How Much is Too Much for a Firefighter?

By Michael Morse

I stuck the needle into his hand, immediately realized that my first choice was lousy and he was running out of time, pulled the needle out, and accidentally stuck it into me.

And I didn’t care.

It barely drew blood. I wiped the fleshy part of my hand just below the thumb with an alcohol swab, got another needle, drew up some Narcan®, and finished the job. He came to, looked around, decided he didn’t want to be where he was, ripped the IV out of his arm, and fled.

And I let him go.

And I didn’t care.

I was tired—too tired to take care of my patients, too tired to take care of myself. Being exhausted is no way to run an ALS vehicle. I should have known that I was done, but I didn’t. I was the last man standing, too arrogant to give in. I blamed the lack of resources for my apathy, the never-ending calls and never enough ambulances to respond. But it wasn’t that. It was the overtime that killed me and ruined what was a great career. I retired as a captain, but I was in no condition to lead by the time I made it; I could barely take care of myself.

I knew I was a lousy captain and didn’t care.

A person needs to set boundaries and adhere to them. I didn’t. We are our own worst enemy, thinking we are invincible yet proving that we are not. Looking back, I can see where I went wrong and how I let my ego decay my rational sense of self-preservation. I had convinced myself that I was the guy who could handle the 80-hour weeks, AND a part-time job on the side, AND take care of my family, AND be a barrel of laughs at the cookout.

Somebody once told me I was delusional and that the person I thought I was had left the building long ago. Turns out, they were right. Too bad I had to break to figure that out. Life is funny, though, and second, and third, and forth chances are always there, waiting.

But so is whatever comes with a dirty needle stick.

Firefighters in Providence made a lot of money last year. A few even crossed the $200,000 mark. The public was outraged, and rightly so. It is not the job of the public to understand the intricacies of contracts, management rights, labor negotiations, minimum staffing, and the rules governing overtime. The general public does not need to understand exactly what a firefighter does. I have no idea what most people do all day. They go to work, make things, sell things, manage or be managed, protect, serve, drive, fly, dig, and fix stuff. Somehow, it all works out.

Trying to explain how a firefighter made a quarter-million dollars to somebody who puts in 40 hours; grabs overtime when it is available, which it usually is not; and brings home far less is akin to explaining how a turbine engine works to a two-year-old. After the first few words, all they hear is noise.

I worked as a firefighter in Providence for 25 years. I made $100,000 one of those years, and it nearly killed me. Overtime, mandatory and voluntary, led to my early exit from the department. After my seventh documented back injury, my doctor refused to let me go back. I was so addicted to the money that overtime provided I refused to listen to the doctor, sought a second opinion, lied about my pain, and struggled through three more years.

By the time I left, I was broken for good, physically and mentally. The most important aspect of this story is not firefighters exploiting the system or the system being broken by clueless politicians. A fire/EMS captain in Providence works the streets, responds to endless 911 calls–some tragic, most not, but all requiring a competent, engaged person. A person working enough hours to make more than $200,000 is neither.


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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