By Michael Morse
“I didn’t even know what a pension was when I took this job.”
Yes, I have said it.
“I would do this job for free.”
Said that too.
Let’s face it: Most people would do what we do for free--the good part, anyway. I firmly believe that what we do is heroic, dangerous, and exhilarating. And so does most everybody else. Put a person in front of a burning building, with a lady on the third floor holding a baby, and most people will run into it, or at least try, or try to scale the outside of the building with their bare hands, or look for a ladder, or a trampoline.
Most people will try to rescue a person from a wrecked automobile. Lots of people will put themselves in harm’s way to protect an innocent child from being injured by falling debris, a madman, or one of the million things that cause people to need other people to lend a hand, and save them.
Not everybody will pitch in; perhaps a third of the population will look the other way, or look busy, or stand still with their mouth agape, or have the worst of all reactions--start screaming, “Somebody do something!”
But that leaves us with a large number of people who see what we do as something that they would do if things worked out, or if they “knew somebody,” or if their feet weren’t flat, or their Fibromyalgia wasn’t acting up. We know that there is a lot more to the job than “saving people,” that the long- term risks associated with things nobody thinks of until they actually do it are vast, and unpredictable. We know about cellular damage from exposure to cyanide, a byproduct of combustion, weird cancers stemming from inhalation of diesel fuel fumes or toxic gas emanating from a smoldering countertop inhaled during overhaul when the masks come off and the work begins, or exposure to the “weird smell” that forced the evacuation of a city block until the firefighters made it safe to return. We know it’s not all about the image of a firefighter who is portrayed on TV and in the media. We know that it is work, and hard work, potentially deadly work, awe inspiring, exhilarating, heartbreaking, soul crushing, and gratifying work.
Most people don’t think of that. Tell those people that you can retire after 20 years and watch the jaws hit the floor. Get ready for the barrage of indignation that will come your way. Be prepared to justify your compensation to people who truly believe that the benefits that are part of your employment package are lavish, unjustified, and unsustainable.
Know that there is validity to your critic’s ire. The vast majority of privately employed people see a person collecting a pension after “just” 20 years as a drain on their tax dollars, and lucky, and pampered. They do not care about your sacrifice, or the inherent dangers of the job you do. They think of themselves as heroic, and if given the chance would willingly do 20 to get what you get.
These people are not thinking like a young person who didn’t know what a pension was prior to entering the workforce. They are thinking like middle-aged taxpayers who have struggled to make ends meet for decades with no end in sight. There is no break for them until age 65, and that is a bitter pill to swallow when confronted by a relatively young person who has the opportunity that they will never have.
But we do have the opportunity, not because we were brilliant young people who did our research and ran spreadsheets and figured out that the best way to make a living and be able to retire early was to be a firefighter. We became firefighters because we knew what the job entailed, and learned all we could about firefighting before we started and were chosen from a pool of thousands who were not because we showed up for the exams and stayed in shape and passed the agility tests and kept our noses clean and passed the background checks and psychological testing.
The rest would sort itself out; we were young and had the rest of our lives to worry about health care and pensions. There was a lot to learn about our vocation, a lot to do and a life to be lived.
Exploiting prospective firefighters prior to hiring them is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. Many if not most people who choose this life are willing to sacrifice their future financial stability for the opportunity to ride the rig, don the gear, and live the dream. They are not thinking of the future. They are concerned with the present and have the next 20 years to worry about things that will profoundly affect that future.
With age comes wisdom. With experience, knowledge. Knowing that prospective firefighters are vulnerable, the senior members of a department must never forget what it is like to be young and eager and not all that bright and willing to sacrifice what they will earn in exchange for the opportunity to make a dream reality. The “old-timers” can teach the new recruits everything they know about firefighting, EMS, station life, and how to thrive in a difficult profession. But just as important, they have an obligation to people who have yet to be sworn in to maintain the benefits that have been bargained for, fought for, and preserved, because if we do not take care of ourselves, the public cannot be depended on to take care us.
There is no need to make excuses for what you have earned. It is far more gratifying to answer a person who is questioning your benefits with a simple, “I earned them,” and leave it at that, than to look bewildered and tell them that you didn’t know what a pension was, or that you would do the job for free.
Michael Morse, a Providence (RI) Fire Department member for 22 years, writes about his experiences as a firefighter on Engine Co. 2, 7, and 9 and Ladder Co. 7 and 4, as well as his time on Rescue Co. 1 as a lieutenant and Rescue Co. 5, where he is currently captain. He lives with his wife Cheryl seven minutes from his station, which, fortunately for him, is “worlds away.”