By Michael Morse
Is it the day he puts in his papers?
The last night in the station?
Driving away from the station after the final shift?
When he says, “I’m home,” and stays there?
Or is it when the fire in his heart diminishes and the thrill of responding to emergencies in the dead of winter is no longer there, but he does his job and leads by example and never lets “the kids” know that he knows the end is near?
Is it when the thought of working a holiday is no longer acceptable, and unused sick or vacation time begins getting used?
Or when “the tones” at 3:00 a.m. sound like the bells of hell rather than a subtle way to say get up, get dressed, and get on the truck?
Is a firefighter through when he makes rank?
Or if he chooses a different career path, like EMS or Fire Prevention?
Or arson investigator?
Is a firefighter no longer a firefighter when the years of injury finally make it impossible for him to do his job without putting himself, his crew, and the people he is sworn to protect in danger?
Does he become less of a firefighter if he retires on a disability?
It’s none of those things. A firefighter is no longer a firefighter when he stops breathing. Then he is a dead firefighter. Three days later, he will be a dead and buried firefighter. Then, he will live forever with the rest of the firefighters who came before him and lived the life and loved the job even when it became more and more difficult to feel it the way they once did.
A firefighter is no longer a firefighter only when he chooses to no longer be a firefighter. Nobody can make that choice but the firefighter. What makes a firefighter a firefighter resides deep inside, and nobody can change that unless the firefighter chooses it. Simply hanging up the turnout gear for the last time does not strip a firefighter of his status.
Nobody can take away the things that make us firefighters. Nobody can strip us of our memories, our heart and soul, or our willingness to put it all on the line when needed. Nobody can take the friends we make during our journey away. Nobody can make us forget those friends we have lost.
Being a firefighter is for life. There is no such thing as a retired firefighter. We can’t even die without being remembered as a firefighter. And after living the life, and feeling the heat, and knowing exactly how good it feels to do the job, who would want to?
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.