It’s 0905hrs on a Sunday morning.
The career firefighter is sleeping soundly in his favorite recliner, enjoying the freedom to nap indiscriminately on a weekend, but also ready to get to work when the tones drop. He is “living the dream.” You know, that dream, the one you always hear about: Insurance, benefits and steady pay to do something you would probably do for free.
The volunteer firefighter is sleeping equally soundly, enjoying the freedom to stay in bed on a weekend, children permitting. Just like our career firefighter, he is ready to go to work when the tones drop. He is exhausted after working overtime Monday through Friday, but he knows when he wakes up he will get to spend irreplaceable time with his family in the comfort of his own home.
What’s the difference?
There are differences, I can assure you of that. These differences, however, are not as glaring as the Facebook Fire Department would have you believe, and the positives and negatives on both sides mostly cancel each other out. In all of the infighting, backbiting and criticisms that often arise between career personnel and volunteers, we constantly forget about another class of firefighter. These men and women make up the oft-ignored third party of the fire service.
Our red-headed stepchildren; The part-time firefighter.
I have been a volunteer, a part-timer and a career firefighter, I am familiar with the struggles of all sides. I can tell you, without hesitation, that the hardest role to fill is that of the part-time firefighter. You can mistakenly be viewed as not as invested as the career guys, not as dedicated as the volunteers. Scab or hired gun are equally unsavory perceptions of your role.
Would you like to know what the part-time firefighter is doing while both the career and volunteer firefighters sleep? Probably commuting to any one of his or her three-plus jobs. Most of them work varying combinations of full-time and part-time positions, both Fire/EMS and otherwise, to make ends meet. How long has it been since their last day off? Who knows. Somewhere between a dog’s age and a really-freaking-long-time. Home? Nah. The part-time firefighter might as well just live in his car, for all the time he gets to spend at his mailing address.
But why be a part-time firefighter at all if it sucks so bad?
- Some don’t have a choice. Maybe they don’t have any seriously marketable skills outside of public service. I certainly fit that bill, myself.
- It can be hard getting a career position on a fire department, any number of life choices or events can extinguish your dream.
- Maybe life just got in the way. Sometimes the reality of your situation doesn’t necessarily mesh with your career aspirations. Timing is everything.
- Many are younger individuals, just getting their start. Not everybody walks onto a full-time job after class ends. The experience they are gaining makes them much more desirable volunteer and career employees.
- Lastly, some simply have no interest in pursuing a Fire/EMS career. They probably already have gainful employment in another field and just want to enjoy a living out a childhood dream (while being paid for their time, of course).
Arguments are frequently made that nobody forced them to be part-time firefighters, and that they can give up whenever they want and get a better job. Whatever their reasons, the public service community as a whole needs them more than they need us. Most of these guys and gals can certainly make more money elsewhere, but they chose a life of service instead. For now, at least.
Dragging themselves from department to department, sleep deprived and half-dead, but still ready to go; where I’m from, these are the people that keep both career and volunteer departments afloat.
Volunteer engine response constantly coming up light? It’s understandable. With increasingly demanding schedules, not many people have time to volunteer. Part-timers are here to save the day.
Department making the transition from all-volunteer to combination? Those part-timers are super handy when you need to fill out a schedule.
Need shift coverage for that big fishing trip? PT’s got your back.
If they seem grouchy, it’s probably because they haven’t seen their families for days on end. If they seem unhealthy, it’s likely because they don’t have the luxury of good insurance, or can’t afford to take sick days. Their schedules lead many of them to down energy drinks by the case. If they seem disinterested, I would venture to say that it’s because they work at three or four departments, each with their own sets of training, rules, tempo and drama. Burnout is real.
And finally, if they seem tired, it’s because THEY ARE.
Be thankful that they are here, and be nice to your part-timers.
Super Secret Squirrel BBQ rub? Check.
Pager and/or radio? That’s a negative, Ghostrider.
I am about to hit the road for two days of meat-smoking bliss, free of any thoughts or concerns about the anything and everything spinning around in the universe of fire/EMS. Structure fire on Main Street? Totally sucks, bro. Overdoses? Probably happening right now. Meh. No, sirs (and assorted Ma’ams), it is my fullest intention to have my ass planted firmly in a well-worn lawn chair, Miller Lite in hand, without a care in the world aside from keeping my cook temp around 225F.
This is what we all need, in my humble opinion. Something, anything, to escape the surprisingly intrusive lifestyle that is emergency public service.
