IS IT TIME TO CHANGE OUR IMAGE?

BY ANTOINE TRIBBLE

Every day in this country we as first responders-whether volunteer or paid-answer emergency calls to run into harm’s way without a second thought. Isn’t it time for us to be treated and thought of as professionals and to be paid our worth in education, training, and knowledge?

Firefighters have been killed in the line of duty for many years, but firefighters and EMS personnel have never gotten much respect in terms of compensation from society or government. Before September 11, at least one firefighter was killed in the line of duty every three days. Isn’t it time for us to stop the tradition of risking our lives for no pay in our communities on a daily basis? Firefighters risk their lives while Congress prepares to send billions of dollars to other countries. Isn’t it time to stop accepting low hourly wages as career or paid firefighters and EMS providers?

What would be so wrong with spending a few billion dollars to make more volunteer departments paid, as other government departments are? Every year, law enforcement takes the forefront when a problem exists, yet firefighters are right beside, be-hind, or often leading the fight at crime, terrorism, and disasters scenes.

I am not suggesting that being a volunteer is bad. I volunteered in Kentucky for approximately seven years. Nor am I suggesting that we shouldn’t go to all lengths to help our neighbors in need. Volunteer firefighters are some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable people in this country. Many local governments will not push to have paid firefighters and EMS personnel as long as we will do the job for virtually nothing. Many who work in government and members of the general public do not hesitate to punish or ridicule any one of us for a mistake or an accident whether volunteer or paid. If we are willing to be dedicated for nothing, why not be dedicated and get paid?

Many professional people are very dedicated to what they do, but they get paid. Why can’t we get paid enough to feed our families or have nice things without relying on and needing second jobs? Many local governments will say there is not enough money or a large enough tax base to fund full-time and paid fire departments. As long as we keep volunteering or offering free services, they won’t ever have enough money. Let’s just say they probably won’t be putting money aside with plans of paying firefighters on their mind. Volunteers shouldn’t be the reason paying firefighters and EMS providers an adequate wage is not even considered. No member of the emergency services, government, or the public should look on paying all firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs an adequate wage as a ludicrous gesture.

In many communities, large or small, police have stopped volunteering or offering free services, but they are very dedicated. In many communities, police salaries are gradually moving past firefighter and EMS salaries. Police, firefighter, and EMS salaries are often a step above the level of the working poor, and some could qualify for government assistance. Paid firefighters who work 24/48 work 800-plus hours more a year than police personnel and other government and federal workers for the same or less money in many cases.

Government leaders must feel that firefighting and EMS jobs do not merit much compensation. With all the extra hours, it should be obvious that the downtime while training, preplanning, or just being prepared is worth nothing. Keep in mind that firefighting is still one of the most dangerous professions in the world. A gun isn’t powerful enough to force a person to jump from a 100-story building, but fire is. A firefighter’s responsibilities and the normal dangers of the job have increased, but there has been no credit or compensation for the increase, just excuses or neglect.

Political leaders’ views that there is no need to pay firefighters and EMS providers a strong wage appears to be justified. Many professional people in this country, educated or not, will rarely volunteer their services to the degree that communities can rely on them-24 hours a day/7 days a week-even though it is very admirable and courageous of men and women to give back to their respective communities in public service. Government leaders are not going to stop us from laying our lives on the line for free. Why should they pay us? Part of their job is to make sure the taxpayers’ money is spent “wisely.”

Without intending to, volunteers undermine the profession of firefighting. Society and government give little credit to firefighting and the EMS with regard to being professions that require a great deal of education and knowledge. Volunteering inadvertently takes the compensation and intellectual value out of firefighting. Many people see firefighting as nothing more than bravery to spray water on a fire and EMS as a fast ride to a hospital emergency room. It is up to us to teach government officials, citizens, and the media that firefighting and EMS are more than that. Firefighters and EMS providers train continuously for all types of situations as the world changes and becomes more violent. Fire-fighters and EMS providers have to wear many different hats with little acknowledgment of being well educated or professional.

Because of September 11, a President of the United States for the first time in the history of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial weekend in Emmittsburg, Maryland, attended the annual memorial services for fallen firefighters. Why?

Look around your town. Do the officials prefer to fund pet projects over public safety salaries and equipment? Find out how much your local community knows about what your department needs to do its job. Many firefighters (volunteers and some paid) spend money out-of-pocket for safety equipment and personal protective gear. Doing these things may not seem like a big deal on the surface, but it reduces the government’s responsibilities and concerns. Does your local government show its appreciation through compensation, credit, or respect? Do you get a negative reaction if you bring up money for fire and EMS? Government leaders don’t fully understand fire and EMS public safety; those who do often want to keep the public in the dark because fire and EMS are not priorities. (Some call that mentality “Russian Roulette.”) Where do firefighting and EMS rank in your community? How is this reflected in the amount of pay or equipment you receive? Do your officials meet your concerns with negativity? Do they take the attitude that “it won’t happen here?” As we have witnessed on September 11, it can happen here.

When there is a crisis, our significance rockets. Firefighters and EMS professionals are among the first be called and relied on for our support and mitigation of most incidents. When all the problems subside, our standing plummets, and often with little notice of the role we played in the incident. Often, our significance stays within the fire stations and with the firefighters; the media, the government, and society do not note our worth.

Isn’t it time to change the views outside and inside the fire department? Isn’t it time to push for our spot at the top of the public safety list-not only when there’s a crisis or when it’s convenient, but all year long?

Often, the credit we get is in the form of talk, but talk won’t help feed or send your kid to college. Right now, people are more aware of public safety than ever before. Why did it take the loss of 343 firefighters at the World Trade Center to raise that awareness?

When is it time for firefighters and EMS providers to come together to make our situation better? Will we wait until 300 more emergency personnel lose their lives before we stand up and ask to be compensated as other government employees are? One of the next 300 could be you or me.

Volunteer and paid firefighters give a great deal of their time, soul, dedication, and money for a little personal satisfaction, brotherhood, and comradeship. Many professionals all over this country get some of the same satisfactions we get from being in the emergency services. Is it so ridiculous to push for a strong wage for fire and EMS personnel and still get personal satisfaction?

Granted, being a paid or a volunteer firefighter will not determine whether we will be killed in the line of duty. Nor will money bring back any firefighter. But, being a firefighter or EMS provider puts stress on our families. We put our families at risk for any disease, virus, or poison we might encounter through giving patient care or responding to scenes that have hazardous materials. We also stress our relationships by being absent because of the many hours we spend at the fire station or on a second job. Why not get paid a strong wage to support our families while we are still blessed to be here? Other countries and groups inside and outside America get lots of financial support from our government. How should we interpret that?

Author’s note: The intent of this article is to stimulate thought, not create an argument.

ANTOINE TRIBBLE is an 18-year veteran of the fire service and a 14-year veteran of the Lexington (KY) Fire Department.

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