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Firefighting: What's Behind the Heroics

First Response columnist talks about firefighters, and the real reason why they can't NOT go to heroic lengths to help others.

Last Monday, I returned home from New York, after a week of 9/11 memorial events commemorating the nearly 3,000 Americans whose lives were senselessly taken from us 10 years ago, Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, 343 of New York’s bravest firefighters ascended the stairwells of both the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, boldly, courageously and defiantly.

Knowing full well the potential risk of building collapse, and facing the probability of incineration from jet aircraft fuel, they forged ahead. Their mission? To save as many remaining souls as possible. People whom they’ve never met before. Why? Because we have to. No, not just because that’s what the taxpayers pay us to do, but because we literally have to do it. Let me explain.

When firefighters are out in public, people often say to us, “I don’t know how you guys do what you do”; “I’m afraid of fire, aren’t you guys?”; “they couldn’t pay me enough to do what you guys do.” I’ll try and shed some light on these three statements.

'I don’t know how you guys do what you do.' People like to call us heroes, which quite honestly we never get tired of hearing. But the fact of the matter is, we’re no different from anyone else who’s passionate about their job. Firefighters are problem solvers; and might I say in my nearly 26-year career, I’ve worked with some of the brightest problem-solvers of any profession.

What distinguishes firefighters as problem-solvers from those in other professions is their relentless pursuit of perfection. They impose a very strong will, and their love for humankind. Indeed, when firefighters are handed defeat, be it a life or property that couldn’t be saved, they take it quite personally.

'They couldn’t pay me enough to do what you guys do.' For years people have debated the issue of what firefighters should be paid. Some believe it should be more; others, during our current economic crisis, believe our pay (and pensions) should be taken away. Trust me when I say that’s not what we get into this profession for.

For the purposes of this column, I’m not here to debate that issue, other than to say that I’m proud to be part of the only business, organization, agency or entity that you can call at any time, place or day of the week, for just about any reason, in which someone will show up at your door in approximately five minutes, prepared to die for you, if necessary. Who else does that?

'I’m afraid of fire, aren’t you guys?' The real deal on that is...YES!! We have a fear of fire, but our fear differs from other people’s fear. Because of the countless hours of training we undergo, our fear is transformed into a serious respect and understanding of fire. By studying fire behavior, its dynamics and how fire burns under certain conditions, firefighters can nearly predict what a fire is going to do, and how intensely it’s going to burn.

Of course there are always “unpredictables” in all firefighting. The other fear that firefighters exhibit is the fear of failing to act. There have been many psychological studies done on firefighters, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the feeling of guilt that firefighters have after a catastrophic loss of life to victims or other firefighters. Firefighters do internalize many of these feelings of fear, guilt and blame.

Some carry these feelings inside for years, which often can manifest itself in the form of drug and alcohol abuse, spousal abuse and even suicide. This is what I mean when I say they simply “have to do" what they’re called on to do.

My trip to New York wrapped up with a tour at the grand opening of the brand new 9/11 Memorial. If you ever make it to the Big Apple, make a point to stop by and see it. All 343 names of the firefighters are inscribed on the side of two beautiful fountains created out of the footprint of the north and south towers.

Finally, stop by Fire Station 10, which is on the same block as the World Trade Center and was among the first stations to respond that fateful day. The station lost its entire crew that day. Talk with them and perhaps you’ll really understand why we do what we do!

As always: Remember to stay ready and you won’t have to get ready!

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