All in a Day's Work

  COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The word hero and all its derivations are sure to be used liberally when thousands gather at the Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Colorado Springs to honor 425 union firefighters who died in the line of duty...

Firefighters know the distinction between hero and "just doing our jobs" often is defined solely by whether they go home safe, and that thin line makes it hard to convince others they aren't something special.

Kenny Haskell said when he started with the New York City Fire Department a veteran told him, "Don't be a hero. The cemeteries are full of heroes."

The risks of the job, even in Colorado Springs, which hasn't lost a firefighter in 80 years, are many.

Firefighters, for example, respond to every medical emergency. In Colorado Springs, those make up 73 percent of all calls.

Every medical response exposes firefighters to the threat of HIV, hepatitis C, tuberculosis. Each fire poses the risk of exposure to asbestos, smoke and airborne toxins.

The 120 or so calls to scenes of methamphetamine labs so far this year have subjected members of theColorado Springs Fire Department's hazardous materials team (HAZMAT) to the threat of explosions and a witches' brew of toxic, corrosive chemicals.

Last year, 28 members of a special medical support team accompanied SWAT teams on 250 raids and arrests in El Paso County, ready to provide medical care if bullets started to fly.

"We have had the luxury of having been thought of pretty well," Royal said. "I think what 9-11 did was emphasize the fact that what we do is deal with danger. Each time we go out the door, there isn't any guarantee we're coming back."

Firefighters stress they don't confront these risks daily only to help fellow citizens.

Capt. William Ragsdale, head of the Colorado Springs hazardous materials team, and Richard Haugen, a retired firefighter and director of the IAFF Fallen Firefighters Memorial, said they got into firefighting at the urging of fathers-in-law, basically to put food on the tables for their families. Once on the job, they found the work challenging, the excitement attractive and the camaraderie with colleagues special.

But both said doing the job right requires a selflessness and a commitment to others -- and it's those characteristics that endow firefighters with the stuff of heroes.

"If you don't develop a need to help others, you won't last long," Haugen said. "It just requires too many sacrifices."

Kenny Haskell knows the public understands that, even if only intuitively, and he thinks it's one reason Americans embraced firefighters after the events of Sept. 11.

Firefighters' commitment to helping others despite risks to themselves makes it hard, even for him, to draw a fine line around the word hero. Haskell struggled to explain how his brothers' actions Sept. 11 differed from the actions of thousands of others who jump onto firetrucks every day across North America.

"I guess it's their loss (of life)," he said. "I'm sure it has something to do with courageous deeds. What those guys did was courageous. You could see it on their faces. Those guys were scared, and they still went in and did their thing."