Do you remember the days and months after 9/11? I do. Grateful people showed up at fire stations across the United States with cakes, cookies, meals and other expressions of appreciation for firefighters. The firefighters of New York City not only showed the United States, but the rest of the world, what the firefighting profession is like in times of danger.
On 9/11, 343 FDNY firefighters paid with their lives and many others were injured. Other firefighters at the Pentagon also risked their lives to perform search and rescue while aviation fuel burned around them. After 9/11, Americans were immediately indebted to those who answer the alarm bell and put themselves in peril. The nation was grateful and understood the sacrifice of the firefighting profession.
My, how times change! Firefighters have gone from being heroes to zeros. Less than 10 years later, firefighters find themselves under assault from politicians and others all over the United States. It seems to be open season on firefighters, their pay and their pensions. I continue to read newspaper and Internet accounts of firefighters being bashed, lambasted and degraded by politicians, government officials and others.
As I was writing this column, Congress, in its infinite wisdom, voted not to fund health-care coverage for 9/11 first responders. The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act failed to get the required two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives under a special voting procedure. The vote was 255-159. If a simple majority was called for, only 218 votes would have been needed. This is an outrage and the bill should have received unanimous support. Countless firefighters, police officers and construction workers continue to suffer lung problems and other illnesses from working at Ground Zero. The bill would have guaranteed the long-term operation of healthcare programs for firefighters and others who worked at the World Trade Center site after 9/11. You might have seen the TV accounts of the vocal exchange between U.S. Representatives Anthony Weiner and Peter King over this issue. No wonder Americans have little or no confidence in Congress.
But it doesn't stop there. Examples of firefighters under attack can be found all over the United States. One of the most outrageous pieces I've read on the Internet is a commentary by Douglas Gantenbein posted on Slate.com in 2003. In the commentary, titled "Smoke and Mirrors — Stop Calling Firefighters Heroes," he writes that "firefighting is a cushy job," "firefighting isn't that dangerous," "firefighters are adrenaline junkies," "firefighters have excellent propaganda skills" in a reference to firefighter funerals and "firefighters are just another interest group."
There's more. In St. Louis, MO, earlier this year, during a budget meeting, Alderman Quincy Troupe called firefighters in the audience "prima donnas" before he got up and walked out. Firefighters in Fairfield County, CT, in July called for the resignation of Stamford City Representative Scott Mirkin after he compared professional firefighters to terrorists. In University City, MO, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch decided to publish an article critical of funding for a new fire station because a citizen who was jogging by happened to look in the bay door and does not think a new fire station is warranted, even though 58 code violations were found in the station. Now firefighters may have to continue to live in substandard and deplorable conditions.
"Not Welcome Here"
In Boston, MA, Council President Michael P. Ross in a heated speech made derogatory comments that Boston was paying firefighters to come to work sober when referring to funding for a drug and alcohol testing program. This past June, in East Stroudsburg, PA, the school superintendent through the school police told members of the Marshalls Creek Fire Company that they were "not welcome here" and to leave after they showed up at the high school graduation ceremony in their dress uniforms, along with fire apparatus, even though five junior volunteers from the fire company were graduating. In Palo Alto, CA, Vice Mayor Jack Morton in a city council meeting said Palo Alto's firefighters and police are "extremely wealthy and overpaid." He also said in reference to budget talks that "it's almost like the fire department giving the city the finger."
Another major issue centers on politicians who are unhappy that many firefighters receive a pension. It seems to irritate them for some reason that after people commit 20, 25 or 30 years to an organization, they receive a pension. During tough economic times, politicians are looking for dollars to operate their governments. It is amazing that politicians now want to change the rules after the whistle has already blown to start the game. The mayor of St. Louis continues to try to get his hands on the firefighter and police pension fund, calling the funding of the pension the "fifth man on the fire truck." Other politicians around the United States continue to try and change pension systems from "defined benefit" to a "defined contribution" programs.
Many firefighters sacrifice and spend many hours away from their families. Many firefighters have to work second and third jobs just to make ends meet. Other firefighters volunteer for their communities so that others can sleep at night. Firefighters touch people's lives every day, whether it is saving someone's home from a wildfire, extricating someone from a wrecked vehicle or pushing the right medication to save someone from a heart attack.
In my 33-year fire service career, I have never heard firefighters refer to themselves as heroes. But they do ask for a little appreciation for the job they do. To the politician and all the others, let's stop beating up on firefighters and start appreciating what they do for the community.
GARY LUDWIG, MS, EMT-P, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis, TN, Fire Department. He has 33 years of fire-rescue experience. Ludwig is chair of the EMS Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), was appointed to the National EMS Advisory Council by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and is a member of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) EMS Standing Committee. Ludwig has a master's degree in business and management and is a licensed paramedic. He is a frequent speaker at fire and EMS conferences nationally and internationally and can be reached through his website at www.garyludwig.com.