Finding a good hobby can go a long way in the efforts of mental stability because whether you ride the busiest ladder in your state or run on the smallest of volunteer departments, we all share a common enemy; Stress. I’m not strictly talking about the ugly calls or high-intensity situations. Which is more agitating; a tricky, albeit successful, fire response that doesn’t go your way, or receiving multiple phone calls on your night off about trivial (and, odds are, self-correcting) issues? Running eighteen medic calls in twenty-four hours, or having to find a creative way to keep volunteer, part-time and full-time staff content while ordering new equipment?
Stress and anxiety do not discriminate by call volume, and every region is both unique similar in their stressors. “If my mind could forget what my eyes have seen” is a powerful statement, undoubtedly, but it can also apply to the state the toilets were left in last day. For me, personally, the social aspect of the fire service has always been more stressful than the actual nature of the job. Firehouses are more like beauty salons and barber shops than the public cares to know about.
This is a particularly inescapable reality for those in officer or leadership positions. Just because you aren’t physically present in the dayroom doesn’t mean you aren’t stuck at the station on some level. You may be at home, comfortably curled up on the couch with your family, but your mind is still at the office because it’s always at the office. Your brain is, in fact, directing your eyes to orient themselves in the general direction of the tv. Your consciousness, on the other hand, is going haywire with a flight of scenarios- How are we going to afford new gear? I could totally see that guy’s brain… The engine is OOS again, and our budget is already running thin… We are so unprepared for a fire at that one place…
Much to the swelling agitation of your spouse or significant other, the only thing you ever have to talk about is work stuff. Thought-provoking conversations over a long-overdue family supper? Let’s talk about the kids or the house, maybe our savings plan? Nope. “You’ll never guess what happened on A-Shift, honey” is where things will start off, in all likelihood. Per industry standards, this is also the topic that will cap the meal after dessert. I need to point out that it’s not all your fault; All of your friends are work friends, and all of their friends are work friends. When the department furnishes your financial livelihood and social circle, what else do you actually have to talk about?
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” There is no escape.
Unless you create one.
Sharing time! I am a world-class worrier. It may not be obvious on the outside, but those closest to me know that I can fret with the best of them, blessed with the ability to obsess over any minuscule concern like a true champion. The best I can do is to try and remind myself to be like the duck (calm on the surface, paddle like hell underneath), and it works for me. My therapy? I deal with my stress through exercise and cooking, though one would think them to be natural enemies.
Find what works for you; maybe you hate jogging, and culinary puzzles just piss you off, but you’ve secretly
always had a thing for model trains. Want to play guitar? eBay is chock full of pretty decent orphaned acoustics that college kids got bored with. Want to tinker with an old car? Ok, this one can get kinda expensive. The best way to approach this diversion is to remember that it’s not about reaching the finish line, it’s about zoning out to the sounds of your cheap garage radio on a classic rock station and the click-click-click of a well-worn 3/8 drive ratchet. Trust me, when replacing 50-year-old drum brakes, there is no room for outside distractions. Only swear words of escalating creativity and pure, unbridled rage are permitted to exist within the moment.
If the time lost to a hobby is unrealistic with your work schedule, you’re probably working too much. We can all relate. It’s just not a viable option to allow your children to endure unnecessary financial hardship so you can go play. Let’s look at it from another angle, get creative if you will; it could be beneficial to replace one of your (likely) multiple part-time department jobs with one that is completely unrelated to public service. It may not be a hobby, per se, but one less day a week in a blue uniform could do wonders for your lifespan. Like most of us, I don’t really have many other marketable skills, but I’m pretty good at sitting on a zero-turn lawnmower with my earbuds in. They hire people to do that, I’ve seen em’.
Bringing it home
I’ve heard it said that once you are a parent, your sole purpose is now to be a good memory for your children. To be a good memory, you have to first be present. By present, I mean at home, at the table, helping with homework, “having a catch.” The little things. Second, you have to be good. In short, be good roughly translates to don’t be a dick. Take care of yourselves, and leave work stressors where they belong; at work, away from your family. Whatever pastimes you can acquire to aid in this endeavor will be worth it. I hear golf is pretty nifty.
As some travel company once said, “find your island.” Or hobby. Whatever.
Mother’s Day is right around the corner, so it only seems fitting that I should write about women in today’s fire service. I don’t know about you, but I can’t advise messing with someone who can both endure childbirth and swing a halligan. Cheese, light-hearted humor, mild controversy, and hard truths are all present and accounted for in my bag of writing tricks this morning. Let’s begin…
You walk through the front door of your local fire department on your first day on the job. You’ve dreamt of this very moment since your dad took you to see ‘Ladder 49’ as a little girl. The bay smells like diesel exhaust and various cleaning products, and the dining area smells of coffee and fresh kitchen table BS. Yes, this is exactly what you had hoped it would be like. A crisp blue uniform and black boots with nary a scuff or blood borne pathogen to be found on them.
