I recently had an opportunity to visit a friend who works at a career fire station (no, not Memphis, where I work now, and not St. Louis, where I used to work). While I was at this fire station, my friend introduced me to a firefighter who is his good friend. The firefighter was washing his new pickup truck in the fire station, while on fire department time, and it looked like he was using cleaning products the fire department supplies for washing the apparatus.
While he washed his pickup on fire department time, with the fire department’s cleaning products, he complained about how bad things are and how terrible his working conditions are. Behind him I could see other firefighters in the day room sitting in recliners and watching TV. One complaint centered on the fact that he was “subbing” from another fire station for the day since that station was short of personnel. While I listened to him complain about “everything” he was not getting, he turned on the vacuum cleaner from the fire station and proceeded to clean out his truck.
Over the noise of the vacuum cleaner, I listened to more of his complaints. I was intrigued about why he was upset about being placed at this fire station instead of his regular station. This department has standards for minimum staffing of fire equipment, so he would expect to be moved if another fire station is short of personnel. He answered he was being treated unfairly since he keeps his own records and he knew he had been detailed out of his fire station more often than other firefighters.
I was curious about his education level and he told me he had a high school diploma. When he was done complaining, I asked him if anything was good about his job and he said “no.” That shocked me, because usually when someone thinks about it, they find something good. I could not help myself, so I had to ask him, “Don’t you think you should be thankful for the things you have and count your blessings?” He replied, “What do I have to be thankful for? What blessings could I possibly have?”
First, I asked him if he knew how many firefighters had lost their jobs in the past four years. Second, I reminded him he is paid for doing a job that 800,000 people in this country volunteer to do. I am sure many of them would trade places with him, since many volunteer to get a foot in the door when a career job opens up. Third, he has a job that pays him while he washes his car, eats, exercises, sleeps and watches TV along with other things that have nothing to do with firefighting, doing EMS, taking care of the fire station or other job-related activities. I know there are times when tremendous work is required and your life may be on the line, but unless you’re working in the inner cities of Detroit, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles or Memphis, to name a few, it does not happen that often.
Knowing this fire department as I do, I know the pay and benefits are not bad – especially for someone without a college degree. Obviously, he can afford a new pickup truck. I reminded him that he has his health and that he could be lying in a hospital room fighting for his life just like many people he has probably seen in his career. Some of those people left home that day never knowing their lives would end or be changed forever.
Nothing is perfect
I don’t know whether the light bulb ever went off for him, but I hope he has had time to think. Unfortunately, I hear too many firefighters complaining as I travel this country. No, nothing is ever perfect and I have been known to grumble myself. But over time, I have learned that being in the fire service and getting the chance to help others while being paid, often for idle time, is not a bad gig. Yes, there will be things in the fire service that upset you, but overall it is not a bad job and certainly not a bad career.
Next time you’re driving down the street in the fire truck, take a look at the laborer who is digging a ditch in the hot sun for little pay and probably no benefits. Count your blessings – there are many.