By Michael Morse
I wasn’t always a firefighter. None of us were. Every one of us who became a firefighter had to grow up, never give up on our dream, stay out of trouble, and apply for the job. Making a living as a firefighter is not a birthright; it is a privilege. Getting hired and through the academy takes time. A lot of it. In the meantime, there is work to do. There’s always work to do. One day I was tending bar in a fancy restaurant, the next I was a firefighter/EMT in a big city.
It’s weird the way things work out. It took me a long time to get hired in Providence, Rhode Island, and during the six-month academy, bills kept coming in and the kids didn’t just go away and life for everybody else in my family went on as usual. So, I worked—nine-hour days at minimum wage in the Providence Fire Department Division of Training, then another seven or eight at the restaurant. By day I learned how to tie knots, push water, breathe through an SCBA, pull ceilings, and bandage the injured and tie them up on long boards and KEDs. I even learned how to put somebody in shock into inflatable trousers.
And at night, I worked. I showed up at the restaurant and put my firefighter clothes away, put on a bow tie, and waited on people. It was a great lesson in humility. People would come to the restaurant, and some would treat me like their servant; others would completely ignore me except when they ordered their drinks, but the others were the ones who taught me how to be a better person, a better father and husband, and a better EMT and firefighter. They would treat me with dignity, and even though their position in life was considered by society as more elevated than mine, they would be nice and ask about the family, inquire about the academy, be genuine, and be honest—just good people without condescending attitudes.
Those people made that six-month period of 80-hour weeks bearable.
The best tip I ever received never made it into my pocket, but it was deeply imbedded into my head and my heart. Nobody told me; they showed me. Actions speak louder than words. There are no winners or losers in this life, just people doing the best they can in whatever circumstances they find themselves in. Nothing good comes easy. It’s not the situation, it’s the way we respond to the situation that matters. How we respond is entirely up to us. We can think the world and people in it are ugly, unfair, and useless, or we can think the world we inhabit is beautiful, harmonious, and full of opportunity. How we make our way in this existence is completely 100% up to us and nobody but us.
We are all part of the human race; some days we seem to be winners, only to find ourselves behind the pack the next. One day I was serving people, the next I was saving them. But the greatest lesson I learned was that even though I was in a different position, and a little closer to the head of the pack, I was still serving them, all of them—the homeless, the drunks, the bartenders, the executives, and the politicians.
And I liked it. And I treated them all the same way I liked to be treated—with dignity. And by doing so, I found self respect and job satisfaction that endured two-plus decades.
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.