Questioning Heroism

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.


  • Carl Smith says:

    Mick, this is right on the money. Our citizens call 9-1-1 when something goes wrong (even events that do not really qualify as an emergency) and expect someone to show up to help with the problem. During my career I responded to more water leaks, snakes in houses, strange smells, etc… than I ever did to actual fires. And we always did our best to solve the problem, that’s what our customers expected and that is what we did and maybe that is why they view firefighters as Heros.

  • geoff says:

    Overpaid and under-worked. If it wasn’t for medical assist calls, the fire department would be out of business. Paramedics run nearly 5x as many calls and literally get zero respect from fire fighter coworkers and never get praised in the media. The FD is trying to take over EMS to justify large fire budgets at the expense of paramedics. Imagine paramedics trying to take over some basic fire responsibilies, the IAFF would be livid.

    • Mick Mayers says:

      I’m sorry you feel that way, Geoff. The department I work with has been doing EMS (advanced care AND transport) with cross-trained personnel for over twenty years and doing a pretty good job. Our community expects a certain level of service that we have been able to provide through that model and while not every community can do that, some can and do it well. I’d agree that paramedics work very hard and I’ll even concede that in some circles, they don’t get nearly enough respect. But here on Firehouse Zen, had you read “The Preamble To All Posts”, you’d know I was a paramedic for over 25 years, and we don’t generalize when we can understand that not every model is right for every community. I’d challenge you that the firefighters I work for (because as a chief, I work for them) earn every dime they make, plus some. But that’s cool, apparently it isn’t that way where you are, and for that, I hope you can help change it.

    • Christopher Roy says:

      EMS, as its own service, does not have a strong voice and in turn, does not get the respect in the media/public that it does deserve. I do hope that changes. EMS doesn’t have a home either, and that doesn’t help. There are so many different delivery methods in this country that its probably impossible for me to name them all. However, many fire departments have been in the EMS business for as long as EMS has existed. Not only that but fire departments were pivotal in the creation of Paramedics in many communities, long before budgets were a concern. My department started providing paramedic level care in 1983 as a way to provide better care for the community. We had been providing “first aid” as early as 1915 and BLS EMS when EMS really started. At that time there were no budget issues and we did not get more manpower by becoming an ALS service. The history of EMS and Paramedics in the US is very interesting but very misunderstood.

  • Bryan G. Riebe says:

    Chief, appreciated in your response to Geoff that you work for the FFs. Believe if more Chiefs lived that philosophy our fire services would be bastions of honor, ethics, and human potential.

    • Mick Mayers says:

      Thanks, Bryan!
      I genuinely believe I do and they tend to reward me with professionalism, innovation, and compassion to our citizens daily. That’s something I am happy to facilitate.

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