Firefighters: Always be Humble and Kind, Especially to Each Other

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Humble and kind. Firefighters are known and respected for their caring and compassionate nature whether dealing with human tragedy on a call or standing outside in the rain to “Fill the Boot” for MDA (the Muscular Dystrophy Association) over Labor Day Weekend. So, why can we be so unkind to each other?

A couple of days ago, one of my fire service colleagues over in the UK, Antonia Nicol, posted the following account of a call that she and her team members responded to:

We were called out to a shout [call for service] one day. We arrived at the house. It had been converted into flats [apartments]. The call had been made from the top floor. We climbed three narrow flights of stairs to get up there. A small attic room, steeply sloped ceilings, converted into a bedroom. Just enough room for a bed and a wardrobe. The bed had wooden slats on it.

A very large man lived alone in that room. He had been lying on the bed and the slats had broken. He had fallen into them and got completely trapped. He was naked, vulnerable and frightened when we arrived. We all could see what an awful situation this man was living in.

He was a prisoner in his own home. Trapped in a room too small for him. Trapped upstairs by an exit too narrow for him to escape. Relying on caregivers or other people to come and look after him. One of the firefighters took off his tunic [turnout coat] and placed it over the man to maintain some of his dignity whilst we rescued him out of the bed.

You could drive past that house a million times and never realize that there is someone living up in the roof, trapped, looking out of the window at the world passing them by.

Why Do We “Eat Our Own”?

I posted the following comment to Antonia’s post: “You do realize that there’s a book in you that’s “dying to come out,” right? Great piece of prose–just like your earlier posts.” Her response (which I’m paraphrasing) saddened me very much.

Thank you for your comments, Robert Avsec. Unfortunately, I get many negative comments like the one I shared with you, especially from male firefighters here in our service.

(Antonia had shared with me, and another colleague, a couple of examples of the “trash talking” comments she’d received about earlier posts and this one).

Now, isn’t that a shame? A firefighter posts a very empathetic piece about a shout (call for service) where she and her colleagues did all the right things to help another human being, on likely one of the worst days of their life, and “fellow” firefighters take her to task for doing so. Why?

From my observations, this is not a phenomenon unique to firefighters in the UK. I see similar comments on-line for pieces written by me and others in the fire service. For some people it’s simply not enough to say in their comments that they disagree with your point, or question how you came to that conclusion. Or, heaven forbid, offer an equally intelligent viewpoint or solution.

No, they have to give negative personal attacks as well. (One of my “favorites” is always the firefighter who punctuates their “rant” of reply by stating that chief officers have no idea what real firefighting is all about).

I see it for a variety of fire service issues, such as:

  • Transitional fire attack and other advancements in fire suppression;
  • Initiatives to improve firefighter safety to reduce deaths and injuries;
  • Firefighters delivering public fire and life-safety education;
  • Women in the fire service seeking equal treatment and a workplace free of sexual harassment and abuse; and
  • Pretty much anything that’s seen as threat to the status quo or male privilege in the fire service.

We Can, and Must Do Better

We have many more important issues that need our focus and energies rather than attacking each other, or responding to attacks from others. Perhaps

The late Firefighter/Paramedic Nicole Mittendorf

none bigger than the potential erosion of public support for firefighters when they see such internecine warfare in our ranks. Firefighters enjoy a place of having one of the high favorability ratings for any profession in both the U.S. and the UK, but the high esteem that the public has for us is jeopardized when they see how negative (Dare I say, hateful?) we can be to each other on social media.

Have we already forgotten the tragic case of Firefighter/Paramedic Nicole Mittendorf who took her own life after being cyber-bullied on social media and the Internet by her “brother” firefighter?

How about we all pledge to make 2018 the year we learn to quite “eating our own?”

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec and his wife of 30+ years now make their home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.