SCAB, MERCENARY, OR PROFESSIONAL: WHAT TYPE OF FIREFIGHTER ARE YOU?
BY THEODORE S. FLORIAN
Editor`s note: Florian is a timeless observer and sage of the fire service. Here, he presents some interesting historical concepts that have become unnecessary fire service tradition. It is time for change, and his conclusions are in the direction of what the twenty-first century fire service should be.
Historically, there has been strong competition among fire companies in the fire service. In early times, different volunteer fire companies fought over who would extinguish a fire. The competition continues even to this day and perhaps has intensified with the advent of the full-time paid firefighter. The name-calling never seems to end: “Those scabs in Folville burn everything down.” “Those paid guys in Protown only get experience going to alarms every third day; we go every day.” And sometimes there is even a smidgen of truth involved: “You think professional athletes are overpaid, look at those paid firefighters hitting the golf ball behind the station.” Maybe it is time we look at this situation from the eyes of those we serve. People don`t care about what firefighters are called or how they are compensated. They want first-class service at the time of their emergency.
We hear numerous claims about the classifications and names (listed alphabetically below) for different types of firefighters: amateur, career, paid, paid-on-call, professional, and volunteer.
Let`s examine the qualities that determine these categories. Perhaps, we can discover a simple solution and a class for all firefighters, and more importantly, provide what our clients desire.
Paid, paid-on-call, and volunteer. These classifications are probably the easiest to define. They are the most straightforward and readily accepted.1 Paid means “to receive money in return for goods or services rendered.” A paid firefighter performs services for a salary, and a paid-on-call firefighter is given a wage for alarms or time worked. A volunteer is “a person who renders aid, performs a service, or assumes an obligation voluntarily.”
Amateur and career. An amateur is “a person who engages in an art, a science, a study, or an athletic activity as a pastime rather than as a profession”–in other words, not professional. However, an amateur is also one who is a “devotee, or enthusiastic pursuer of an objective.” Career, defined as “a chosen pursuit; a profession or occupation,” becomes more difficult to understand since we must further define profession and occupation.
Occupation is defined as “an activity that serves as one`s regular source of livelihood; a vocation.” Vocation is defined as “a regular occupation, especially one for which a person is particularly suited or qualified.” This definition certainly provides some limitations and complications. Many paid firefighters have other income sources that equal or exceed their fire department salary, so which one is the regular source of livelihood? Many firefighters in all of the listed categories are not “particularly suited or qualified” for the job because of physical, social, or psychological reasons. Thus, how many firefighters fit the careercategory? We may need to limit the definition to “a chosen pursuit.”
However, occupation is also defined as “an activity engaged in especially as a means of passing time; an avocation.” By applying these definitions, all paid, paid-on-call, and volunteers fall under the definition of career; and we have not yet discussed the terms professional and profession.
Professional. This is the most difficult category to define. Some believe only full-time, paid firefighters fit this definition. However, many well-equipped and trained paid-on-call and volunteer firefighters believe they are equally professional. Let us explore the definitions of profession and professional. A profession is “an occupation requiring considerable training and specialized study: the professions of law, medicine, and engineering.” It is also defined as “the body of qualified persons in an occupation or field: members of the teaching profession.” The word professional has several, closely related meanings:
–Of, relating to, engaged in, or suitable for a profession: a professional field such as law; professional training.
–Conforming to the standards of a profession: professional ethics.
–Engaging in a given activity as a source of livelihood or as a career.
–Performed by persons receiving pay; professional football.
–Having or showing great skill; expert; a thoroughly professional repair job.
After reviewing the definitions of profession and professional, it is obvious that all of the original categories except amateur fall into one or more of the listed definitions. There are some limitations to consider. To be professional, firefighters must meet accepted standards, which the fire service has in the NFPA Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications series. Also, they must maintain their skills and knowledge by competency based training to these standards.
Perhaps, we should now explore another title/definition that may need to be added to the current fire service list of classifications: mercenary, defined as “motivated solely by a desire for monetary or material gain; Hired for service in a foreign army; One who serves or works merely for monetary gain; a hireling.”
Certainly, in many circumstances, members of most of the categories are seeking monetary or material gain. This gain may be in the form of a salary, wage, or other amenity such as peer acceptance, training for a future job, camaraderie, prestige, security, or bar privileges. If we consider that firefighters are members of an army (the fire department) engaged in battle against a foe (fire), the above definitions become quite applicable. Some may suggest dropping the word “foreign” from the definition, but firefighting certainly is foreign as a form of work when compared with other occupations in which people are engaged. Do we perhaps have a mercenary fire service?
Most fire service personnel, regardless of which name is given them or which classification they are placed in, are very dedicated to their community and to protecting it against the ravages of fire. This dedication extends very broadly into rescue including several specialized areas, emergency medical work, hazardous-materials operations, and other noncriminal emergency areas. Firefighters continuously study, train, and perform various forms of professional development. This development is very similar to what members of the engineering, medical, and teaching professions do to keep current with new procedures and up-to-date technology. Most professions require some type of qualification testing: state professional engineering exams, American Bar Association exams, state medical board exams, and teaching certification testing. Many professions require periodic retesting for recertification. This retesting ensures that members of the profession remain on top of the latest techniques, procedure, and legal cases pertinent to their field. New technology, equipment, and applications are studied and reviewed. How many in the fire service–of any classification–expend a reasonable effort to keep up to date in this manner?
I recently attended a fire conference that the labor union of the hosting city ordered its paid members not to attend. At the same time, the number of paid-on-call and volunteers attending was nowhere near the number who could have attended. Paid personnel were not compensated to attend, and the others felt the return not significant enough to outweigh other uses of their time. Neither group seemed to be concerned with their customers–the supporting public–nor were they very professional in taking time to enhance their knowledge and skills. They appeared mercenary (one who serves or works merely for monetary or material gain)–we`ll only squirt water for payment!
Perhaps, the best conclusion to our semantics problems for all firefighters, regardless of the name or the classification in which they are placed, is to strive to better serve their customers and become more professional, that is, “having or showing great skill.” It appears that to be professional, the fire service should embrace certification based on the initial testing of skills and knowledge, plus continuous professional development, and retesting and recertification every five years. This certification/re-certification is required in emergency medicine–why not for fire suppression? This would be a win-win situation because everyone benefits. Perhaps, then we will all be true professionals! n
1. The definitions quoted used throughout this document are from The AMERICAN HERITAGE Dictionary, Third Edition.