Hero Complex: It Can be a Good Thing

By Daniel Byrne

I was as shocked and outraged as everyone else wearing the Maltese Cross when I read Swedish Firefighter Stefan Svensson’s comments in his presentation at the Fire Rescue International in Atlanta this past August. He attributed the U.S. firefighter line of duty death (LODD) rate to a “hero complex” which caused American firefighters to put risk over safety.

Maybe I got so riled up because, when I read Firefighter Svensson’s words, I was at the National Fire Academy (NFA) attending a fireground leadership class, which emphasized the officer’s responsibility for the safety of his people. Or maybe it was because while I attended that two-week class, we lost four firefighters (two in New York City, two in Boston). Maybe it was because the memory of burying nine Charleston, South Carolina, brothers was still fresh in my mind. Maybe it was when I walked past the flag at the Fallen Firefighters Memorial at the NFA and saw that the flag was again at half staff in honor of the recent LODDs, and realized that, in all of my five trips to the NFA, I couldn’t ever remember the flag ever being at full staff.

Either way, I reread firefighter Svensson’s words and gave it some thought. Although I didn’t believe the deaths in Charleston, NYC or Boston were caused by any “hero complex,” I still felt that I owed it to them, and to the firefighters serving everywhere, to consider what the Swedish firefighter said and give some thought to his theory.

To some degree, he has a point. The American firefighter does have a “hero complex.” But I disagree with Svensson and take offense at the idea that being a firefighter is “just a job.” There is more to this job than simply coming to work and putting out fires. We serve a greater purpose.

The American firefighter’s “hero complex” in and of itself is not the problem. Rather, this impulse is sometimes just misguided and misunderstood. As fire service leaders, we need to instill and encourage our people to view themselves as heroes, but for the right reasons, the real reasons. By doing so, we keep them healthy. And this not just a job; our role in our community is much greater than other occupations.

America needs heroes; people need heroes, and they need something or someone to believe in that they can trust. This enables society to function. It lets people sleep sound at night. It allows them to tell their children sincerely, when a knee is skinned, “Everything’s going to be okay.”

We live in an age of road rage, terrorism, automated phones, airport delays, poor customer service, corporate scandals, and government corruption. We live in an era of apparent apathy and lack of concern for our fellow man. Each night we sit in front of the TV and hear more and more about how our society is in moral decline, along with all the new and amazing ways people are finding to terrorize and brutalize each another.

Cynicism is tarnishing the reputations of many of our heroes. A recent NBC Nightly News program covering Mother’s Teresa’s “dark side” says volumes about the state of our society. Our children now look to high profile, highly paid, morally flawed athletes and movie stars as their role models in the desperate search for goals they feel they can achieve.

From out of this fog of despair emerges the American firefighter. Although we have had our share of scandals, strangers still open their doors to us. Citizens still open their purses and wallets to us without question (except politicians, of course). When was the last time you remember a parent discouraging their child from running up to a firefighter or fire truck?

There are more than one million firefighters in the United States today, and the number of fires is down. Those dramatic six o’clock nightly news rescues are few and far between, meaning that a very small percentage of today’s firefighters are seen performing heroic actions. But the public still perceives us as just that–regardless of what the six o’clock news is not showing.

Why does society continue to put us on a pedestal, openly call us heroes, when most of our firefighters are doing nothing more than applying bandages? Because for the common citizen, we do not have to jump balconies, swing from buildings, rush alone into infernos, or carry babies through flaming windows to be heroes. We are heroes just for showing up to try and fix the problem, regardless of its severity, skinned knees and whiplash included.

Firefighters must understand this. Such a “hero complex” can be cultivated into something healthy. The term hero isn’t merely reserved for our actions, but our intent, which continues to prove that firefighters came when called and cared. Today, such “simple” traits are in high demand.

