Burden

“If you’re not feeling the burden of this job in some way, if its not weighing you down to some degree, then you’re not doing it right.”

 

There is a burden to this job. Always has been. In modern times with good pay and benefits, we lose sight of it. But if you're not feelin' the burden, maybe you're not doin' it right. Photo by Weegee. Used by permission.

There is a burden to this job. Always has been. In modern times with good pay and benefits, we lose sight of it. But if you’re not feelin’ the burden, maybe you’re not doin’ it right. Photo by Weegee. Used by permission.

There is a burden associated with the job…it can be very heavy or to be more accurate, ever present.  One does not feel it at first in the enthusiasm of youth and the joy of riding the red rig every chance you get.  There is a jaunty walk and lift of chin when you are new to the firehouse.  You are a member of the association, of the fraternity, of the club…the firehouse. A closed community to the public.  A dwelling place of those servants of the public, those who protect.  What an honor it is then to be included, not to be taken for granted.   Taken for granted.  I’ve been thinkin’ bout this over a cup and I don’t want to sound like I’m here to whine. I’ve drafted this, trashed it, then rewritten it, but it lingers.  Over the past several years I’ve come to know a lot of great guys that are devoted to this job, guys that give everything they’ve got and then more.  And many of them are very tired, they feel a weight and lately can’t seem to find many who are willing to share it.

One close friend of mine attended a funeral a while back.  It was for a chief in his department, retired a few years ago.  The man had served for a long, long time and like him or not, his passing called for observance.  So the Class A’s come out, ..they’re dusted off, shoes shined, gloves cleaned.  Respect.  I do not know if my friend respected this chief or not, he has never said.  But I do know with no doubt, that my brother respects the job.  He loves the job.  So he set aside his day off, put on his uniform and joined others at the graveside.  Only a few devoted were there, this was no Line of Duty Death, there was no parade or anything to get excited about, no brotherhood bash planned for the post-funeral.  He noted that ten years ago, in the wash of 9/11, there still would have been half the department there.

I think that sat in his craw a bit…He told me later, “you take on the job and that includes everything”.  The whole job is your duty.  For my brother, it matters not whether you liked a guy, or whether you even worked with him much, what matters is that you show respect to the member, the uniform, the department, the job.  He was disheartened that so few showed up for a man that had served a very long time.  That’s when he said, “If you’re not feeling the burden of this job in some way, if its not weighing you down to some degree, then you’re not doing it right.”  So this cup o’ joe is for my brother….

On duty for another family moment. Need to take him fishing...Photo by a devoted wife.

On duty for another family moment. Need to take him fishing…Photo by a devoted wife on another Easter without Dad.

What he was saying was that in his view, if you accept the job, you are taking all that comes with it, the good and the bad and the in between.  Including funerals on days when you’d rather be elsewhere.  Lately it seems, now that 9/11 has faded with many of those who have retired, there is a lack of commitment to the greater cause.  Our duty.  Modern society does not encourage commitment to our profession and the people we serve so much as it encourages us to worship our “true self” and going down “our own path”.  What about the path the fire service needs us to take?  I too am torn between what I’d like to do with my time and what the fire service needs me to do with my time.

Chief Croker, famous for a few quotes, spoke about this when he said your brave moment was when you took the job, “everything else is your duty“.  The burdens abound in this job, but the benefits cause us to be willing to bear them.  But as my friend pointed out, some of you feel the burden is not shared by everyone.  The station duties, the nasty EMS calls, long nights, the time away from the family, the tests to keep up to date, the mandatory overtime, the aches and pains, the funerals.. What’s not to like about hose or hydrant testing?  Its all part of the job right?  But when was the last time you gave more than you wanted to, more than you felt you could bear?  I mean when the pay and benefits weren’t coming anywhere close to compensating the cost.  When you went to the funeral, did you feel that you couldn’t stand to go to another one, you were tired from the shift, why couldn’t the funeral be on my duty day…but you went anyway?  When you prepared for the class you were about to teach, did you look at your boy and think, …”what the hell am I doing? He and I should be fishing right now”?  When you stared at the long line of recruits and felt very tired…did you think, “its worth it, I’m just making so much money!”  Not even.  You’re there, tired, because when you look behind you, there isn’t anyone else standing there to take your place.  At least not anyone that is going to do the job the way you believe it should be done.  Maybe in some departments, but not yours.

Rapid Intervention Class. Its hard to find help. Many want to teach, but few are willing to come and simply lend a hand, make props, carry equip., fill bottles, go and get the coffee...Photo of author being smothered in a demonstration while being the glamorous instructor.

Rapid Intervention Class. Its hard to find help. Many want to teach, but few are willing to come and simply lend a hand, make props, carry equip., fill bottles, go and get the coffee…and learn the way to teach.  Photo of author being smothered in a demonstration while being the glamorous instructor.

