The Noble Calling
"I wish my wife, my mother, everyone who ever asked me why I do what I do could see the humanity, the sympathy, the sadness of these eyes, because in them is the reason I continue to be a firefighter." - Report from Engine Company 82 By Dennis Smith
The consistent annual 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. As a former fire commissioner, I have been privileged to observe and learn about the reasons that motivate a person to become a firefighter.
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.