As a volunteer professional fire photographer for many of the Walworth County Fire Departments, I had been privileged to observe and learn about the reasons that motivate a person to become a firefighter. The consistent annual NATIONAL loss of our firefighters and the injuries they sustain so poignantly speak to the sacrifices of the front-line heroes who live and work among us everyday.
The poet, Kalil Kibran once wrote, “Work is love made visible.” If ever there were a better definition of a firefighter’s work, this is it. We can observe the truth of this quote weekly on the nightly news.
While we know what firefighters do in situations like the ones that occurred on September 11, and during natural disasters and in our communities across the nation, what do they really do most of the time and why do they do it?
First let’s set the scene. Very few people know that the U.S. has the worst record in the civilized world for destruction of life and property by fire. Most of these fires do not occur in large buildings or in catastrophic events, but in single-family homes. Fire departments answer around one million calls annually. A fire occurs in the U.S. about every 18 seconds.
The average number of people who die annually in fires in the U.S. is about 3,500. A person dies in a fire in the U.S. every hour. To gain some perspective of the problem, imagine two fully loaded 747 planes crashing in a mid-air collision every month, year in and year out. This has been our average annual record since the 1970's when it was much, much worse. This, of course, does not count the thousands of people who are maimed or horribly disfigured. The destruction of property is annually in the billions. Regardless of the horrific anomaly of September 11, this country continues to have a significant fire problem. We lose about 100 firefighters annually as well. This kind of loss does not occur in countries in Western Europe.
The reasons for this dubious record are topics for another discussion. The key issues revolve around the historical and cultural context of our understanding of how fire safety developed in America. The good news is that things have been improving over the last 15 years. In fact, fighting fires accounts for about two percent of the over 15 various activities of a firefighter today. These functions range from hazardous materials to terrorism to disaster preparedness and emergency management. Add to these a myriad of activities dealing with inspections, code enforcement, public education and prevention. The main portion of a firefighter’s day is spent in EMS or emergency medical services. This latter function has become so vital for the simple reason that the firefighter is the first and last responder to any and all emergencies in the U.S., 24 hours a day, regardless of the incident.
Consider this scenario: you are awakened from a dead sleep. As you rush to the scene you receive a quick overview of the emergency you will face. That situation could be as simple as shortness of breath, a multiple car accident or the tallest building in the city that has become a raging inferno with thousands of people in it. You are the one who they call. You are the one who is supposed to know what to do. You are the professional. Do you think that firefighters take the time to consider, “I didn’t sign on for this kind of situation?” So what do you do? You do what your values and mission dictate. That mission is the protection of life and property in just that order. Who else is going to do it?
Firefighters protect our citizens’ first right as written in the constitution: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Firefighters protect the first right so we can enjoy the other two. The history of this country is intertwined with firefighters. It is no coincidence that Ben Franklin founded the first fire department in America, the Friendship Fire Co. in Alexandria, VA, or that the first five presidents of the U.S. were volunteer firefighters. Firefighters love being firefighters. Most firefighters wanted to be firefighters since they were small children. Many of the 1.5 million firefighters in this country are paid firefighters in one jurisdiction and also volunteers in another community close by. The reason for this is because they love what they do so much.
Who are these people? Not so much your blue-collar worker anymore. Many firefighters have college degrees. An individual doesn’t become a firefighter by accident. There can easily be as many as 200 applicants for every available position in a metropolitan department. All-night vigils just to apply to take the examination are not unusual. Passing this battery of tests allows one to become a “rookie” (which has its own complex curriculum). After that it’s constant training and study for the rest of one’s career. The result is an extremely intelligent individual in superb physical condition responsible for our citizens’ safety day and night.
The same kind of intelligence and motivation apply to volunteers but these individuals do this for the love of their neighbor & communities. Were it not for the volunteer fire service in our country, the cost of fire protection could not be endured in such communities where it is a necessity – like within Walworth County.
This is no less so for senior fire officers and chiefs. Some of this country’s finest leaders are fire chiefs and fire administrators loaded with any number of advanced degrees. Most receive Master’s Degrees in Public Administration, Chemistry, Engineering or Education. Being a leader in public safety in a metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Department is every bit as challenging as that of a CEO in private enterprise. This is especially true considering the constant constraint on resources, the microscope of public opinion and the size of the “market” served. The American public has always loved its firefighters. Some years ago the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press took a poll of how much the public trusts its institutions. The results of the poll indicated that among seven different public and agencies, fire departments ranked second only to one’s own family.
So what motivates people like the ones who work so hard to protect us in the performance of their duty every year? Edward Crocker, the Chief of the New York City Fire Department at the turn of the 19th Century, summarized it best when he said: “I have only one desire and that is to be a firefighter. The position may be a lowly one in the eyes of some but those of us who do the work that firefighters must do consider it to be a noble calling. Our greatest moments come when we save lives. It is under the influence of such thoughts that we are driven to deeds of daring, even of final sacrifice.”
There are many heroes in our society besides firefighters. But it is good to know when our loved ones are safe in their homes that there are professionals watching over them day and night: the ones living just down the street at the local firehouse drawn by a noble calling.
To know that the very people who belittle or give the fire departments grief for how they spend their fundraising money will one day be asking for their assistance and because of the department’s true dedication these brave individuals, whether they are firefighters or EMT’s, will be there to help that person. Support your local fire departments when they have their fundraisers. Support them at your city/town/village meetings when they ask for help. They are usually attempting to get funding to get equipment to help save another life or property – which just may be yours one day!