Commentary, Firefighting

Who You Were, or Who You Are?

A firefighter with full gear
Photo by Tim Olk

By the time you are finished with your career in the fire service, everything about you will have changed. You will be old. You will be experienced. You will be confident, patient, and wise. Or, you will be old, disillusioned, angry, and bitter.

The people with whom you started your career won’t be the same, either. The friends you made along the way will be retired, on a different group, or in a different position. The ones who knew the idealistic kid who was just starting his life will be replaced by idealistic kids just starting theirs. They will know only what you project. They do not share your experiences or your passions that may or may not still be there. They did not know who you were; they only know who you are.

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What you are is a culmination of the experiences that shaped you. The things you did, the things you saw, and the lives saved and lost all had an impact. Yours is not a normal life with a predictable trajectory. The ups and downs of a life in the fire service has ruined many good people and created its fair share of monsters. Fortunately, the firefighting life instills a sense of camaraderie, purpose, competence, and resilience in most of us.

So, who will they remember when your time is through?

  • The fearless firefighter with his entire career ahead of him, or the tired, old officer who is putting in his time so he can collect his pension?
  • The kid in the academy, fascinated with every new bit of knowledge obtained, eager to put it to use, or the guy who knows it all, done it all, and isn’t impressed?
  • The first one on the truck, or the old man who makes those eager kids fresh out of the academy wait?
  • The one who starts housework, or the guy who waits for someone else to pick up a mop?
  • The one who trained hard, or the one who goes through the motions?
  • The one who responded to every emergency with the desire to mitigate whatever waited, or the one who looked at the call as more of a problem than an opportunity to create a solution?
  • The one who wore the uniform, indicative of the person wearing it?
  • The one who looks back on his career with fondness or contempt?

The answer to these questions is completely up to you. In an unpredictable line of work, one thing is always under your control: how you handle it.

There are no perfect firefighters. Each and every one of us has survived moments we regret. During a long career, there will be times that you question your commitment. Excitement fades, routine sets in, and friends come and go. Politics wear you down, and time away from home becomes unbearable.

To successfully navigate it all, it is imperative to hold on to the person you were before you became a firefighter. Keep that person locked away in a place inside you. Talk to him when things get difficult. You weren’t always burdened with the knowledge that life is cruel; good people die for no reason; and, sometimes, the best you have to offer isn’t good enough. The “old” you is actually the real you, just without the baggage. If you can stay connected to him, you will be remembered as the firefighter who showed up, did the job, did it well, and left the job far better than it was before you came along.

Michael Morse is a former captain with the Providence (RI) Fire Department (PFD), an author, and a popular columnist. He served on PFD’s Engine Co. 2., Engine Co. 9, and Ladder Co. 4 for 10 years prior to becoming an EMT-C on Rescue Co 1 and Captain of Rescue Co. 5.

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