Walking a quarter mile from my temporary desk job at fire headquarters to the train today, I saw a man in front of me drop a receipt on the sidewalk. I caught up to him in a few quick steps and told him about it (thinking it might be important). He looked at me as he held the remainder of the contents from his pockets (that he was rummaging through) in his hands and said, “I know,” but he thanked me just the same. (Ahhh, only in New York; I know I just intentionally threw garbage on the ground and intentionally polluted when there’s a garbage can less than 15 feet away but hey, thanks for noticin’ mistah!)
At the next corner, I noticed a female police officer standing at a crosswalk. As we were about to make eye contact, a woman jumped out of a car yelling to someone. I immediately turned toward the woman while the police officer turned to look at who (or what) she was screaming at. As the officer and I simultaneously turned and looked in the opposite directions, we both surmised that the woman was simply calling to two young elementary aged girls that she apparently was picking up. As our heads turned to take in the scene, our eyes met. I said hello to the officer, and she smiled back. The crosswalk sign changed from a red hand to a white person walking. (Humph, how come they’re not green anymore? Whatever happened to red means stop, green means go, and yellow means go faster?!) Anyway, I digress. Continuing my trek toward the train, I arrived at the station (this one is called a terminal because, well, it’s the last stop for some trains yet at the same time the first stop for others (hmmm, that makes sense!).
Approaching the outward-swinging glass doors at the terminal (a.k.a. station), the woman ahead of me held the door as she walked through it, and I in turn held it for a young mother who had both her hands full and a baby hanging on her chest in one of those reverse-backpack looking baby carrying thingies (I am sure there’s an official name for them but I’ve been out of the baby business for more than two decades—and we didn’t have them back then).
At the next set of outward-swinging glass doors, a woman with a double baby stroller was coming out. The woman in front of me (who had previously held the door for me) and the three people in front of her patiently held the door and waited for the woman with the stroller to pass through (while holding the door open for her). I then stepped aside to let the young mother and her “front pack” baby pass, as did the others (ah, humanity at its best). Then, I continued down the stairs to the train platform.
Because of the mostly cloudy skies, the 55°F temperature, and the accompanying cool breeze, I had a light jacket covering my uniform. Surely no one on my 15-minute walk knew I was a firefighter. If they had seen the uniform, they probably would’ve assumed that those several gestures of kindness were because I was a firefighter. And then BAM! Viola! DOINK! It hit me like an acorn falling from a tree.
Which Came First?
I didn’t (and don’t) do the right thing because I’m a firefighter, I am a firefighter because I do the right thing. I am positive that almost every one of you reading this could say the same thing if you stopped to think about it.
What draws us to this calling of firefighting is a yearning, or perhaps it’s an inherent need, to offer assistance and help others. For most, it’s probably a genuine concern for our friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, and probably the human race as a whole (not to exclude other living creatures and various life forms we encounter).
I bet that most of us joined the fire service because it filled a need. Perhaps it was the urge for excitement or the need to give back to the community. For others, it may be for the comradery or the social or team aspects of it all. Not all of us are “little goody two shoes” and lord knows I have some skeletons in my closets but, for the most part, collectively we tend to do the right thing not (just) because it’s expected of us but because it’s the right thing to do.
As a friend of mine, Nick Corrado, an FDNY deputy chief, asked during a rather intense kitchen-table drill discussion, “Steve, when did doing the right thing stop being the right thing to do?” As fire officers, do we lead by example? Do we do the right thing because it’s simply the right thing to do? Do we teach our firefighters to do it? As we ride around in our bright shiny billboards displaying our department and perhaps company logos with chest-thumping pride, are we cognizant of how the public views us? Do we wave them on, extend that extra courtesy (especially in the nonemergency mode), and wave and smile back when they do look and acknowledge us?
Do we stop to ask if someone who’s seemingly lost needs directions? Or pull over to help a stranded motorist? Hopefully, the answer to these questions is in the affirmative.
Now, go forth to serve, not to be served. And, do the right thing—not because you’re a firefighter but because it’s the right thing to do.
Best wishes to you and your families for a safe, happy, and healthy holiday season!
Stephen Marsar, EFO, MA, is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and battalion chief in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). He is also a former chief and commissioner of the Bellmore (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. Marsar teaches extensively at the FDNY and Nassau County (NY) Fire and EMS academies, and he’s an adjunct professor at the Nassau County Community College. He has a master’s degree in homeland defense and security from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School as well as a bachelor’s degree in fire science and emergency services administration from SUNY Empire State College. Marsar graduated with honors from the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and is a National Roll of Honor inductee.