You went to fire school and raised ladders, humped hose, slayed simulated dragons and dragged rescue dummies (some dummies even had pulses). You attended EMT classes and had your Hollywood expectations of life-saving heroics demolished, just like all that came before you. You’ve waded through interviews, physicals, psych evals and polygraphs to earn a chance here.
Your dad gave you parting advice as you left this morning; “You’re the new guy. Be seen and not heard, always be the last to eat and the first to wash dishes. Pay attention to your LT. Love you.” Some of the guys seem distant this morning, others, jovial. The coffee must not have kicked in yet.
Your gear is issued, and you get to work.
Fast forward to one month in; You’re growing as a firefighter. The things you learned in class are finally starting to make more (or less) sense, but you still feel out-of-place. ‘Maybe it’s me,’ you’ve asked yourself once or twice. Most of your new coworkers are genuinely good guys, but a select few either treat you like a fragile porcelain doll or a hindrance that they must bear the weight of for 24 hours.
You’re becoming increasingly agitated by romantic advances from co-workers and have even heard rumors swirling about your involvement with several of the guys from other shifts. True or not, why is this news any of their concern?
There have been grumblings from out of shape firemen about your physical ability to do this job. Despite passing all of the physical requirements and being able to stretch an SCBA cylinder to its very limits, you still catch shit from a guy that perspires at the mere mention of physical exertion.
“I weigh 300lbs; there’s no way she can drag me out of a fire!”
‘So, don’t weigh 300lbs,’ you think to yourself. A lack of dietary self-control on his part has somehow morphed into a negative remark about you. Is this guy for real?
There are plenty of other whispered criticisms; she’s a distraction, some jobs are better left to the men, she only got hired to boost diversity numbers, etc.
This isn’t what it was supposed to be like.
Why do you feel like an outsider, the constant third wheel of the firehouse?
You were told this would be the beginning of the best years of your life, working alongside people who will become like family to you. If any of this was indeed true, you are off to a slow start…
Sparing my dramatic liberties, this is what the fire service might look like to your female coworkers. Hopefully, the overwhelming majority of women reading this are scratching their heads, having never encountered this kind of issue at work. I sincerely wish for that, that all of this was simply make-believe. Unfortunately, we know that more than a few will relate quite well. On a more somber related note, a female firefighter recently committed suicide. Her actions are believed to have been sparked, at least in part, by workplace harassment. She was the topic of crude online comments, rumors, and stories. The information that was uncovered during the investigation will leave an ugly scar on the department forever, regardless of its role in her choice. Suicides rates are statistically higher in public service careers; this is not disputed. Did her “brothers” throw gasoline on a fire that was already burning hot enough on its own? Given this knowledge, any excuse you might have for the kind of treatment faced by our fictional firefighter described at the outset of this discussion is a bad one. Don’t be an ass.
How long has this gone on? I don’t know. Probably since the first woman picked up her first ax on her first horse-drawn, steam-powered fire engine.
The first known female firefighter in the United States was Molly Williams (per i-women.com Terese M. Floren 2007), a New York City slave who became a firefighter with Oceanus Engine Co. #11 in 1815. The first paid urban career female firefighter in the United States? Sarah Forcier in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1973. Women have been “Doin’ it” in the US of A for over 200 years, but it is still news when “insert name here,” Texas Fire Department hires their first female employee.
The reason is clear; this has been a boy’s club for generation after generation, and some opponents of change are being dragged into 2017 kicking and screaming. We all have worked with, met or know of one of these guys. Don’t play dumb. Hell, maybe you are that guy.
Ask yourself what your department looks like through the eyes of your female co-workers and their families. Why stop there? These same arguments can be made by anyone that feels disenfranchised by public service. The topic may be Mother’s Day-themed, but the message is about common decency.
So, is your department or shift one that makes them go home and tell their families about the great group of brothers they work with, or one that makes them go home and question their career choices? I have a wife. I claim sisters of the blood, marital and fire service variety. I have a mother, aunts, grandmothers. I have a daughter (love you, kid, if you’re reading this someday). If they were to follow me to work one day, would they approve of the way I treat my sisters in service? I like to think they would. Would yours?
