Firefighters are simple working class people who find themselves drawn into this profession by an overwhelming desire to help and serve their neighbors. I know that sounds corny but I’ve found this to be quite accurate over my years in the “fire service”. Those rare individuals who are drawn by other motivations do not last very long. Once they experience the difficult work, the time away from family, the physical and psychological trauma and the long hours they tend to move on to another, less demanding and punishing, line of work.
A true firefighter endures these hardships as a badge of honor. He knows there aren’t many people who can do this job and remain healthy and happy. The truth is that not even those of us who continue to do this job for years escape unscathed. Many of us are beaten down by hundreds of hours on the fireground and other emergency scenes enduring countless physical trauma and unparalleled stress. The percentage of firefighters who suffer permanent disabilities is much higher than that of the average worker. So is the divorce rate.
Yet, despite all this, we survive and prosper in our profession because we feel that what we do is important – that we matter. We know how much we help people on a day-to-day basis. Most of those individuals whom we’ve assisted show their gratitude and appreciation freely. These people are never among those who publicly question our dedication, abilities or benefits. They know how quickly we’ve responded to their call for help and how respectfully we’ve treated them or their property once we’ve arrived. They understand the value of a highly trained, professional and fully staffed fire department in their city and are confident that we’ll always give a 100% effort to keep them and their loved ones safe.
Professional firefighters pride ourselves in treating every request for aid in the same manner. It doesn’t matter to us if a person is rich and influential or poor and homeless. There’s no place for preferential treatment or personal prejudices or biases at an emergency scene. We take an oath to “…support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and the Home Rule Charter of the City of Providence.” We take this oath very seriously and consider our job as a noble profession as opposed to merely a career.
Professional urban firefighters are continually rated as one of the most dangerous professions and are always rated at or near the top of the list of most stressful occupations. Firefighters are also always at or near the top of any poll of the most highly respected professions.
As firefighters who are willing to go above and beyond our assigned duties on every call we depend on the benefits we’ve negotiated to protect our livelihood and/or our families in the event that we are injured on duty. We depend on responding to structure fires with adequate staffing on duty to assure firefighter and public safety. We depend on our medical coverage while active members and in retirement to adequately cover us for any illnesses we’ve contracted due to our numerous exposures to toxins and carcinogens, including carbon monoxide and cyanide, in our firefighting careers. These benefits are some of the benefits Governor Chafee’s and Providence City Council’s proposals aim to strip away from us.
I’ll be retired in a couple of years but I can’t help but wonder if the loss of these safety nets, particularly for our families, will affect the way future Providence firefighters fight fires. Will they be as willing to risk life or limb at all fires or will they tend to take a defensive posture (fighting the fire from the exterior) more quickly than presently. This would go against everything the Providence Fire Department stands for but it is safer for the firefighters, even if it would jeopardize victims and their property. I’m glad I won’t be around to see it!
Capt. Tom Kenney
Providence Fire Department