Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Firefighters as Heroes...or Not

The January issue of Reader’s Digest featured this cover:

I wasn’t surprised to see that a firefighter was chosen to be the cover subject for stories of heroic citizens since so many people view firefighters as heroes. But there are a couple of other facets to the hero thing that are worth noting.

For starters, most firefighters are humble and do not see themselves as heroes. They’re just doing a job, albeit a demanding and really interesting one. That’s not to say they’re not confident in their abilities, or that they’re not proud of what they do. Firefighters as a whole are a self-confident bunch and serve their communities with pride.

Sure, there are some guys and gals in emergency services who are arrogant and full of themselves, wearing the hero mantle openly for all to admire. But in my experience they are the minority.

Then there’s the public view of firefighters. Some people admire firefighters for their bravery and courage in the face of danger. Who else runs into burning buildings while everyone else is fleeing? Others look down on firefighting as a profession for unskilled laborers, despite the vast array of knowledge, skills, and abilities that today’s firefighters must possess.

I once attended the wedding of a young firefighter. At the reception, the bride’s father struck up a conversation with me and was disappointed to learn that I was a firefighter, just like his new son-in-law. He commented that I seemed like a bright, intelligent human being; why was I doing such a dirty job? “You could do so much better,” he said.

People sometimes display their distaste for firefighters in the comments sections of online news stories. While some (in fact, I would say most) commenters heap praise on firefighters for the job they do, there are always a vocal few who feel compelled to opine about how firefighters are just a bunch of overpaid laborers who don’t deserve all the attention they get.

Why do they feel that way? I don’t know. If I had to guess, I’d say maybe they tried to get a firefighting job and didn’t make the cut (it’s an extremely competitive process), so they rail against those that did out of anger or jealousy. Or they think municipal workers all live high on the hog (which is definitely not the case in some areas of the country). Perhaps they had a run-in with a firefighter who behaved like an ass, and in their minds all firefighters are alike. Or maybe it's simply green-eyed envy.


Here in the Pikes Peak region, the public’s perception of firefighters as heroes peaked during the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires. Citizens lined roadways to cheer firefighters leaving and returning to camps and stations. They inundated firefighters with food, bottled water, and sports drinks. They posted signs of appreciation throughout blackened neighborhoods. Rich Harvey, incident commander for the Great Basin Incident Management Team that managed both incidents, said the outpouring of support shown by the community was unlike anything he’d ever seen.

His comment made me wonder why other communities didn’t show that level of appreciation for the men and women risking their lives for the benefit of complete strangers - even strangers who post negative rants  about firefighters.

Heroism is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.

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