Mission Statement

My mission is to explore the lives and experiences of firefighters in the quest to join their prestigious ranks.

Monday, 21 October 2013

What is it that we pay firefighters so much for?

In years past and leading up to now, there has been a debate forthcoming about what firefighters do.  It has been called into question why it is that we pay them so much.  Questions like, “why do they have to live so extravagantly?” Or, “Why are my tax dollars paying for a bunch of grown men to play basketball and eat gourmet dinners?”  These are trivial things I have heard mentioned in passing that peaked my curiosity, and drove me to seek out the answers (and the job of a firefighter.)  The fact of the matter is that these opinions passed without merit and without the hard facts to back them up. The truth is that firefighters are worth paying more today than they were in the past because they have become much more diverse in their responsibilities and activities throughout the workday. They do not live in luxury, nor do tax dollars pay for their meals. Firefighters are like the mortar to our brick house, or the foundation to a skyscraper. Without them, many of our established systems would simply fall apart.  These are public service members that have committed their lives to protecting the lives of others.  Firefighters are willing to help people at a potentially great sacrifice to both them and the members of their families. For men and women who are willing to give so much to help others in their time of need, why would we not take care of them?
            First and foremost, firefighters hardly waste their days away waiting for work to come their way, they instead seek out opportunity to work.  The days of ‘firefighters sitting around the table at the firehouse, playing cards or checkers, waiting for the next fire to occur’ (A Day) are a thing of the past.  At every individual firehouse, it is not uncommon to find that every part of the fire crew stationed there, with the exception of the captain (A Day) would have a specific morning duty.  The most important part of any firefighters morning duty is to insure that of their equipment is operation properly.  For the engineer this is a very extensive process, for before he or she can begin to make sure that everything is in good working order, they must first be sure that all of the equipment is present on the engine or truck.  This means going through every individual compartment with a clipboard and a checklist. At that point, which all the tools are accounted for, the engineer can begin inspection of those tools.  After the contents of an engine have been cleared for duty, the engine itself must be run in such a way that I would have to operate in any of its potential daily duties. In the same way that the engineer must look over their engine to prepare for duty, so must every other firefighter or paramedic inspect their tools.  Firefighters would check to make sure that fire axes were sharp; and that chainsaws were running well and full of gas and oil. Paramedics would comb over their ambulance bumper to bumper much the same way the engineer did their engine.  If all goes well, this is accomplished before the shift of the newly on duty personnel begins, and it’s not even close to the end of morning duties. 
Keeping the station and its contents clean is extremely important to the fire service for many reasons.  So after it has been verified that the station is fit and ready for duty, it is time to clean up around the firehouse. This time is generally used to do chores like you would around your own house at home such as: mowing the lawn, cleaning the kitchen, mopping the floors, vacuuming, etc.  Some of these duties, like taking out the trash, are daily duties; and some of the other things that need to get done, like cleaning the fire apparatus, tend to be more of a weekly chore.  All of these things are crucially important to the fire service because of the potential of interaction with those patrons that fund their fire station, and their salaries.  Maintaining the property of the fire departments illustrates to the public that the firefighters are respectful to the equipment that has been given to them to work with.  Regular maintenance of equipment also elongates the time that you are able to keep that item in service. So, this perpetual cleaning process helps to save departments money, and puts a good image of the department in the public eye if ever they were to stop by the station.
Before we move on, it is important to debunk the myth that firefighters buy their food with the public’s money. Firefighters pay out of pocket for all personal items at the stations, including all food, computers, Internet access, cable TV and televisions (Myths).  However, it has been known in other departments that Internet access would be supplied to the firefighters, as it has become an integral part of the emergency response system.  I guess it could be said that the meals are paid for by public money in a way, if you consider that the public coffers fund the salaries of firefighters.  But this would be the same to say that the public pays for the post office workers to eat, and of course we do.  We pay city, state, and national government workers to provide a service, and they in turn make a living upon with to support themselves. It isn’t prudent to think of our government’s workers salaries as ‘public money,’ it’s their money and they can spend it how they choose.
After firefighters have had lunch and rejuvenated, it is time to fill the afternoon with activities.  As firefighters jobs are extremely physically demanding at times it is expected that they maintain a specific level of physical fitness.  This being the case, workouts are the part of many firefighters day at this point, and departments are beginning to turn to a policy that requires firefighters to exercise at least one hour per day (McManus).  As is well known to many people trying to get into shape, one day a week of exercise is not nearly enough to tackle such a daunting task.  Firefighters have to take their obligation of health and fitness home with them and carry it always, so they are exercising on their days off to make sure that when the time comes to act that they will be fit enough to complete the job when needed.  This doubles as another way that the department can help to keep up in its appearances, not in the vanity of its firefighters, but in the public seeing that the firefighters are fit and ready to save the lives of the civilians that might need them.
