Every firefighter was raised on the timeless words penned 113 years ago by American fire service icon Fire Department of New York Chief Ed Croker in his immortal 1906 “I have no ambition but one” speech. In this incredible work, he captured the motivation and inspiration of our work as no one had before or has since. He outlined the struggles and triumphs but, most importantly, he clearly stated the ultimate purpose, the reason for our being, the essence of who we are when he said: “We are defenders from fires of the art which has beautified the world, the product of the genius of men and the means of refinement of mankind. But, above all; our proudest endeavor is to save lives of men-the work of God Himself.”
Make no mistake about it, Chief Croker knew how much fortitude and courage, how much strength and conviction it takes to fight fire, a foe that knows no mercy, whose grasp is more painful and destructive than any other opponents. He understood the rewards of a well-disciplined team. He spoke to the way our presence and our contribution to society individually and collectively make life richer and more satisfying. He captured how we are the vital thread in the fabric of a community that binds purpose to fulfillment and allows innovation, art, and entrepreneurship to flourish.
He spoke to the role of the firefighter as an indispensable element in the community, which, in the final analysis, in our “proudest” moment, is to save lives. He explained how easily others misunderstood our devotion, “Some may consider the position a lowly one, but we who understand it well ….”
History is replete with those who understood this fundamental motivational principle; both inside and outside the fire service, the examples are countless. One of America’s most celebrated and recognized was not a firefighter but a company aid man, Desmond T. Doss, United States Army Infantry.
Doss refused to touch a gun on religious grounds yet nonetheless deployed forward unarmed. On Okinawa, after an assault up a jagged 440-foot escarpment, our troops came under brutally deadly fire, inflicting massive casualties and driving the assault back. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the deadly area, carrying the wounded one by one to the edge of the escarpment and lowering them hand over hand on a rope-supported litter.
For the next 16 days, Doss crawled under grenade attacks, machine gun fire, and often within just a few yards of the enemy. He was seriously wounded in the legs from a grenade explosion. Rather than call another medic from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited five hours until litter bearers reached him.
While he was being carried, they came under a tank attack. Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man, directed the bearers to take the other man first. While waiting, he was hit again, then crawled 300 yards to the aid station. Doss rescued 75 men, American and Japanese. He became the symbol of outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.
When a heavily armed lunatic barricaded in a hotel room above a country music festival in Las Vegas opened fire, raining hell down on the unprotected and slaughtering the innocent, medics stepped up—firefighters, cops, warfighters, and former warfighters, on duty and off—and willingly put themselves in harm’s way. Dozens of heroes from all walks of life stepped up as medics to accomplish mankind’s proudest endeavor.
It is almost incomprehensible that in many fire organizations medics are discounted, abused, neglected, and demeaned. I have made some of those ignorant, insensitive remarks myself. I am ashamed to have done it, and I have no excuse. Ridiculing our brother and sister firefighter medics, even indirectly by jokes like “EMS stands for Every Minute Sucks” or “Who is riding the pus bus?” are shameful and inexcusable, and I will never do it again.
Where did we find such arrogance? Where could we have seen such stupidity molded? It is a matter of history that returning veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, armed with the skills, techniques, and tools they acquired and in many instances developed as aid men, field medics, corpsmen, nurses, and forward-operating docs, revolutionized emergency medical service delivery in America. It is with a very profound sense of sadness that we look back on these patriots’ return in the 1960s and 1970s, the forgotten—no, the ignored, the disrespected—warriors.
As brother and sister firefighters, we listened with remorse to stories from our combat veterans about the load masters telling the soldiers on the freedom flights home not to wear their uniforms off base, of airport bathrooms full of discarded fatigues, left behind by warriors who honorably bore the burden of service and now the unjust burden of scorn. No parades, no tickertape, no recognition and, in many cases, scorn, dismissal, rebuke, rejection, and ridicule for their service to our nation, for saving their fellow patriots’ lives, and for saving countless thousands of others’ lives by sharing each dearly bought lesson they brought home.
As a nation, we have come to terms with those terrible mistakes of arrogance and ingratitude and the unforgivable sin of assuming moral superiority in presentism. As a nation, we have asked for our forgotten warriors’ forgiveness. They gave their forgiveness with grace, and we have forgiven ourselves.
Croker was right: Our highest highs are when we save a life, at a fire, doing CPR, clearing an airway, stopping a bleed. It doesn’t matter how or where. It is our proudest endeavor. It is time to put our medics and our EMS divisions on the pedestal they not only deserve but own.
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