Have you ever been in a hotel when you just knew that the siren outside was a fire truck? My wife claims I can pick out the distinctive sounds of a half dozen responding fire apparatus by their sirens, engine noise, and accompanying squeaks and squeals as they make their way down the highway. Of course, an air horn is a dead giveaway. I'm not always right — but about 99% of the time I am.
This is where the rubber hits the road. That fire truck going to the scene of an emergency demanding that people cede access to the right of way is a tradition that goes all the way back to the colorful prints made by Currier and Ives in the late 1800s. But there's more to that story than meets the eye if you ever leave that hotel room to follow that fire truck and see what it can do when it gets where it's going.
I recently had that experience. In fact, I've had it a lot because I travel to a lot of small towns to take a look at the fire service throughout the country. There are a still a lot of fire departments in this country that are completely different from what the public has seen in the movies and on TV.
The vast majority of people in this country live in suburban and urban communities and have developed their perception of the fire service based on two images. The first and probably most pervasive is that of the American firefighter from Sept. 11, 2001. Who can doubt the powerful influence of that image? The second has emerged from the “play acting” of people like Kurt Russell in Back-draft and the stars of Rescue Me.
Neither of these images fulfills the depth and breadth of what the fire service is all about, and neither does justice to the real drumbeat of the American fire service. It's that response down a small town's Main Street at 1 o'clock in the morning that also tells the story.
I'm very sensitive to the fact that I frequently write about the family and friends of the fire service with whom I've had the chance to visit. Rather than talk about the specifics from which the following observations were drawn, I intend to paint a bigger picture of the difference between the haves and have-nots.
A significant number of the more than 50,000 people who read this magazine are from suburban and urban fire departments. I know that a number of the people who read it and comment to me come from urban fire departments similar to those in which I've served. But I also know that there's another fire service out there struggling very hard to survive. It is a fire service on a shoestring.
The next time you're on vacation in a community of around 3,000 people, think of what kind of fire protection might be down the street before you pull the covers up to your neck in that charming bed and breakfast. What I'm witnessing out in the field is a large number of volunteer fire departments struggling mightily against an increasing demand unsupported by society in general.
For example, many communities don't have enough money to buy modern fire apparatus. Do those of you in the urban fire service ever wonder what happens to most of those old pumpers that you sell to used fire truck dealers? They end up in firehouses continuing to do yeomen's duty for probably another 30 years after you've washed your hands of them. What about the old protective clothing that was turned into the warehouse when you received your new PPE?
Well the answer may be right there in that same firehouse that responds to your vacation spot. I'm not going to debate whether you'll be happy or unhappy with what you find in that station. If you happen to be a well-paid, full-time career firefighter you might be sadly disappointed. But you ought to take the time to look past what you see to what you need to observe.
Let me tell you a few things that exist in those fire departments: dedication, commitment, loyalty, compassion and, yes, even competency.
One of the things I have discovered by visiting many small fire departments over the past few years is that their members are every bit as committed to providing as high a quality of service as anybody else who puts on a badge. Yes, there is conflict. I believe it's tragic that the fire service has divided into camps of us versus them when in fact it's really a case of haves and have-nots.
In examining most of these fire departments' budgets, one of the first things that you learn is that fire protection is an incredibly low priority for many local governments. When you go into many small communities and they don't have enough money to keep the lights on at city hall, you'll find that they're reluctant to invest much in fire protection.
I've also observed that when such a community begins to grow and realize what risks, hazards and values are on the table, many of those same individuals who served that community as volunteers become paid firefighters. What a metamorphosis. It really bothers me when I hear paid firefighters belittle volunteers as being unworthy. And to be equitable, I find it really disturbing when volunteer firefighters belittle or deride their paid brethren by making statements that relate to an old and oft-quoted profession.
After all, we're all in the same business — saving lives and property. The most significant difference between a firefighter in small-town America and a firefighter in downtown Gotham is the luck of the draw. It's population that breeds the money to have a paid fire department, but it's pride in performance that breeds a good fire department.
Don't you find it interesting that many paid firefighters who also serve as volunteers where they live are embarrassed to say so for fear of criticism? Don't you also find it interesting that many firefighters who demand high wages and extraordinary benefits live in communities where the firefighters receive neither, yet they feel perfectly safe residing there?
If we are to move together as a profession — small-town America and Gotham U.S.A. — we should aim to get on the same sheet of music as quickly as we can. It's not us versus them. It's not the haves versus the have-nots. It's the family of the fire service. We're all in this together.
Once when I was teaching a class of volunteer firefighters, I was extremely complimentary of their dedication and loyalty to duty. I joked that if I were their chief, I would have them all tattooed as being the property of my department. During the next coffee break, one firefighter came to the front of the room and pulled up his sleeve. Tattooed on his upper arm was the shoulder patch of his fire department.
I have no idea where that young man is today. But I do know that whatever made him put that shoulder patch on his shoulder is probably deeply ingrained in his desire to be a part of something. That's something we need to sustain in our business. So the next time you're on vacation and you hear that siren going down the street, maybe you ought to get out of bed, put on your clothes and drive down to see what's at the other end. You may be shocked, you may be surprised, but the one thing you will be is in the real world of where the rubber hits the road.
With more than 40 years in the fire service, Ronny J. Coleman has served as fire chief in Fullerton and San Clemente, Calif., and was the fire marshal of the State of California from 1992 to 1999. He is a certified fire chief and a master instructor in the California Fire Service Training and Education System. A Fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers, he has an associate's degree in fire science, a bachelor's degree in political science and a master's degree in vocational education.