“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 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….
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.
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.
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.
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