I have to admit that the fire service nearly cost me my college degree. I had been on a trajectory to become an attorney since about age six with frequent assertions of becoming a Supreme Court justice. I started out at a small private liberal arts college and by the middle of my junior year I had completed all of required courses for my major and … well … I got bored. So I did what any intelligent young person would do halfway through his junior year of college-I quit school, got my EMT certification, and took a job on a 911 EMS unit. I was unbelievably happy to have finally found something that ignited a passion within. Not surprisingly, my parents were less than excited.
I knew I needed to finish my degree, but I also knew I wanted to be a firefighter and a paramedic. Enter the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company. This was perfect. Finish college, become a paramedic, and live-in at the fire station. It was a busy house with tons of calls and plenty of opportunity to learn how to be both a firefighter and get into some fairly interesting EMS stuff. I did not realize it at the time, but I was being lured in by a dangerous mistress-an addiction that lasts to this day.
There is nothing as satisfying in this life as being called to the scene of an emergency where someone is having the worst day of his life and making a direct and positive impact on the outcome of the tragedy. In the most selfish, ego-driven way, helping people is the ultimate life-affirming and value-endorsing activity that a person can do. Rarely, civilians are thrust into the opportunity to help a stranger and perhaps even risk their lives in some way. When that happens, they get to feel, if only for a single moment in their life, what firefighters and paramedics experience on a daily basis. It is what drives at least some members of the fire service to join in the first place. There are also those who join because at some point they were confronted with tragedy and had to bear witness to it but were unprepared and untrained to intervene. Such pain can be a powerful catalyst.
The feeling of satisfaction that comes from helping someone else is a powerful, habit-forming elixir. If it could be bottled and sold, it would be more sought-after than heroin. All too often within the fire service, it is. Tragically, it manifests itself in the same ways that drug addictions do. If work life is bad, go to the firehouse. If home life is bad, go to the firehouse. While an argument can be made that having an affair with the firehouse is better than having a real affair, the results are equally damaging. Look around. How many firefighters and paramedics have been married more than once? Twice? Three times?
All of us have known brothers and sisters within our own fire service family who are suffering the consequences of this self-inflicted destiny. Their full-time job is also their part-time job. They work a full-time job as a firefighter (averaging 42-48 hours per week), then they work a part-time job or routinely pick up two to three shifts of overtime every pay period. Then they teach on top of that and also volunteer in their own communities. They carry several organizational uniforms in their vehicles and more than once have been caught walking into an assignment wearing the wrong blue shirt. One hundred hours per week of direct engagement or more are not uncommon. They are always busy-always.
The fire service is a dangerous mistress. She will pull you in and seduce you. She will wrap her arms around you and tell you that she loves you. She will make you feel the way nothing else can make you feel. There is nothing so direct and concretely sustaining as saving a life. She will cause other people to admire you and heap compliments on you. She will cause you to lose all perspective and put her ahead of everything else in your life, all while surrounding you with Sirens who will whisper in your ear that what you are doing is noble and right.
I am the last person in the world who should be writing this story. But if I have learned anything at all, I have learned that the fire service was here long before I showed up, and it will be here long after I am dead and gone. The work will never stop coming. There will always be more to do. It’s perfectly OK to allow the fire service to be your mistress, but do not let it become your spouse. The concept of balance is critical. Try to recall your life before cellphones and unplug … at least for a little while. Your real family will appreciate it.