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Guest Post: Not Every Firefighter a Hero

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

I recently re-listened to the song “Believe” by Yellowcard. A friend was with me, and she made an off-hand comment about how heroic firefighter are. The comment bothered me a little. Her sentiment, while a nice gesture to public servants, is ultimately belittling.

Something unfortunate happened after 9/11: the use of the word hero became synonymous with certain job professions. All firefighters are considered heroes. All soldiers are heroes. All police officers are heroes. And so on.

As an EMT, I have had the privilege of working closely with fire and police personnel. What they, and what we, do is often hard work. In most area, fire engines and vans respond to emergency medical calls. If it’s someone with emotional problems or an assault, we’ll see police there too. On a traffic collision, the highway patrol is called to make the area safe while we work and they stay long after we leave with the patient. Not to mention dispatchers, maintenance workers, security personnel, doctors, nurses, techs, etc. Working these jobs can mean exhausting days and sleepless nights. 

However, these things are part of the job description; it's the job they signed up for. A firefighter, an EMT, or a police officer doing his job does not make him or her a hero. It earns him or her the amount which they are paid (granted EMT's and law enforcement personnel are drastically underpaid, but firefighters make excellent money). To be a hero, one must go above and beyond the call of duty. Go beyond what is expected of them. 

We’ve all heard the accounts of survivors of the twin towers. As men and women escaped down the staircases, firefighters ran up them, never to come back down. As Yellowcard says in the song, "Climbing higher through the fire/Time was running out/Never knowing you weren't going to be coming down alive" That is damn heroic. Those firefighters are no fools, they knew with jet fuel burning in those towers, their lives were in constant danger. Soldiers who travel to combat zones, travel along IED filled roadways, remain in spite of minor wounds, and go home with major ones. Those Soldiers are heroes.

Now contrast that with firefighters who work during fire season then go on unemployment for the rest of the year. Soldiers who never see combat tours. Police officers who don’t patrol the streets. Comparatively, these people are not heroes. Yes, they are good and perform necessary public services. But a uniform does not make a person a hero. An occupation does not make a hero. And calling men and women heroes that haven’t earned it belittles the contributions of those who fought, bled, risked their lives, and died to be called such.

(Longtime reader Will M. found this recent Op-ed post by William J. Astore on the same theme. Check it out.)

ten comments

I don’t know what to say but I agree with this, and with the link. I expect we’re going to get some flak for this one.

I remember as a kid people woud be like “real heroes work for the post office.”

If everyone is a hero, no one is.

Funny, I read that LA Times piece the other day as well.

I hate people who misuse words without understanding their true meaning, as well as people who compare people of historical significance to modern individuals. I am saddened when I hear that someone who believes in cracking down on illegal immigration is called a fascist or a racist. A friend of mine said that Arizona has just become “1933 Nazi Germany.” It enrages me when someone compares President Bush to Adolf HItler, or when someone calls President Obama a Communist (or Allah forbid, when he is called a ‘secret’ Muslim).

Generally, I agree with President Obama 50/50. But I wholeheartedly agree with the president when he said that “words have meaning.”

Words have an importance that is not appreciated in modern society. So many misuse words today without knowing their true meaning; this could be for a variety of reasons – we could chalk it up to our education system, or our laziness, or even on some of the weaknesses inherent in the English language. Eric is right when he says that if everyone is a hero, no one is.

Conversely, duty is a word that is not used enough. A fireman is not heroic for being a fireman; a policeman is not heroic for being a policeman; a soldier is not heroic for being a soldier: it is their duty to do such things. This is not to imply that their actions are not significant, much less great – and without a doubt, from extraordinary circumstances heroes do arise in the course of carrying out their duty: firefighters charging up the stairs of the Twin Towers, aware that they were running towards almost certain death, yet compelled by their sense of duty to fulfill their purpose and save the lives of others, is heroism. But by its very nature, heroism is anomalous.

Those who expertly perform their duty, however, are not. Duty is a word both underused and underappreciated. Robert E. Lee said “duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.” This was indirectly echoed by General Patton when he asked “if a man does his best, what else is there?”

To do one’s duty is an honorable thing – an accomplishment in and of itself. To fulfill the duty of a fireman, a policeman, an EMT, a soldier, a Marine, and the plethora of other individuals who risk their lives every day, is never easy – and quite frequently, bordering on the impossible. If one’s duty is bordering on the impossible and yet they accomplish it anyway, shouldn’t doing one’s be duty enough?

I´m so glad I don´t have to live in the US and get the “Thank You for Your Service” treatment, I don´t think I could hold back a smirk. Judging somebody by their character rather than by their profession should be a given, stereotyping an entire profession as heroic is still just that: stereotyping.

