Firefighters – Neither Heroes nor Villains
Over the past eight years firefighters, particularly those in RI, have endured a complete 360 degree turnabout in public perception. Obscurity -- hero status -- obscurity -- villain. Those of us who make our living donning turnout gear and responding to fires and other emergencies haven’t changed, but the public’s perception of us seems to change on a whim.
Nearly all firefighters consider their job as a vocation – a calling. We are firefighters, first and foremost – anything else we might be falls after that. We are proud of our profession and proud to be part of the “brotherhood” of firefighters. We were proud to be part of this “brotherhood” long before the towers fell on 9/11, and we remain so even during this trying time when the politicians and the press are demonizing us on a daily basis. We are a close-knit family. We know what we do and what it takes to do what we do. For the most part we don’t care what the general public thinks of us, for they can never fully understand. It is the respect and acceptance of our brothers that means the most to us.
We never sought the tag of hero. None of us are true heroes. Heroes are not born, but rather they are the products of opportunity. None of us plan to make the ultimate sacrifice. Indeed, if your house is on fire and it ultimately comes down to a choice between you and me – sorry, but I’m outta there! The reality is, however, that we’re not usually given that choice. We readily push the envelope and risk our lives to protect those we’re sworn to serve. Most of the time we can sense when trouble is just around the corner – sometimes we can’t.
For years we fought the daily battles in obscurity, only occasionally receiving any press coverage or attention from the general public. That began to change, particularly in this area, directly following the tragic fire in Worcester, MA in which we lost 6 firefighters. We’ve lost that many firefighters before, but something about that fire captured the imagination of the general public (and the press) and generated a tremendous outpouring of good will toward firefighters everywhere. I don’t know whether it was the press coverage, the massive memorial service that brought over 20,000 firefighters as well as the President and Vice President to Worcester, or the fact that it took over a week to recover the remains of these brave men, but people began to stop us on the street and thank us for our service.
Two short years later, as that sentiment had become but a memory to most, America was attacked on our own soil and 343 brave firefighters from New York City gave their lives “just doing their jobs”. While it was true that they didn’t intentionally march off to their deaths, I personally know a firefighter from FDNY who kissed his best friend in the lobby of the WTC before that friend began his ascent in the stairwell – and ultimately to heaven. They both knew that it “could be” the last time they saw each other in this lifetime, but they both had their jobs to do and they weren’t about to shirk their responsibilities because of the dire circumstances. On the contrary, this was the time they were needed most.
It speaks volumes about those brave men (and about firefighters everywhere) that many of those who responded to the WTC that day, and many of those who perished, were not even on duty at the time of the alarm. Many were already relieved from duty but still in the firehouse when the tones sounded. They had absolutely no obligation to get on those trucks and respond to the scene. They did so because they were firefighters, first and foremost, and the people they serve needed them – their brothers needed them.
After that tragic day in our nation’s history firefighters everywhere were hailed as true American heroes. This was a tag put on us by the media – and by the general public. I was truly taken aback when I walked the streets of New York City in uniform following the first of many funerals and memorial services I attended for our fallen brothers, that people would smile and say “thank you” or “God bless you”. This is not the kind of thing I had ever experienced in my many visits to NYC. People would offer to buy my coffee or pay for my drinks. Firefighters around the country were treated with respect and gratitude.
I remember telling my wife that this would pass, that we would soon be nothing more than lower middle class public servants once again. She looked at me in utter disbelief and asked me, “…how can anyone ever think of firefighters that way again? I don’t believe it!” In my estimation it took about three years for all the grateful sentiment to wear away. Maybe it was the escalating war in Iraq. Maybe it was the resentment of the general public at the tag that they had put on us. Perhaps it was just part of the healing process of the entire country, to put those memories away. Whatever the reason, we were dwelling in obscurity once again. Most firefighters were glad to have it that way. We were forever changed as a country as a result of that day. We were forever changed as a “brotherhood”. We were still proud of the sacrifice our brothers from FDNY had made and to a man we all vowed to “never forget”, but we were tired of trying to live up to the hero tag.
Once we were restored to mere human status it didn’t take long before we were being attacked as greedy union workers trying to bleed taxpayers dry. Although most people don’t want to admit it, their opinions are greatly influenced by political rhetoric and media coverage. Most people don’t have the time or the inclination to read beyond the headlines or research beyond the sound-bite on the news. Many people are influenced by the radio talk show hosts – the majority of whom are left-wing conservatives whose major political concern is downsizing government and lowering taxes.
So, as the economy began to edge toward recession and local taxes began to rise, the politicians and the conservative media began painting the picture of greedy unions being the source of the problem. Nothing could be further from the truth – but that’s an argument for a different day. As the general public took in all this propaganda they began to look at firefighters (particularly in Providence) as villains. This view was confirmed, in their eyes, as their tax bills began to rise. As previously stated, most citizens are spoon-fed their opinions by politicians and media and don’t bother to look beyond for the underlying reasons.
Subsequently, as is usually the case, the truth lies firmly between the extremes. Firefighters are neither heroes nor villains; we are simply honorable men and women working at a profession we love. We take our oaths seriously and are ready to risk whatever be asked of us at a moment’s notice. Are we willing to knowingly trade our own lives for others? No. Are we ready to risk our lives for the protection of perfect strangers? Every time we climb on the trucks. Do we feel we deserve excessive salaries and benefits? No. Do we feel that we deserve fair compensation for our work and adequate health care and retirement benefits? Of course – especially since our health and longevity is compromised by our working conditions. We owe that much to ourselves and to our families.