Training is a burden.  You’d like to sit back ‘n watch a show..maybe kick off your boots and enjoy a little “ten toes”.  But training calls.  It requires you, Loo or Cap’ to set aside whatever comfort you would favor and devote yourself to a plan, to study up, seek new things, or refresh old ones and present them to your company.  Of course, its easier now with computer-based training and video courses.  No need to actually “wet the canvas”.  Fuel costs money, you should probably stay in quarters anyway.  And why should you bother?  You never have your whole crew together, the easy schedule ensures that you have parts and pieces of someone else’s platoon or company most of the time.   And there’s reports to do (believe me, I’m with you). How about you, Battalion?  When was the last time you trained your company officers?  “No time….no time”

A few weeks ago I attended a training course visiting our state that I knew would really tax my physical strength.  My bones hurt nowadays.  I was looking forward to the learning, but not the cost.  But I weighed the choices.  First the class was not intended for officers, but the hose jockeys.  So its easy for senior men to bow out.  But this younger generation listens more willingly to those whom they have seen “doing it”.  IF I’m still capable of leading firemen into fires, IF I profess to be capable of leading them into the dark hallway, then it is my DUTY to remain at the top of my game, as best I can, all the time.  This gets harder as the years go by, especially as the responsibilities add up.  But we shouldn’t fool ourselves, if we’re not learning, if we’re not practicing our craft, then we risk being stagnant and part of the problem.  So I attended the class along with another officer from my department and we suffered together and brotherhood grows.  We had other things to do.  We didn’t get paid overtime, but we gained for the department.  Because those we lead know that their leadership was willing to carry the burden too.

Yeah, being an instructor is very rewarding, truly. A nationally know instructor told me, "In an area of 200,000 firefighters, I have just seven I can find that are reliable and willing to give all they've got..." Photo by another instructor whose family was missing him that weekend.

Yeah, being an instructor is very rewarding, truly. A nationally known instructor told me, “In an area of 200,000 firefighters, I have just seven I can find that are reliable and willing to give all they’ve got…” Photo by another instructor whose family was missing him that weekend.

For many, there is no time to do such things.   A great job, they’re are good at it.  They really are, I wouldn’t take that away from them.  There are many incredibly talented firefighters out there.  The hours are sweet, you get paid to work out…  The overtime, the pensions, the union, the networks, its all there for a great formula in developing your American Dream.  Everybody needs to go for that, ..right?  Gotta have that, I’m sure its in the contract.  Its even better if you have a significant other who works, cause then… some of your toys are free.  Kids are at day care so you have some time off and maybe you start up that side job, get a little contracting in.  Not a bad life…not all of us are geared to be “on the job” day and night.  Some like to shuck the uniform and leave it behind.  Some one will keep up the good work, someone will do the union work, someone will go to the funeral, someone will train the new guys.  Someone will stop and check on the widow.  Someone will.  What if it was your family waiting for you to come home for the rest of their lives?

Maybe in bigger departments its different.  Maybe when you have a huge pool of manpower its different, ..but I don’t think so.  One of my mentors who teaches at a national level told me, “In an area of some 200,000 firefighters, I have just seven I can find that are reliable and willing to give all they’ve got…”  Its not that you can’t find someone to do the cool stuff, its finding people that will take on the burden with you, and shoulder the load even when its not convenient, no longer easy.  Someone has to keep the service on its feet, moving forward.  We need everyone to take a turn at the wheel.  Some go far beyond a turn, ..they look back and see no one in their backtrail and wonder who is going to take up and give them a break.  Since no one is there, they just keep going and as the fella’s look around they see that ‘that guy’ is always on top of things, always taking the load and he does a good job…as long as someone is doing it.  In many, many departments and regions, there are only a few holding things together.  Eventually, they burn out.  Eventually, they begin to struggle with their families who only know that they’re always gone.

"Even if you didn't know the guy, .." The funeral for LODD FF Andy Mullen, AFD. October 2010. Photo by author.

Even if you didn’t know the guy, ..” The funeral for LODD FF Andy Mullen, AFD. October 2010. Photo by author.

Either way, its a life.  Whether you are well paid, scraping by or volunteering in the pure, old-fashioned way, its a way of life that requires something of you.   There is a burden required of you.  Give back to those who trained you, those who have led you, those who have gone before you.  Not for overtime, not for the glory of being the “instructor guy”, but for the love of the job.  Come to The House of the 1 %.  There is a burden to this job.  You should have felt its weight by now, brother.  If you haven’t, than like my friend says, …I wonder if you’re really doing it right.

 

“Do your job!” — Mark VonAppen

7 Comments

  • H. Babler says:

    Great word Cap!
    I can attest that bring on a large department doesn’t change the statistics at all. In fact it may make them worse. It’s hard after getting your head kicked in on the ambulance with 25+ runs to be ready to train and work the next shift on the engine knowing that the shift after you will be riding the box again. As a rookie guys are incredulous that I spend my own money and vacation days to go out of state for conferences and training. They don’t understand why anyone would do that. The retiree funerals are more numerous but the brothers that show up are as slim as anywhere else. It’s a balancing act but it is the profession I chose and I love, however I can see how the ears begin to weigh and the runs take a toll leading to mental and physical exhaustion. Thanks for the word cap, I hope to one day share a cup o joe with you and pick your brain a little more. Keep up the good work while we are few and far between there are young guys spending the time to learn so we can carry the torch when our time comes. Have a happy 4th, be safe.

