Help, I'm drowning! Somebody call 911!
Oh, wait. The guys you'd reach at 911 are the ones who are sending the e-mail in which I am sinking. Never mind.
It all started with a phone call from a reporter who was doing a story on Governor Cellucci's proposal to extend a police benefit to firefighters. The police law provides raises for police officers who receive college degrees; the community pays half the increase, with the state picking up the rest.
A recent Boston Globe story noted that the courses are not monitored by the state for quality or relevance, so I responded that the police program should be audited before it's extended to another group. At some point in the conversation I also said, "Firefighters do their job because they have a certain amount of brawn and courage, things they probably don't need an education for."
If I had spoken more carefully, the phrase would have read, "Firefighters already do a great job in an arena that requires not only brawn and courage but basic intelligence; what's broken that would be fixed by a college degree?"
Things I have learned since the uncareful quote was sent to a firefighters e-mail list with a request to respond directly to me:
1. Firefighters can be very thin-skinned. My new pen pals accused me of calling them "uneducated muscleheads" and "brave blockheads;" one insisted I was equating them with TV wrestlers.
Another said I made them sound like Lennie in Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" -- "a large, gentle, mentally retarded migrant worker". Actually, when someone says "firefighter," I think of Paul Newman. Don't these guys know they are among the most admired people in our society?
2. Some firefighters do have B.S. or associate degrees in fire science that they find invaluable in dealing with the complexities of modern firefighting -- "hazardous materials, including toxic waste spills; emergency medicine, building construction, management of fire services and fire behavior."
Yet career firefighting has always been one of the good jobs available to men who couldn't afford or didn't want to go to college. Should this change?
3. According to a firefighter's recent letter in the Wall Street Journal, "73 percent of the more than one million firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers."
If that's true, most firefighters don't get regular paychecks at all, never mind increases due to college degrees. Still it is assumed they do a good job. Some men apparently fight fires for the same reason men race cars, explore everything from deep sea to deep space, and join the Marines.
4. Here is the shocker. I thought that all firefighters get a basic education at firefighting school before they go on the job. However, in Massachusetts that education is sometimes called OJT -- on-the-job training.
There is no state law that requires firefighters to attend the fire academy, which is a training building and tower in Stowe. Some do, some don't, and some are on a waiting list for months -- yet they still go out and fight fires.
There's a conundrum here. If the career and volunteer firefighters who contacted me are right, college courses are essential for both their safety and that of the public. Yet here in Massachusetts, recruits sometimes have no formal firefighting education but OJT; still we confidently trust them with our lives.
I intend to seriously pursue this issue for a future column, but right now you may ask: After a week of corresponding with highly intelligent, eventually good-natured firefighters around the world, do I regret the statement that started it all?
I wouldn't have missed this for the world. A firefighter from New Zealand made a valiant effort to explain things to me: "What the speaker intends to convey may be very different from what the listener understands. Traditionally men have been similarly misunderstood when they have felt their reference to a woman's nice (deleted) has been taken badly. Combine this with 'not particularly bright, but she
does have a great (deleted)' and you come close to how the fire-fighters felt about your quoted comments."
But in the end, they were merciful. I sent the really hostile ones over for my partner, Chip Ford, to deal with, and eventually one of them thought he had it all figured out. As he explained to the other firefighters on the e-mail list:
"1. They're civilians. If you think about all the stupid things civilians do, this really isn't much of a reach. The other day on a rescue training I had a lady ask me, 'If this were a real emergency, you guys would be doing this a lot quicker, right?' I told her that if this were a real emergency, we wouldn't have thrown the victim in the hole.
"2. These people are as passionate about their politics as we are about fighting fire. Dumb as a box of rocks or not, they ARE bold enough to stand up for what they believe in."
I consider that a major compliment, coming from a firefighter. Guess I'm not very thin-skinned myself.
Next: Training our firefighters