Anyhow, I get asked this a lot. "Kat, if you want to TRULY EXPERIENCE firefighting for your blog, and TRULY LET US KNOW what it's like, why don't you just sign up as a volunteer firefighter and write about the ACTUAL EXPERIENCE?"
Well, my dear little chickens, thank you for asking. I have "views" on this, and my answer is multi-dimensional. First of all, there's the "idol worship" facet. You see, in my little mind's eye, a firefighter is a demi-god, right up there with Thor, Elvis and Princess Diana. I, on the other hand, am so entirely mortal it's not even funny. Us mortals do not mix with the demi-gods, and vice-versa.
I kid you not, when I hear a fire siren, I look out the window to watch for the truck. When I see a fire truck, be it parked in front of a fire house, casually driving down the street, or racing through an intersection with sirens blaring, my reaction is always the same - I point like an idiot and say "FIRE TRUCK!". Anyone within earshot that's over 5 years old rolls their eyes at me. A guy got hit by a car in front of my office a few months ago. I wanted to see the fire truck, not the mangled guy in the crosswalk. And when it showed up and parked right in front of our building, I pointed and exclaimed in ecstatic exultation: "FIRE TRUCK!" Serious as a heart attack.
Last weekend I was driving around town with my 12-year old son and his 12-year old friend. The local firehouse had a portion of a street blocked off, with hoses strung out on the back of a flatbed truck. I actually pulled over and cried out - "LOOK! LOOK! They are doing something WITH THE HOSES! LOOK! Where's my CAMERA???" To which the 12-year old friend responded, "Uh, I think they are just draining them. Can we keep driving?" He wouldn't even let me get out.
Put me in a fire house and I would probably be a "firefighter" in the same arena as Heather Locklear was a "police officer" on TJ Hooker. Lots of makeup, great hair, sits by the door in her well-tailored uniform. Does any of this instill confidence in any of you, as to my potential firefighting abilities? Not hardly.
Second facet - the "Private Benjamin" effect. I've mentioned this before, and it bears repeating now. I see firefighting as a calling. I saw a reference once to firefighters as "the guardians of citizen safety." While my police friends might take issue with that, I see where the commentator was going with it. In a fire situation, things can go badly so very, very quickly. If I were in a situation like that, I would want to know that the person behind me literally had my back, should something happen to me, and that I could put my complete confidence in that person's ability to get me out. I, in turn, would be equally capable to assist that person as well. To just show up with no skills, no drive, no fire in my belly at a local firehouse and say, "Hey! Kat's here! Sign me up so I can write about our wacky adventures!" seems insulting to those who have dedicated their lives and sacrificed their time with their own families to the cause of taking care of me, my family, and my fellow citizens. It also sounds like a good way to either a) burn up in a fire, or b) cause somebody else to burn up in a fire trying to save my ass.
So I ran this question by 3 fire professionals. "Do you see men and women sign up as volunteers who are obviously not cut out for it, and are just looking for a little thrill or maybe a weird little hobby? If so, as a fire professional, how do you handle it when these people show up at your firehouse?" I was positive that they would all agree with my astute observation about the Private Benjamin effect. I would be wrong. Their responses were fascinating.
First up: my buddy Alex, who is Station 4 Fire Captain, Stevens County Fire Protection District No. 1.
"When people sign up for the wrong reasons, it's complicated. Some people sign up with the best of intentions but don't realize what a commitment it is; they are not prepared, they admit it, and move on. Some sign up for the glory...if you always have to be in the spotlight, you are never going to be a good fireman, good ones go do their job and do it because they want to help people, not for the atta boys. They will work hard, put their life on the line and never brag about it. When they are in it for show...I would never put them in a situation that would require them to think on their feet and reach down when it got tough. I remind them why we are really here....I have no room for someone who can't back up what they say."
Ya gotta love Alex. He reminds me of Tommy Gavin, except he's not Irish, not from New York, not a raging alcoholic and he is an actual person, not a fictional character. If you don't know who Tommy Gavin is, stop reading right now and put every episode of "Rescue Me" in your Netflix queue.
Ah, but check out this very interesting, and much more moderate, opinion from Mike Bucy, Chief of Stevens County Fire Protection District No. 1 and owner of Red Devil Training:
"That’s a great question. (Thanks, Chief.) I do think that there has to be something special "inside" you in order to do this job. However, I have also seen people sign up because they wanted to give back to the community but weren't sure if this was right for them. Once they started training, it woke up that inner calling.
As a Chief in both paid and volunteer worlds, I have experienced people who are not cut out for this job. Most realize almost right away. It can be hard to spot those people as they are signing up. Once in a long while you can spot them. Others, it just takes a while to awaken the passion.True story: In 1989 I was planning on getting married and had to quit my EMS only job. I moved to Northwest Indiana and got a job with the Portage Fire Department. Not because they did fire, but because they also ran the ambulance and paid better than other areas. I got on the job not wanting to do firefighting. I was sent to the fire academy in Arlington Heights (suburb of Chicago) and only then—after struggling a bit—did I fall in love with the fire service. I might have been one of those people on the surface, but the passion was awakened because I was given a chance."
You know, I have to admit, I was a little surprised at his diplomacy. He seems almost willing to give me the opportunity to get hysterical on scene and run for my life. (Just not at Station 4, because Alex would drop me in a heartbeat like a sack of wet cement. Things to know.) Anyhow, Mike's response made me wonder if I am being a little too harsh in my assessment.
Enter Keith Zweigle, Assistant Fire Chief, Douglas Okanogan Fire District 15.
"Yes, it is very noble for what ever reason that drives oneself to volunteer for anything. But I would say that there are a lot that do it sometimes for all the wrong reasons! I do it because it is a great way to serve the community that I live in. And I do love the thrill I get when responding to a call, but there has been hours, months, years that have gone into training away from my family for just that moment. So I ask you this- are you looking for a HUGE commitment because this is what you will get when you enter this world of firefighting. I've seen different people come and go for different reasons but most leave because of the time commitment it takes to stay current with all of the training, etc."
The thing you need to know about Keith is, he is the nicest man on the planet. Seriously. I don't think he's spoken a harsh word in 46 years. In fact, I bet after he typed and sent this response to me, that he sat agonizing at his computer, wondering is he was too hard on me. But I did love the fact that he brought up the time commitment. My gawd, just studying for the exam and trying to get my slug ass into halfway decent shape takes up every free second of my life as it is....throw in weekly training meetings and fire calls at 2 a.m. - when do my demi-gods sleep, I ask?
So there you have it, my little chickens. Has my opinion on the "Private Benjamin effect" been altered? Not really...at least, not as it applies to me. I will concede that perhaps there are some individuals looking to have the calling awakened in them, as Chief Bucy pointed out. For me - I know for a fact that I'm not cut out for fire service. I could certainly volunteer administratively, or help with rehab on a fire scene, or maybe even be a firehouse den mother and make lasagna every Sunday - but I will never be a hooligan with a Halligan. I will leave that to my heroes, and I will continue to point at their trucks, advocate for them, support them, feed them, and flirt outrageously with them whenever the opportunity arises. That is my contribution to our Guardians of Citizen Safety.