In the public safety arena, it is not uncommon to develop a very cynical outlook on everything that surrounds us. In fact, in their book Cynical Americans: Living and Working in an Age of Discontent and Disillusion, authors Philip Mirvis and Donald Kantor use firefighters and police officers as examples of typical cynical Americans. While public safety is not the theme of the work, it is quite evident that they noticed our link to cynicism. It becomes easy after a while to just take for granted many of the things that you have or are involved in. This is a byproduct of navigating through the massive bureaucracies most public servants cope with during 30-plus-year careers. We live knowing the potential of our fellow members and our organizations can never be reached because of a whole host of obstacles related to being government employees. I once heard a veteran member of a department say, “We can’t get approval to spend two dollars on a lightbulb but we can waste millions and no one says a thing.” Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini even delivers a training course addressing many of these issues titled “I Love What I Do—I Hate Where I Do It.” If you get outside of your organization, you find that the problems are pretty much the same everywhere. Some organizations are better than others and some are awesome, but it is our nature to have very high expectations. Unfortunately, not many bureaucracies measure up to these expectations. This contributes to the path of becoming cynical.
More Than A Job
Not everyone gets to do what they love for a career and every now and then, despite our flaws, it’s good to remember how great this job is. Many of our friends and family don’t understand why we chose low pay, crazy hours, and high risk to personal safety over the corporate life. Whether in the middle of a structure fire that’s getting bad or a hurricane grid search on the third day in the driving rain, it’s like Hoot’s famous quote from “Black Hawk Down,” “They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you and that’s it. That’s all it is.” The comradery in military units that have seen combat is the closest comparison to the comradery of firefighters. You don’t usually get that from corporate America in today’s disposable employee environment.
Despite bureaucracies, politics, and all that goes along with them, we all still proclaim that being a firefighter is the best job in the world. While some question newer generations’ reasons for joining a department, deep down the majority still have that stewardship of community, that spirit of servant leadership, that desire to help others, that quest to belong to a team, and the unequivocal human trait of being a part of something bigger than yourself. Nothing restores morale faster than a working fire with a good outcome. A life saved or property saved stokes the inner passion and affirms that we make a difference. In other words, doing something for someone else is a drug that stimulates the heart of all public servants to endure anything and continue to serve.
Service Above Anything
We see the absolute worst of our communities in the form of inadequate living conditions, an aging population that is often forgotten and neglected, and kids surviving in conditions that shock us to the core. We see the poor, the middle class, and the rich overdosing from drug addiction. We see the aftermath of drunk drivers, distracted drivers, and street racers. We see domestic violence, gang violence, and innocent victims caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. We know the secrets held by many prominent community names, and we know the greatness in nameless citizens who are always there to help their neighbors.
We deliver our services, spend our time, and help people without hesitation, without judgment. The poorest and richest get a full 100 percent when they need us. We often get the opportunity to buy someone another birthday, anniversary, or Thanksgiving with his or her family. Sometimes we just help change a tire, bandage a scraped knee, help someone off the floor and back into bed, or simply offer directions to a lost traveler. In the midst of doing this, we dislodge the cynicism and bliss and focus on making the situation better for anyone needing or willing to receive our help with no hesitation or regard for politics, race, or religion. It’s an example of humanity that occurs hundreds of thousands of times a day across America.
I recently attended the funeral of a great friend, mentor, and fire service contributor, Cortez Lawrence, at Arlington National Cemetery. He was a veteran of the United States Army and the United States Marine Corp. After Vietnam, he entered the fire service and continued contributing until he suddenly died at work on the campus of the United States Fire Administration in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He was buried with full military honors, including a horse-drawn caisson, military band, 21-gun salute, flag presentation, and taps. The attention to detail, professionalism, and precision of the soldiers in The Old Guard did not go unnoticed. The soldiers represented every part of America coming together to honor a veteran. They had never met him and didn’t know any of us, but it didn’t matter. A family friend walked over to the area where the 21-gun salute was performed. He asked about getting the empty shell casings. Without hesitation, the squad gathered the casings off the ground, pulled cloths out of their pockets, and polished each casing before handing them to the officer, who then presented them to the family friend. I thought, that’s what we do as firefighters every time we respond and help without any thought or analysis—just pure human compassion. That is what the recipients of the services performed by the American firefighter feel as we leave each incident. Standing there in Arlington, witnessing all this with the Pentagon, Washington Monument, and Potomac River in the background, surrounded by the graves of 400,000 veterans, made me a little less cynical and a little more thankful.
I am thankful to have the opportunity be a part of the greatest profession in world. I am thankful to be a part of one of the strongest professional brotherhoods in existence. I am thankful for the opportunity and accept the responsibility to make a difference. Thanks to the American fire service for giving me the opportunity do what I was called to do, and thanks for all those who helped and continue to help me along the way.