The bad news is; the public has no idea what we do.
The good news is; we don’t need the public’s understanding of what we do to do what we do.
The worst news is: an uneducated public will not come to the defense of their fire department when an elected official decides that he knows what we do, and how to do it better.
I’ll never forget Day 1 at the Providence Fire Department’s 42’nd Training Academy. One of my fellow recruits, upon first hearing of the department’s strategy for fighting building fires described as an aggressive interior attack blurted out, “we go in the burning buildings!”
What a dope. Saying out loud what I was thinking! Years later that recruit is one of the best fire officer’s we have, and he leads firefighters into burning buildings, puts out fire, and best of all, leads his firefighters back out. We needed to be taught how to do what we do, then we had to do it. It wasn’t easy, and it never will be.
Nobody can possibly know what we do unless having done it. This is not arrogance, it is simply fact. We can dress our politicians up in our gear,drag them through the smoke trailer, make them climb ladders and show them how to run a code, but they will never get it. Most of them understand that, and have the decency to let the professionals handle their specialty. Some look at the fire service with disdain, and know that the general public has as little clue about the job that firefighters do at they have.
Fire Departments always seem to be on the front lines of budget cuts. Our benefits are always under attack. Our minimum manning, the number of stations and response times questioned, our vehicles allowed to grow old and unsafe and our working hours increased.
A lot of the reason for the public’s apathy is because they know a few things about the fire service. They know we sleep, and they know we eat. They see us on the news pouring water on burning buildings, or cleaning up an accident scene or violent incident, or the back of an ambulance as it speeds away from a scene that the police have managed and think, at least they got out of bed. They quickly forget the things we do that they have no connection to. We are just blips on the radar screen.
Teachers are a large part of their lives. The police are far more visible, and the citizens feel a personal bond with people that can arrest them, or arrest people who have harmed them or their property. As for us? If you conducted a poll of 500 random people with no personal connection to a firefighter about our worth to them personally, on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being none and 10 being lots, my guess is we would not like the answer. We would probably average around 2.
So, what to do? Educate them? Demand that they understand how valuable we are to them? Picket, hold signs and swear at people?
Nah. All we can really do is show up, put on our gear and put the fires out. Focus on those who understand, hope that those who don’t some day will, and do our job to the best of our ability. We cannot control what others think, but we can control how we act.
But most important of all; we need to stick together, and support our unions, both locally and the international. We elect our leaders, most often from our ranks. The people that we elect are the faces of the fire service, the voice of all of us, and the best hope we have of keeping the uneducated, uninformed and incompetent from ruining the fire service as we know it.
And all of this is well and good, except in Providence, where the future of the fire department is in the hands of an arbitrator.
What the fire department in Providence needs is leadership. We have dozens of firefighters and officers who could lead the department, and bring it back from the ashes that the current administration has created. Instead, the plan is to conduct a nationwide search for somebody with the qualifications to do whatever the mayor wants, lick the shiny new firefighter boots of the commissioner of public safety who has zero experience with firefighting, take the baton from the current temporary chief who retired years ago after being denied a disability pension and destroy what little is left of the department I love.
And they will get away with it, because the public we protect could care less.