Smoke and Mirrors
Stop calling firefighters "heroes."
When California Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the state's catastrophic wildfires a few days ago, he uttered the phrase that now accompanies any blaze as surely as smoke: "The firefighters are the true heroes."
It's understandable why he said that. As fires go, the California blazes are scary. They are moving incredibly quickly through dried brush and chaparral that practically explode when they ignite, threatening the life of any firefighter nearby. Steven L. Rucker, a 38-year-old firefighter and paramedic for the town of Novato, was killed working to save houses. Elsewhere, thousands of firefighters have worked for hours on end in 95-degree heat, dressed in multiple layers of fire-resistant clothing, sometimes without enough food or water because of the long and shifting supply lines.
Given all that, it may seem churlish to suggest that firefighters might not deserve the lofty pedestal we so insistently place them on. We lionize them, regard them as unsullied by base motivations, see them as paragons of manliness (and very tough womanliness). They're easily our most-admired public servants, and in the public's eye probably outrank just about anyone except the most highly publicized war veterans. But the "hero" label is tossed around a little too often when the subject is firefighting. Here's why:
Firefighting is a cushy job. Firefighters may have the best work schedule in the United States—24 hours on, 48 hours off. And those 24 hours are usually not terribly onerous. While a few big-city fire stations may have four, five, six calls, or more during a shift, most aren't nearly that busy, giving firefighters time to give tours to school kids, barbecue hamburgers, wash fire engines, sleep, and pose for "The Firefighters of [Your City Here], 2004" calendars. Indeed, fire officials devote much of their time to figuring out how to cover up the fact they're not getting the hoses out very often. So we have firefighters doing ambulance work, firefighters doing search-and-rescue work, anything but Job No. 1. Meanwhile, the long days off give many firefighters a chance to start second careers. That makes it easy for them to retire after 20 years, take a pension, and start another profession. I've known firefighters who moonlighted as builders, photographers, and attorneys.
Firefighting isn't that dangerous. Of course there are hazards, and about 100 firefighters die each year. But firefighting doesn't make the Department of Labor's 2002 list of the 10 most dangerous jobs in America. Loggers top that one, followed by commercial fishermen in the No. 2 spot, and general-aviation commercial pilots (crop dusters and the like) at No. 3. Firefighting trails truck-driving (No. 10) in its risks. Pizza delivery drivers (No. 5) have more dangerous jobs than firefighters, statistically speaking. And fatalities, when they occur in firefighting, often are due to heart attacks and other lack-of-fitness problems, not fire. In those cases where firefighters die in a blaze, it's almost always because of some unbelievable screw-up in the command chain. It's been well-documented, for instance, that lousy communication was a huge reason why so many firefighters still were in the burning World Trade Center when it imploded, and well after city police and port authority police had been warned by their own commanders of an imminent collapse and cleared out.
Firefighters are adrenalin junkies. I did mountain rescue work for several years and more than once was praised as a "hero." Oh, give me a break. It was fun and exciting. Firefighting is even more of a rush. Sharon Waxman, in an excellent article in the Washington Post, interviewed firefighters in California. Every one was in a complete lather to get to the next hot spot. "It's almost a slugfest to get in there," one told Waxman. This urge to reach the fire is not entirely altruistic. It sure beats washing that damned fire truck again, for one thing. Plus a big fire is thrilling, plain and simple.
Firefighters have excellent propaganda skills. Firefighters play the hero card to its limit. Any time a big-city firefighter is killed on duty, that city will all but shut down a few days later while thousands of firefighters line the streets for a procession. In July 2001, I witnessed the tasteless spectacle of Washington state firefighters staging a massive public display to "honor" four young people killed in a forest fire (one absurd touch: hook-and-ladder rigs extended to form a huge arch over the entrance to the funeral hall). For the families of the four dead firefighters—three of whom were teens trying to make a few bucks for college—the parade, the solemn speeches, and the quasi-military trappings all were agony. "It's just the firefighters doing their thing," one bystander said to me later with a shrug.
Firefighters are just another interest group. Firefighters use their heroic trappings to play special interest politics brilliantly. It is a heavily unionized occupation. Nothing's wrong with that, but let's not assume they're always acting in anything but their own best interests. In Seattle not long ago a squabble broke out between police and firefighters when both were called to the scene of a capsized dinghy in a lake. The firefighters put a diver in the water, a police officer on the scene ordered him out to make way for a police team, and all hell broke loose (yes, the cops were at fault, too). The dispute wasn't over public safety, it was over who got the glory. New York firefighters, admittedly deep in grief over lost co-workers, exacerbated the challenge of body recovery operations after 9/11 by insisting on elaborate removal procedures for each firefighter uncovered, an insult to others who died there. Not long before that, in Boston, a special commission released a scathing report that detailed a 1,600-member fire department up to its bunker gear in racism, sexism, and homophobia. Since then the department has bitterly resisted reform efforts.
None of this is meant to dispute that firefighters are valuable to the communities in which they work. They are. But our society is packed with unheralded heroes—small-town physicians, teachers in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, people who work in dirty, dangerous jobs like coal-mining to support a family. A firefighter plunging into a burning house to retrieve a frightened, smoke-blinded child is a hero. But let's save the encomiums for when they are truly deserved, not when they just show up to do their job.
Douglas Gantenbein is the Seattle correspondent for the Economist.
Photograph of wildfire in Simi Valley, Calif., by Robyn Beck/Agence France Presse.