Other afternoon activities include building inspections, training, and city equipment inspections.  These activities are extremely important in the effectiveness of firefighters.  Building inspections give firefighter the opportunity to go into and around a structure and gain a better understanding of what that building is like.  It helps to identify things that could be a hazard in a fire, or even without a fire.  It also allows firefighters to identify and fix problems or violations of fire codes before it becomes a problem during a working fire.  Hopefully these inspections also offer the opportunity to build rapport with the business owner, and the community at large. Hydrant inspections must be preformed annually according to NFPA Standard 25 (Confidence 4) to insure that in case of a fire or emergency the hydrant will be able to supply a sufficient amount of water to control or ‘knock down’ a fire.  As fires account for only about five percent of all incidents responded to by firefighters (Marginal), training for those fires is key to keeping firefighting skills sharp and second nature.  As you can see, there is a lot of opportunity for firefighters to fill their time in the afternoons as well.
So that is a pretty good idea of what firefighters can do in a day without so much as having to fight a fire, or respond to an emergency medical incident. And after the day’s activities conclude, dinner is made and beds are found early in the hopes of a good night rest for the firefighters.  All of this is a day in the life of your average firefighter, in an ideal world where nothing burns, and nobody gets hurt.  But we all know that the world is not ideal, plenty of stuff out there is capable of burning, and almost always someone is getting hurt to some degree.
As is such, firefighters do not have such predictable days, however they do have the same responsibilities to attend to.  To draw from the beginning of the day of a firefighter, they could be walking into the station beginning to check the equipment they are normally assigned to checking when a call comes in and the truck rolls out.  Having not completed the morning check during the time that they would have to do it, the activity must be pushed back to when they return.  This could happen at any time with any activity throughout the day.  Regardless of the firefighters responsibility to respond to and provide excellence in service, they are also not relieved of their obligation to complete any chores throughout the day.  As is such, firefighters can expect to have to adapt in the ways that they start and finish chores.
Adapting is exactly what the fire service has been doing for decades now.  At any given moment firefighters can be called to duty, whether they are eating dinner or in the middle of what could have been a good nights sleep.  What’s more is that when they are waking up in the middle of the night, scrambling to get into their gear and get aboard their apparatus, they are only then getting a vague description of the nature of the call that they are going to be responding to.  Firefighters used to do just that, fight fires, but now their role in the world is ever changing along with the ever changing, and mind you demanding, world (Deerman).  In today’s world, the nature of a call is only a fire five percent of the time. For the remaining 95% percent of the time, more often than not the main role of a firefighter is one of a medical emergency responder.  Sometimes it’s helping those involved in a car crash and other times it’s a man down unknown.  If you could imagine calling 911 for it, it is something that a firefighter could potentially come up against. Newly introduced to the responsibilities of firefighters are many different specialties that one could spend years learning about and still have even come close to fully understanding.  Hazardous materials are being produced and transported in massive quantities in the United States, and thus firefighters are being trained how to deal with these types of materials in any conceivable mishap.  People are going deeper into the backcountry and exploring steeper higher mountains all the while creating new challenges to be addressed in their rescue leading to new high angle rescue courses that allow firefighters to deal with the unknown. Cars are changing rapidly to involve intricate electrical hybrid systems, which pose significant threat to those who don’t understand it.  Even when people and technology aren’t pushing the boundaries of public safety and rescue, the fire service is working on refining tactics and applying lessons learned from mistakes made (Firefighterclosecalls).  If firefighters were to be paid relative to the knowledge that they have to acquire to be proficient then it is easy to say that they should be paid more now that in years past.
All of this is part of the job of a firefighter, but lets take a step back and look at what it takes to simply become a firefighter. On average if takes about three to seven years to become a firefighter, and that is just those who make it into the fire service (Prziborowski).  To become qualified to be a firefighter is similar, if not the same process that many go through to prepare for their jobs in the world.  Like any profession, the more education you have, the more hirable you are.  So although in many situations to meet the minimum requirement to be allowed into the hiring process requires little more effort than graduating high school and earning an EMT certification, a large number of candidates have multiple certifications and even college degrees.  In fact, a Bachelors Degree is required by many fire departments to become a fire chief.  The process of becoming a successful career firefighter is not very different from that of many aspiring college students seeking their post degree dream job.
