That is indeed a caustic title. However, it isn’t my opinion, rather it seems to be a common sentiment throughout the fire service. Granted, the fact that you are reading this on your own volition shows that you are probably not the target of this post. When discussing an article in a trade publication or other fire service literature, how often have you heard comments like, “I’m a firefighter; I don’t read”? The idea that firefighting is simple, physical labor involving only brute strength and requiring little education is outdated. How can we continue to develop our skills if we refuse to push our limits? Most firehouses are equipped with weight rooms; which allow us to continually improve our physical fitness because we rely on strong bodies to perform our jobs. Making split-second decisions during intense situations requires an extremely sharp mind. So, why are we not equally concerned with our mental fitness? We must be willing to exercise and build our minds, just as we do our muscles.
Why do we promote our purported stupidity? I believe it’s all due to our deep-rooted history and traditions. We cling to the old school, the past. This is a wonderful ideal for building esprit de corps, but there are some traditions for which it is long time to abandon. Organized firefighting in America grew out of the poor, slum-dwelling populations in large cities like Boston and New York City. The ranks were filled with Irish and Italian immigrants who were unable to acquire more conventional employment, and they performed amazingly well considering their circumstances. Those were the days of bucket brigades and horse-drawn steam engines; when PPE consisted of wool clothing, large mustaches, and an iron constitution. Times changed, technology improved, and the fire service developed strategies and tactics beyond the half-improvised attempt to simply limit destruction to a few buildings. The science of modern chemistry grew from the archaic meddlings of metallurgy and alchemy, yet chemists have earned a distinction as reputable scientists by yielding the backroom wizardry of their past to newer, constantly advancing techniques. It is time for the American fire service, as a whole, to remove the “dumb guy” attitude from our collective mindset and allow our profession to grow.
Many would ask, “Why does it matter as long as we do the job?” We fight the beast, we slay the dragon, we save the day. Sure, but what about the other 85% of the time, when we’re watching t.v. and drinking coffee? What about when we aren’t being heroes? The perception of the public, and city officials, acts on the premise of “out of sight, out of mind”. Smothering infernos and rescuing babies gets us in the headlines, but the next day we are back to being lazy, pension-padding, tax-dollar wasting jerks. We continue to promote ourselves as blue-collar, single-skilled laborers, yet we are amazed when the city council wants to close stations and layoff firefighters. They see us as single-use tools, only needed in case of emergency; a reactive force to be called upon only after things go awry. In order to change their perception of us, we must change our perception of ourselves.
We must truly accept, encourage, and even require higher education within the ranks. The members of today’s fire service must evolve, and market ourselves as educated, intelligent, and highly skilled specialists. We must move beyond the idea of being mindless brutes who break things and spray water on fire. Yes, there is still a need for effective, aggressive firefighting and we must continue to do our job, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read a book every once and awhile. Our’s is a profession which requires brains, as well as brawn, for long-term success.
– Lt. Lemon