To children, we are heroes because we simply wave and blow the air horn when we drive by. We stop what we are doing and greet them with a smile when they come to the station, regardless of race, religion, or physical or mental limitations. Regardless of these issues which make up the vast stereotyping and judgment problems of today’s society. We see them as children, but give them respect when we help them into the fire truck like a “big person,” and take the time to talk to them. For a moment, someone sees them and hears them. When they are scared, it is the firefighter they seek and it is the firefighter who always comes through. In the lives of many children, we have proven to be the only adults that they can count on.

To their parents, we are heroes because we watch over their loved ones when they are away. We make time for their children, and we are the ones who are able get to their children first when they are in trouble. We are the ones who are willing to put our own personal needs, issues, and family aside for the greater good. Regardless of rain, sleet, snow, holiday, or weekend, we are there for our community. We are ones who give them their dignity when they are most vulnerable.

To the elderly, we are heroes because we are the ones who come when they call at 2 a.m., get down on our knees and look them in the eye as we hold their hand and ask the question so few people in their lives ever do: “How can I help?” We help them back into bed; we help find their medications; we may even help fix a broken appliance before we leave. We remind them of all that was once good about being an American, and give them hope that someone out there cares for them and is there for them when they need it.

We are their neighbors. We are ordinary citizens. We come from the same community fabric as they do. We are the only ones in the government section of the phone book they know will come when they call, who will care about their problem, and pay attention to their needs, who are people that they can trust. Whether we fixed their problem or not, we showed up and dared to try.

As fire service leaders, we have to give Swedish firefighter Stefan Svensson’s words their due. We have the responsibility to explore all the ways our firefighters can get into trouble. We are responsible for leading the finest group of men and woman God has placed upon this earth. They are aggressive by nature, and they do not like to lose. Their passion runs deep. Their brotherhood runs strong. That is the recipe for success, but it can also the recipe for disaster if it is not harnessed and directed in a positive, healthy manner and put into perspective.

As fires continue to decline, the “hero complex” will continue to be misguided if our firefighters continue to push themselves to live up to its perceived and misguided image. We must harness that “hero complex” and use it in the proper, positive way.

We also must know the warning signs of an unhealthy hero complex, such as ridiculous “We fight what you fear” T-shirts, the statues and picture of firefighters carrying children or dragging a victim to safety. These images have dominated the American firefighter for decades but represent only a small percentage of our actions and foster an unhealthy view of what firefighters are about. They misrepresent the value we have in our community and how we are perceived by our citizens. Ever wonder why there aren’t any statues or T-shirts showing a firefighter rescuing senior citizen?

As leaders, we need to discourage those T-shirts and statues. We need to realize our heroic role in the America, how we are truly viewed by our citizens, and why. Many firefighters in fact do make daring rescues and have saved lives. They need to be recognized for their accomplishments and given their due. But are they any less heroes to the public if their rescues are not successful? Again, firefighters are revered not for the action itself, but for its intent. Whether it is saving a child from a raging inferno or stopping their tears after an unfortunate fall while riding their bicycles, we are heroes just because we showed up when we were needed and we cared.

Take every opportunity to remind firefighters of their true value in society. It’s the small things that we do that make the difference and has earned us that hero title. Take off the macho T-shirts. Take down the pictures and posters that paint our profession in an unrealistic light and encourage our firefighters to take unwarranted chances in the pursuit of a living up to an unrealistic image.

America needs heroes. Our society needs something to believe in. We must remold that unhealthy “hero complex” into something positive and instill in our firefighters a healthy image of their role in the lives of our citizens. We must do this for the good of our nation and for the good of our communities. For the future grandparents who will sit their grandchildren on their laps and tell tales that will shape their lives and set the goals for future generations. So that children can say: “One day, that will be me!” We must do this so that the cycle of simply caring for others and daring to try will continue.

Daniel Byrne, a 20-year veteran of the emergency services, is the fire marshal for the Beaufort (SC) Fire Department, where he has served the past 10 years. He is a National Fire Academy alumnus and a volunteer paramedic with Beaufort County EMS. A U.S. Marine veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm War, he is a technical sergeant with the Georgia Air National Guard, serving with the Fire Protection Division.

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