I disagree, especially with the military part.
When you sign up, you don’t know when or if you’ll be sent overseas. You don’t even necessarily know that you’re going to be in combat or not. It takes a very special person to sign their name when they volunteer to join the military. Does that make them a hero? Maybe, maybe not. It depends. But it’s not just an ordinary job, either. You don’t just go in, punch the clock, and sit in a cubical. So to say that it’s their line of duty, yes it is. But quite honestly, I’m thankful for all the ones who do AND don’t put their lives on the line. I’m thankful for the ones behind the scenes, because they’re the ones planning the next move into enemy territory and could possibly be putting soldier’s lives in jeopardy. Their decisions in themselves make them a hero. Because in reality, you don’t have to put your own life at rist to make you a hero—it’s making the good decisions in the face of great consequences.
I’m a student. I don’t know much, but I know enough. Yes, I believe that ‘hero’ for a job occupation is broad, but on the same token, they’re the ones who kids all over the nation look to for help and as their heroes. It takes a very special person to sign up for a job that you see things that will be etched in your memory forever. That, to me, is someone to look up to. Yes, there’s going to be slackers—such as the firemen who earn unemployment and all that—but there’s always going to be bad apples. I think that the term ‘hero’ is applied to occupations like that because it takes a lot to fulfill their line of duty on a day-to-day basis. They go beyond what everyday working Americans do, generally. That makes them heroic.

Your argument is similar to the parent whose child is horrible at T-ball, but still declares that “everyone is a winner.” Most everyone who enlists knows exactly what job they will have – the choose it (with exceptions). Many people in the military sit in cubicles.

It does not take a very special person to sign up for the military – multitudes of people are doing it right now simply because of the financial situation they find themselves in. The majority of the people in the military don’t see front-line combat. Going off of your logic that someone who signs up for the military is a hero, then that means a veterinary food inspection specialist or artillery mechanic is every bit as much of a hero as Sgt. Sal Guiata.

If that’s the case, then we should eliminate the term hero completely, as it would be devoid of all purpose and meaning.

HS, I don’t want to beat you up over your comment, but you have some mis-statements about the military that sort of invalidate your point. It also goes to the larger point about this post: people/Americans have glorified certain professions (ie the military) past the point of reality.

some misstatements: “it’s not just an ordinary job, either. You don’t just go in, punch the clock, and sit in a cubical.” Uh, yeah, I would say most of the military does just that, even most of the deployed military does just that.

“You don’t even necessarily know that you’re going to be in combat or not.” Then why I have heard from multiple adults with teenagers say they hope their son or daughter joins the Navy or the Air Force? The military includes them, and they have virtually no combat deaths.

“because it takes a lot to fulfill their line of duty on a day-to-day basis.” That was the point of this article: it doesn’t. so many firefighters spend more time shopping than engaging in 9/11 style emergencies.

“you don’t have to put your own life at rist to make you a hero—it’s making the good decisions in the face of great consequences.” Are politicians and supreme court justices heroes? What about teachers, nurses, doctors and crane operators? Like Kelly and Eric said, if everyone is a hero, the word has no meaning.

I, for one, am more thankful for the ones who sign up for a job that could possibly put their life in jeopardy. That’s all I’m saying. If you’re not, good for you, but I definitely wouldn’t sign up for something that requires you to run toward the danger, not away from it.
You should be more respectful. There are plenty of men and women who do selfish acts that never get glorified or honored in any way, because it’s their “duty”. They’re heroes in my book. Ask any kid who they look up to in society.

HS, try not to get personal. This is a discussion about linguistics, specifically the meaning of the word “hero” and whether it is over used. Everyone here respects the service of Soldiers and firefighters (at least one of the commenters who disagreed with you is in ROTC)

So to get it back on track, I’ll ask a simple question: can some people be more heroic than others?

@ HS – It’s not a matter of respect; it’s a matter of due respect. I respect soldiers and firefighters. I also respect police officers, clergymen, sanitation workers, Starbuck baristas and various other occupations that do jobs that I do not. I do not consider everyone of them a hero. Not every tour of duty is a heroic act. They are acts of service. Service is good and commendable, but it’s not the same of heroism. The firefighters who ran into the towers knowing they may never return are unquestionably heroes. To call a part time firefighter who only works during the busy fire seasons only to go on unemployment for the rest of the year a “hero” cheapens the word and the acts of actual heroism.

HS Student- We all have multiple opinions of what is a hero, some believe its a previliage to be considered one, others believe that a single mom returing from work to her children is considered heroic in its own way. It all boils down to what our own moral values and ideas are, we judge others and their actions without hesitation, I judge others based on what they do, though I should never do such a thing. I believe a hero is a person willing to put others, no matter who they are, before anything else, whether it be a fire, a gun fight, ect. That may not be the right way to veiw a person as a hero, but whether it is or not is something for the reader to decide i guess.