of our members would make these statements."
That would seem a sufficient response except for one thing. While the chief announced that his members should "not expect something for the job they do nor should they ask for it," and even announced that his personnel would be trained on how to use social media in the future, he did not choose to ban discounts or gifts entirely. Indeed, the told The Sun's Colin Campbell that it was a "tough call" to decline freebies and the "line is so gray, I don't know where to draw it."
On this, we would beg to differ. Police and firefighters can avoid such embarrassments and potential conflicts of interest by simply never accepting a gratuity at any time or anywhere. This is really not so difficult as Mr. Hopkins and others might presume. Just say no, and it's an easy call.
If the owner of the local convenience store insists you accept a cup of coffee, simply say this: "That's very generous of you, but my department's regulations forbid my accepting gifts. I'm sure you understand and wouldn't want to get me in trouble. Again, thanks for the offer and have a nice day."
See? No fuss, no muss, and, frankly, a lot of store owners will likely be relieved that they will no longer feel pressured to extend such discounts.
This is not to suggest firefighters and police don't deserve a free cup of coffee or doughnut or a discount on their meals. They do and much more. But in accepting a gratuity, no matter how innocently intended, the public servant is headed toward a slippery slope of ethical entanglements.
One day it's coffee and the next it might be a "tip" for steering business toward a particular towing or private ambulance service. Meanwhile, the public is left to wonder if public servants will respond with the same enthusiasm to their emergencies as those involving the businesses that give them discounts, free food and other perks.
As for the military, that's another story. A soldier really can't show favoritism toward a local business — or even risk the appearance of favoritism. There doesn't appear to be such an obvious ethical conflict aside, perhaps, from those rare occasions when the National Guard is called out for domestic duties and takes on the role of cop or firefighter.
The most shocking revelation of the Bel Air Facebook flap was that so many volunteer firefighters could nurture such a strong sense of entitlement. But that's what happens when freebies from so many sources are constantly left at their doorstep; the recipients come to expect them like a spoiled child tearing through gifts on Christmas morning.
That they won't post unsettling thoughts on public forums like Facebook anymore won't end that sense of entitlement but will just keep it out of public view. The only real solution is to end the practice of freebies entirely. Volunteers may not like it, but we don't believe any of them got into firefighting to get a burger and fries 20 percent cheaper than the general public.