There is an abundance of memes, stories, poems, placards, and t-shirts that deify the firefighter as a hero.
I don’t like it.
Many won’t like it, but I liken our work to that of the trash collector (whom I profoundly respect.)
If every time a trash collector turned onto a street lined with full trash cans, he lost his mind with excitement, we would consider him quite foolish. Yet, do we not do this with structure fires?
If a trash collector climbed inside his compactor before he crushed the trash, just to prove he was brave and badass, we would call it idiotic, impractical showboating. Yet, our culture still dives into high-risk environments when there is little tactical need.
And when a firefighter dies, we comfort ourselves with thoughts of their heroism and bravery.
If trash collectors were routinely getting killed doing their job, we would all say “This is unacceptable. We MUST find a way to accomplish this job without killing people all the time.”
Why are we any different?
Because we’re “heroes”.
For some reason, this sets our mind at ease when our brothers and sisters die.
But there is nothing noble about leaving your spouse alone, there is nothing brave or heroic about making your children grow up without a father or mother.
It just sucks. And pithy phrases like “he died a hero” aren’t worth much to your grieving family. They’d rather have you.
Do NOT misunderstand. I am not advocating for the elimination of an aggressive interior attack. I am not suggesting we attempt to eradicate all risk from the job, it can’t be done. This job is inherently more dangerous and risk-laden than many.
I’m suggesting that we, as a service and culture, stop accepting the loss of our own as an inevitable part of the job, that we stop glorifying those deaths to our youngest generation, who are starting to view a heroic death as something almost desirable.
I believe that this job can be done, aggressively, offensively, and effectively, without killing ourselves.
When a firefighter dies, it is bad. It is unacceptable. We should never let it seem like anything else.
The recipe for “How Not to Get Killed” is different for every scene. But some ingredients are always the same.
Training: A fire scene is a complex dance, and we’re foolish if we think we don’t need to rehearse it. In my opinion, the single most important factor for reducing risk on any scene is to have a well trained, cohesive team watching each other’s backs and critically evaluating every decision.
Education: You can’t make good decisions if you’re ignorant to the laws of physics that govern fire, the building construction you’re working in, or the principles of our trade. Go get learned, and don’t stop.
Reason: We should never let our ego make tactical decisions for us. Don’t do something high risk because it’s “cool”, don’t go inside a burning building because it’s “fun.”
Go because it’s a good tactical decision that supports the strategic goals in your action plan. If it’s not, don’t do it.
When I teach new recruits, I preach that we are not heroes, but rather public servants. And the public needs us to come back to work tomorrow, and the next day. The nature of service is rarely glorious, and to romanticize our trade creates foolish expectations and breeds a culture where we ignore the practical reality of what we really do every day and the very real and tragic consequences that can come with any errors that we make.
Many of us have engaged in the culture that subliminally teaches new firefighters that line of duty deaths are normal, expected, and acceptable.
No more, I say.