We tend to look at the people who run into buildings when the rest of us are running out of them as mythic beings. I know that I do. I have a cousin, long retired, who was a Chicago firefighter for decades. Every holiday we would hear of his exploits, with one story sure to be told: the time that my cousin and his mates were buried under rubble during a particularly horrific blaze.
Whenever this story was recounted, my cousin would take an “aw shucks … it was in the line of duty … I was just doing my job” attitude to the events of that day. I never thought much deeper about it, no matter how many times that I heard the story. We’ve all been conditioned — with good reason — to think of firefighters as heroes, the people who fight the battles that need to be fought, without regard for their own well-being. As such, they are stoic, and strong, and virtuous. They are not weak. The only thing missing from their superhero persona is the cape.
I have begun to think of them much differently. And that includes everyone in the chain of command: line firefighters, chief officers and the white hats. The reason for this is that I had the good fortune to sit across from Garry Briese — who today is a consultant to the fire service but who previously was the executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs for two decades — at a dinner in Chicago during the recent Fire-Rescue International conference. The dinner was held to honor FIRE CHIEF’s 2010 career and volunteer chiefs of the year.
Briese mentioned that the fire service exposes its practitioners to tremendous emotional highs and lows, to exhilaration one moment and profound pain the next. They save lives. But they also see things on a daily basis that would make the rest of us recoil in horror. This applies to commanders as well as those whom they send into the battle, said Briese, who would know, having served as a volunteer chief and as a paid firefighter during his long career in the fire service.
As if on cue, Tom Carr, chief of the Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department was called to the podium. Carr, who was being honored as career chief of the year, spoke eloquently and poignantly about the emotional toll that the 2007 Sofa Super Store fire, which claimed nine firefighter lives in 2007, had on the department and the city at large. Carr took the reins at Charleston a year after the fire, having left Montgomery County (Md.) Fire & Rescue Service, where he served for three decades, most recently as chief. He said that since arriving in Charleston he has learned that “emotional support is as important as other types of support” that chiefs must provide to those in their command.
The next day, I interviewed Tim Wall, who was honored at the dinner as well, having been named FIRE CHIEF’s 2010 volunteer chief of the year. Wall shared a similar perspective. In fact, he told me that the emotional toll that firefighting takes is the biggest reason he never has thought about becoming a career firefighter.
“You see a lot of sadness in this job and you need time away from that,” Wall said.
I fully understood what he meant. I have a brother who once worked as a sheriff’s deputy in the Chicago area. He was assigned to a particularly rough area. I used to marvel at his stories, and remember wondering to myself how he was able to put up with what he encountered on a daily basis. Ultimately, he couldn’t. He left the job after a few years and found another line of work.
We regularly hear of the need to keep firefighters physically fit and to ensure that they are well-trained in their duties. Without question, this is vital. But so too is the need to ensure the emotional and mental health of firefighters at every level. Just ask Tom Carr and Tim Wall.