There’s a fine line to be considered here. The line between making someone feel like a welcome member of the department, and treating someone differently in a way that makes them feel like an outsider. The line between innocent fun and downright bullying, between including them in questionable (see; fun) antics and being overprotective. If you must ask yourself if your department falls over the line, it’s probably time to change the culture of your department. The women I have met doing this job have no interest in special treatment or coddling. In fact, nearly all just want to be “one of the crew.” Nothing more, certainly nothing less. Many of them may not even like that I am writing this piece because in perhaps the very truest of firefighter fashions they don’t want to draw attention to themselves.
“I’m not changing the culture of my department, there’s no reason. They joined us, we didn’t join them.”
In the words of Maya Angelou; “if you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
Folks, the time has come to change some attitudes. To provide a pleasant nudge in the right direction, here are a few guidelines to aid in your future decision-making processes. These guidelines can apply to almost all of life’s situations, I have found.
-If it wouldn’t be funny to be said about (or to) your little brother or sister, it probably won’t be funny about (or to) most of your co-workers.
-If it would be embarrassing to have your family overhear you speak that way about someone, don’t speak it.
-If it feels wrong, it probably is.
-Always assume your mother is creeping just over your shoulder, ready to pounce and twist your ear while dragging you off-screen (using your FULL NAME, of course).
-It is possible to be both a brother and a gentleman.
-You don’t get to decide what should and should not be hurtful, offensive, or irritating to another. This is a tough concept for many to grasp.
To bring it all home, let’s talk about how this affects me because that’s what’s really important here, right?
It’s a hurdle I’ll never have to worry about jumping, so why even drag it out and open myself to (mostly) good-natured heat? What, if anything, do I stand to profit?
I have skin in the game. I’ll explain;
Someday, my daughter may decide to follow in my footsteps. I genuinely hope that she inherits her mother’s brains and grows up to become a rocket scientist, but I won’t stand in her way. I do worry about what kind of legacy we might be leaving behind for her and others; it doesn’t seem fair that she should have to inherit our messes. “Painful” might not be a strong enough word to describe how it would feel to watch one of my children struggle against antiquated typecasting that I had a hand in cultivating, whether by indifference or otherwise. Lastly, my daughter will inevitably run into coworkers of mine, both past and current, if she decides to enter public service. What might they have to share about me, what kinds of stories do I want to be told about me to my offspring? Will they reinforce her (hopefully) cherished memories of Firefighter Dad, protector, and friend, or will they tarnish them?
Will she be forced to question which man was the real me, “Work Dad” or “Home Dad?”
It’s up to me, I suppose.
Yours is up to you.
Happy Mother’s Day
– Randy Anderson
I sit here at my desk, facing the street, typing furiously on my wife’s laptop because mine doesn’t have Microsoft Word. It is 2017. We have Drones. We have Cell phones that are essentially portable supercomputers. Why do we not have Word on every laptop? What else does one do with a laptop?
But I digress.
We have a sticky situation to look at. It seems to have cooled of late, but you can still hear whispers of it in dark corners of rural firehouses. I’m talking about carrying firearms on fire and EMS scenes. This issue reared its ugly head a few years ago, and never really died for some of us. I can walk into either of the departments I work for right now and stir up a heated debate just by mentioning this in passing. Keep in mind, I live in a mostly-rural sector of Ohio. Out here, everyone seems to be armed. You walk into any given house on a call and it wouldn’t be all that alarming to spot a rifle mounted on the wall, three shotguns in a cabinet in the corner, a pistol on the end table and one more stripped down on the dining room table. You are aware of them, absolutely, you are aware of them, but they don’t elicit the same alarm response that they might merit in another part of the country. Out here, we have become somewhat numbed to the presence of firearms on scene. I don’t want to say blind to it, but there is certainly room for complacency to gain a foothold. Given that there are so many guns around here, and we are mostly at ease with them, one could easily assume that I am a supporter of arming firefighters and EMS personnel. I am not.
Don’t even bring up personal safety on scene as a valid reason to carry. If you want to talk fireground and EMS scene safety, can we first compare the number of deaths caused by a lack of guns versus the surplus of Big Macs? According to a June, 2016 NFPA report, 51% of firefighter fatalities last year were caused by sudden cardiac arrest. It would be no surprise to learn that a not inconsiderable percentage of these cases of sudden cardiac arrest could have been avoided by dietary changes and exercise. And yet, loudly-documented, obvious health issues still don’t trigger nearly the emotional response that the topic of carrying on duty does.
Care to take a guess at the percentage of firefighter fatalities by “gunshot” or “fatal assault?” 1%. That’s right, 1%, folks. Emotionally disturbed patients and knife-wielding lunatics aren’t killing us; second and third helpings at the dinner table are far more efficient means. That’s not me, Randy the “Lefty Liberal Snowflake” telling you that. That’s the NFPA.