  • Ben Fleagle says:

    Hey Brother, great to hear from you again! It was in a way a rhetorical pondering, but I’m glad you spoke up, it lends credence..There are definitely those coming along that will shoulder the burden, but sometimes they feel very few and far between.

  • C. Theobald says:

    Hey Capt,
    Awesome post, thanks for sharing as always. So ponder some more out about your comment “You’re there, tired, because when you look behind you, there isn’t anyone else standing there to take your place. At least not anyone that is going to do the job the way you believe it should be done.” In light of that comment what qualifies someone to teach? One of the few guys in my department that I would call “brother” has been pushing for change in our operations for the racking on deployment of attack lines and he has been willingly putting me to work a lot but we have both just passed 3 years in the field recently. These changes are things from an identified deficiency that we fixed by spending our own time and money to go out and find the solution for us, and have spent many work days and a bunch of free ones honing our skills. This is not to pat either of us on the back it’s to say that there a few in our department that would want us to spend the next year doing nothing but teaching this to the 1300+ firefighters in our system, but we only have 3 years on the job with this department. We ask ourselves all the time who are we to be teaching others and are continually amazed at the folks that come out to flow some water. So are we those guys behind you not able to do it the way it should be done because we lack the experience? Does the number of years matter if my material (and motivation) is coming from a tenured fireman such as yourself? Sorry for the hard questions just looking to see if there is any understanding for the turmoil we have been feeling over the training we have been putting ourselves through recently.

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Quick answer off the cuff,..

      My friend, who am I to teach you? Much depends on our willingness to be accountable to what we have learned. I teach what I know to be true to those I lead. If my inexperience causes others to stumble, I strive to correct my error and demonstrate integrity. What qualifies you to teach? You are willing to be accountable to what you have known and to the brothers and sisters you are on the job with. If there are 25 firemen or 1300, what does it matter? Where a lack of leadership exists, the void will be filled. You step in the gap. Step in with integrity, those who follow will see it for what it is..those who won’t lead their people to succeed will not have the honor of being followed. …don’t worry about your time on the job, if it was going to be an issue, you would not have asked the question..

  • H. Babler says:

    Cap.
    Hope you are surviving the winter well, just checking in on you I have missed reading your thoughts and opinions on the fire service. Stay warm this winter!

  • Rick Kolomay says:

    Captain Fleagle, your article on the “Burden” was excellent. I have just experienced something that I knew was coming, but didn’t know when . . . “retirement”. It wasn’t my financial planner or wife who helped me figure out my retirement plan, it was my body. Degenerative joint disease or “wear and tear” arthritis, osteoarthritis (OA) of the lower back is the most common chronic condition of the joints. It occurs when the cartilage or cushion between joints breaks down leading to pain, stiffness and swelling. pain. Then a total hip replacement of the right hip from falls, and years later a total shoulder replacement from SCBA, more falls, and ladder bails that ended it all last December. So after being introduced to the fire service by going to calls on a 1954 Mack engine in ‘downtown’ Chicago with my dad at the age of 6, then dreaming of being a firefighter through college, and finally passing the tests and being accepted to serve was a dream of a “lifetime” being answered. A “lifetime” . . . of Brotherhood, promotions, sacrifices, the education, training, drilling, fitness for longevity, hits of adrenaline, sleepless nights, the kitchen table, roll calls, arguments, pranks and laughs, and the pride of it all . . . then suddenly it’s over. What was such an important part of one’s life is suddenly gone. You can visit, but you can never go back. As grateful as I am to have not been severely injured or killed over 37 years of service as so many of our Brothers and Sisters have, I have learned to dislike the term “retirement”. So many who have retired that had given so much of themselves now have the ability to rest and tend to their worn body parts, but they can also help so many active personnel with their experiences to continue that “lifetime” of devotion, brotherhood, and pride by having “a cup”, sit in on a drill, or instruct a formal training session. Remember your department retirees, for they may not be the ‘fountain of youth’ but they can be a ‘fountain of experience & knowledge’! So the “Burden” remains in many of us, we just don’t always know how to work with it when that time comes to put our helmet on the shelf – forever. Thank you Capt. for this opportunity to reach out to our Brothers and Sisters.

    • Ben Fleagle says:

      Chief,

      So true.n The older I get, the closer those clouds appear on the horizon. My body hurts, sometimes my brain hurts. And then my soul. My salute to you for stepping into that void. There are others who hang on far too long. I hope to have the courage to do the same as you when the time arrives. I always tell the boys to knock each other over when the retiree comes by. Get him a cup, make room in the day for him. Someday it’ll be me..
      Thanks for honoring me with visit, brother! So very honored!

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