For some reason, I was scanning news today and came back to Dave Statter’s February 2014 post about a college professor suggesting the firefighter’s role as a hero is largely mythical, among other issues. While the article dates back to the beginning of 2014, I re-read it to see if I could gain any perspective on where this individual was coming from.
Interestingly enough, as I passed the first few paragraphs, I thought the article was going to actually just suggest that firefighters shouldn’t get a “free ride” in hard times because popular opinion is that firefighters perform a duty that is too sacred to question (I would concede that we need to look hard at our budgets, just like everyone else- it’s the right thing to do). Imagine my surprise when what I read REALLY WAS (given individuals’ reactions to certain things without actually reading the article first) a misinformed attack on the job we do.
While I will concede that society has maintained a love affair with the image of the valiant firefighter, rushing into the blaze to save the young and kittens, to suggest that firefighters don’t deserve credit for the acts of selflessness they perform is, frankly, a little ludicrous. He asserts that just because a few civilians happen to help others at incidents like the Boston Marathon and the World Trade Centers, that firefighters, police and EMS aren’t “first responders” most of the time anyway, and therefore less likely the real heroes in any occasion. I don’t dispute at all that many selfless individuals do step forward and perform heroic actions before the civil authority shows up. But his article really does insinuate that “rescue persons…are typically no more so [heroic] than the general population”.
In the interest of pseudoscientific examination, a Google search for heroic actions of professors got very little. Yet when I did so for firefighters, the list went on and on. Proving nothing (just like Professor Polet managed to do), I would still suggest that many professors do, in fact, perform heroic deeds by conveying knowledge and sharing experience to those of us who desire to change and improve our lives, I still wouldn’t suggest that what they do has no value, or doesn’t require praise.
From the other perspective (where I thought he was going with the article), however, the fire department doesn’t just get a free ride when it comes to budget scrutiny. As a fire service leader, I can reassure you, we daily have to defend budgets, and do so objectively and unemotionally, without holding the community hostage with threats that “people will die” if we cut funding. Don’t, however, think for a minute that cutting resources doesn’t translate into reduced service when we don’t throw that threat out there; yes, there is the potential someone will die if we lose funding in certain initiatives. That’s not extorting the taxpayer though, it’s a realistic assessment in some cases. Not all, but very definitely, some.
In my community, the citizens and visitors do love the fire department, as evidenced by many of the letters of thanks and lots of baked goods that find their way to the stations. That hasn’t translated, though, into a blank check, and in tough economic times, we too had to cinch our belt and consider alternative solutions to problems in order to save money. The real story that must be considered is that the firefighters I work with, and others in departments around the nation, did heroic things in those cases by doing more for the community where support fell off: Attending to homeless people who were once in programs, now shuttered under fiscal meltdowns; policing sections of cities where crime was so high that even law enforcement was stretched thin and wasn’t being funded more; responding to calls for the elderly who could no longer afford caregivers because their nest-egg dried up.
Heroism doesn’t stop at fires. What real heroes do is demonstrate society’s highest values when challenged and don’t shirk them in the face of their own comfort or safety. Some of the people I work with have never pulled anyone from danger, but instead, show incredible compassion when given a message that compassion isn’t necessarily something we pay for anymore. While I don’t consider myself a hero, I am surrounded by many, and I do, daily, consider them as such. And yes, while one commenter on that article suggested public safety is the “third rail of local politics- touch it and you are dead”, that may be because most people realize the value of having a prepared and easily accessible emergency response system.