There’s this gnawing sensation that we have our priorities out of order. Or, maybe it’s just me. Here’s what gets me frustrated; We know that poor diet is killing us across the board. We know that a lack of training can have tragic consequences. We know for a fact that all manner of carcinogens are present in smoke and debris. Given all those known unresolved safety issues, why are guns even on our radar? If we rectify every other issue and make firefighting and EMS the safest professions in the world, save for gunshots and stabbings, then talk to me about carrying on scene. If ever death by “fatal assault” should creep into the double-digit percentages, yeah, let’s discuss it. Until then, we have not only bigger fish to fry, but whales in comparison.
Me, personally? I have no desire for myself, nor any member of my crew to be armed, assuming I have a choice in the matter. I have two major reasons for this, perhaps unique to my situation, perhaps not:
One: It’s not my job.
This sounds simpler than it really is, it’s not my job. I am a firefighter/paramedic, I take care of people. At any given moment, I could be monitoring two IV lines (maybe an IO, I’m an IO fanboy), an advanced airway, chest compressions, any number of drugs and trying to decide if that’s fine V-fib I’m seeing, or road noise. It is not at all out of the question that someone could sneak up and catch me all unawares, and disarm me.
As we discussed before, everyone out here in the boonies is comfortable with guns. This works both ways. There is a better than average chance that the individual sneaking up on you has a strong understanding of weapons and ammunition. There is an equal chance that this individual understands your weapon better than you do.
I know I will hear that if I were properly aware of my surroundings this wouldn’t be an issue. I can assure you that I’m very aware of my on-scene surroundings. This goes back to the local issue of guns being everywhere, including strapped to my patients (open and concealed carry). Where I get hung up on this is that I am now adding another responsibility to my job description. If I bear the weight of carrying a firearm, and everything that comes with it (socially, morally, ethically, professionally, legally) something else must give. The job seems plenty wide and all-encompassing enough as it is. As we discussed before, there’s a lot going on. IV’s and airways and whatnot. Am I to become part cop at the expense of my airway skills, of my cardiac rhythm identification? No, thank you. My job is first and foremost to care for people. Anything that might take away from that is out.
Two: I’m not a cop.
Let’s review a few hard truths. I have been told that I have been afflicted with a bad case of “cop face.” I am tall-ish, and can typically be seen sporting a high fade haircut (I even had a hipster part for a little bit. It didn’t work out). My demeanor is perhaps best summed up as socially awkward, bordering on passive-aggressive. Maybe some smugness peppered in, for good measure. We can all agree that I’m at least cop-esque, if you will, per vicious stereotypes concerning our brothers and sisters in blue. On top of this, I spend roughly two-thirds of my life in a dark blue uniform. One of them even has badge embroidered on the left breast. I carry dark, oblong items with sharp, hard lines on my belt. I can’t quite match up with some of the Batman utility belts you see at conventions, but I carry a radio, pager and if I’m feelin’ froggy, a small pouch containing an extra set of gloves (those are kinda nice sometimes, don’t judge). In the dark, could one of those look like a weapon? Absolutely. I’m sufficiently cop-y without a gun.
I have been mistaken for a cop on scene. How many people are forthcoming with cops, in general? Not many. That whole “you’re under arrest” thing really ruins a party.
As a paramedic, I need people to be honest with me. The t-shirt that reads “don’t do anything you don’t want to explain the EMTs” really comes to life here. People that have no reason to hide anything may hold back in the presence of law enforcement. I have a lot of cop friends, and I still experience a brief, chilling, bolt of terror when one gets behind me. I know I didn’t do anything, but he’s a cop, right?
As fire and EMS personnel, we don’t deal with a lot of distrust from the public. Why invite it in? Maybe we would gain a better understanding of this struggle if there were more dirty firefighter movies to spin up the imaginations of the public. No, not those kinds of movies. I suppose corrupt firefighter movies would be a better wording.
if it looks like a cop, walks like a cop and carries a gun like a cop… is it really a paramedic or firefighter? I don’t believe so.
That’s where I stand on this issue. And if you don’t agree with me, that’s ok. Not everyone will. But I leave you with this scenario to ponder over:
What if a firefighter or EMT carrying a gun on scene accidentally shot an unarmed teenager? This still happens to police officers despite their extensive training. There have been riots. There has been political unease and general cynicism. Imagine the headlines. Is risking the public’s unquestioned trust in us worth it? Because once it’s gone, brother, it’s gone.