So why is it then, that when the average firefighter in 2011 makes $47,850 per year (Firefighters) and the average American in the same year makes $48,301 per year (US and States), that everyone is in an uproar about how firefighters make way too much money? Consider as well, that firefighters put in 56-hour workweeks on average (The Truth) as opposed to the standard 40-hour workweek associated with many other jobs in this country.  So Firefighters work an average of 16 more hours per week, and make $451 less per year.  It should also be noted that the bottom 10% of firefighters make on average only $22,030 per year, a fairly Spartan salary one might say.  Although the top 10% pull in $79,150, a 68% increase from average, which is considerably more than the average American, for one to be in the top 10% of any profession one might expect to make considerably more that what is average.
Working long hours through the day and night and the week is not the only obstacle of being a firefighter. To make it through the day, firefighters have to overcome dangerous situations that are constantly arising and challenging them. One of the first things taught in and emergency responder class is scene safety (Scene Safe).  The idea of this is that one cannot put themselves in immediate danger even if it is to aid in the assistance of someone in need because and injured responder is simply another injured person who need to be helped.  Even when trying to follow this idea of thinking there is no such thing as a perfectly safe scene, and there are a few exceptions to this rule of scene safety.  In the world of firefighting, on the scene of a fire, one could hardly call a house that is on fire a safe scene, and yet firefighters go in to battle the blaze and rescue the occupants of this environment full of hazards that change by the second.  Even that action has come to bear regulations from The Occupational Safety and Health Administrations (OSHA) such as the “Two in Two out” rule (OSHA) concerning the entry to these immediately dangerous to life and health environments (IDLH).  This rule states that two firefighters, which is the minimum allowed amount of personnel that must enter such an environment, are not to enter an IDLH environment unless there are two firefighters standing by outside who’s sole purpose is the rescue of the interior operating team in the even that they are to call a mayday and need assistance in retreating from the scene.  However there is a very important exception to this rule, if the firefighters upon arrival discover that there is potential for an immediate and effective rescue or the fire is in such a condition that it could easily be extinguished, and then two firefighters may then enter an IDLH environment and execute either of these actions.  Now to be clear, this states that in the event that someone could be effectively rescued, even if there is a IDHL environment present which is one that says in its name could be dangerous to firefighters, that without any support crew or anyone to help the firefighters if something were to go wrong during this operation, that they may enter this environment to exact said rescue.  A clear example of how firefighters literally risk life and limb seeking to protect the lives of people that likely they do not know.  This is part of the job of the firefighter that is well known to many, that they risk their lives in hopes that they can save the lives of others.  Is this carefully calculated decision to help others not one that should be compensated?
Not only is it known that the duties of a firefighter are inherently dangerous, but that dangerous activities are associated with shorter life spans.  So it is not by any means a stretch of the imagination to think that the average life span of a firefighter is considerably shorter than that of the average American.  They are also 3 times more likely to meet their demise while working than the average American (The Truth). Some have argued that the average lifespan of public safety members is not far off from the national average, but it is important to understand that while that is true that public safety members include “corrections officers, law enforcement, probation and court employees” (The Truth) who do not preform firefighter duties or encounter IDLH environments in their day to day work.  So with less of an average life to live, wouldn’t it make sense that firefighters be compensated to be able to live a little better than they might have? Some have said that there are many jobs that are dangerous. Which there are, there are other jobs that are equally risky, or even more to that point.  At this point in time almost everyone has at least heard of the dangerous and ludicrous profession of crab fishing.  Obviously crab fishing is a dangerous line of work, but a line of work that serves to benefit those who are doing the fishing and those who eat crab. While firefighting is dangerous, it is dangerous to benefit the people of the cities who employ the men who put their lives on the line.
Firefighters are an elite group of people, who train, learn, and maintain themselves to be ready at the drop of a hat for the people they are sworn to serve.  They work hard throughout the day and sometimes throughout the night for the benefit of those people. It is a life that not many people seek out, as it is associated to some of the more dangerous, and more gruesome aspects of life and death.  Firefighters of today’s society do well to take care of us. “The mission of the Park City Fire Service District is to enhance the quality of life for those we serve; safeguard the environment and economic base of our communities; make a positive difference; and provide excellence in service.” (Park City) This is one mission statement and like many others it exemplifies what the fire service is about. Firefighters do much more than fight fires, and are held to the highest standards of society and our society cannot afford to undervalue or underpay people of such diverse knowledge.  For if we do, we can expect the quality of person that the job of career firefighters will begin to diminish in the traits that firefighters currently hold dear. It is due time that firefighters are appreciated for what they do on a regular basis. Firefighters make a substantial amount of money, this much cannot be argued, but they earn and deserve every penny that they make.