To watch a firefighter at work is to witness courage, strength and dedication. They respond to fires, car accidents, flooding, technical rescues, water rescues, animals through the ice and cats in trees. They crawl through a smothering darkness, that only smoke can create, groping for a child trapped in a burning house; they hold the hand of the victim who is being cut out of a vehicle, whispering words of comfort in the midst of chaos; and, sometimes, despite doing everything right, they have to deal with a deadly outcome.
Among themselves, they talk about things like the brotherhood and the sisterhood; they talk about reflexes and instinct; they talk about how most of them don’t die in a blaze of glory, but more often in a hospital bed, gasping for breath that was sacrificed at a thousand different fires; and, they talk about things that non-firefighters can’t even imagine, things that eat away at their humanity.
To non-firefighters (like me), they seem tough and indestructible, strong and capable, brave and fearless. They have a detached invincibility. They can even seem intolerant and their behaviour can flirt with arrogance because, for them, failure is not an option.
But…to know a firefighter is to know something different. To know a firefighter, is to know that they are always on duty because their minds never rest. To know a firefighter is to know that the very nature of their work requires that they train and train and train, until reflex and instinct blend seamlessly with conditioned behaviour. To know a firefighter is to know that they have, often, been thrust into danger because of a stranger’s foolishness or carelessness. To know a firefighter is to know that an irreverent attitude and a blustering bravado they can display in the face of loss is, sometimes, the only coping mechanism available to them.
To know a firefighter is to know that fear of failure is the greatest unspoken fear they have, a fear that comes from knowing that they can do everything right and still not win.
And…when you know a firefighter, every once in a rare while, you get a glimpse of the depth below the surface, you get a peek at the incredible price they pay for the things that they do. When you know a firefighter, you know how often they disappoint their spouses and their families to help a stranger. When you know a firefighter, you know how often they leave the comfort of their homes when conditions are so dangerous that street crews, and power crews are pulled from service. And…when you know a firefighter, you can see a tough-as-nails firefighter, gritty with the remnants of multiple and careless grassfires, get gruff with emotion when he describes a mother duck who, in the aftermath of a purposely-lit grassfire, desperately and carefully moves her eggs around a scorched nest, looking for any sign of life…and finding none.
When you know a firefighter, you know that they do things that the rest of us would never even consider. They do it with full awareness and acceptance of the risks; they do it for the bonds they form with their fellow firefighters; they do it with a sense of purpose few will ever have; and, they do it because, in spite the risks and the challenges, they love the job.
They are brave, strong and capable. When you know firefighters, you walk among giants.