Let’s get something out of the way first. I’m not going to talk about firefighters. Firefighters define heroism in the popular imagination. Especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the fireman is a condensed symbol of personal sacrifice, courage, expertise, tenacity, and total devotion to a cause. And because there were no front line soldiers to celebrate after that disaster, anyone wrapping himself in the bloody flag made sure to pop on the FDNY hat as well.
Professional firefighters are neither the most endangered nor the most selfless of people in America. They are well-equipped, well-trained, and well-paid. “Firefighter” is not in the top ten most dangerous jobs. It’s way worse to be a farmer, a cab driver, or a fisherman. Firefighters do dangerous things every day for excellent pay in the best possible circumstances.
So what distinguishes firefighters from other people who are paid well to take risks? The difference lies in the character of their employer, the fire department.
No city or town can exist without a fire department. As industrial cities grew, city-consuming fires became a threat to public order and commerce. If you can barely see your neighbor’s stove smoke, your house fire is your problem. If you’re in a cluttered row of shops in London, a fire three doors down grabs your interest right away. Private fire departments on a subscription basis didn’t quite do the trick, for obvious reasons. If half the town burned but your store didn’t, there wasn’t much to celebrate.
So, inevitably, firefighting services were expanded to include more and more places. If the whole city’s resources could be thrown at one nasty fire, it wouldn’t consume everything else. Stopping the destruction was far better than insuring against it. Like public health, the fire department was accepted as necessary, compulsory, and authoritative. Nobody could opt out of paying for the fire department, or object to their regulations, because it would endanger everyone else.
Fire departments themselves looked beyond municipal boundaries. When big disasters happen, sometimes they overwhelm one city’s resources. Other nearby departments have agreed to mutual aid, so that any fire department will help any other fire department in these circumstances. Today these arrangements are large and sophisticated enough that departments will send their resources a thousand miles away if a serious incident requires it.
The fire departments also took on the job of medical rescue. It made sense that the first to respond to fires and other disasters knew how to care for the injured, and this progressed to the point that fire departments had medics as well as people who just put out fires. Today every town has medics in their fire department, who work with private ambulances and hospitals. If someone is ill or injured, those medics will respond right away and help, and then figure out what can be done further.
I’m sorry to bore you with all of that detail, but there’s a point to this. The universal presence of these fire departments represents a commitment by the people in each town. The commitment is this:
If there is any fire, natural disaster, or other physical threat to life and property in this city, we are willing to pay a large sum of money to make sure that the problem is fixed as quickly as possible, without regard for who owns the property involved or why it happened. If any of our neighboring cities is overwhelmed by such an incident, we are willing to send as much of our own as we can to help. We will never go back on this, because the city and its neighbors are interdependent and we’ll all go up in flames if we don’t keep our promises.
Furthermore, if anyone is injured or becomes ill in our city, whether it’s a resident or not, we are willing to pay a large sum of money to see that this person receives the best in immediate treatment and transportation to a hospital. We’ll never go back on this, because we are committed to the health and safety of our own residents, and without the good hospitality of offering this to everyone, we can’t offer it to anyone. We trust that other cities will treat our residents likewise.
This is quite a statement. This means that if anything catches fire or falls over or floods anywhere in town, it’s our problem, we got it. And if anyone falls on the sidewalk or overdoses or gets food poisoning or tries to commit suicide here, that’s our problem too, we’ll take care of it. Always. And we know you’ll do it for us.
Here’s a good example, from the blog of the Los Angeles Fire Department:
On Tuesday, August 15, 2006 at 1:53 PM, eleven Companies of Los Angeles Firefighters, three LAFD Rescue Ambulances, two LAFD Helicopters, one LAFD Swift Water Rescue Team, two LAFD Dive Teams, one LAFD Rehab Unit, one LAFD Hazardous Materials Squad, one EMS Battalion Captain, one Battalion Chief Officer Command Team, one Division Chief Officer Command Team and Los Angeles Police Department resources, including the LAPD Underwater Dive Unit, under the Unified Command of Los Angeles Police and Fire Department Command Officers, responded to a Water Rescue and Recovery Effort near 1555 North San Fernando Road in the Los Angeles community of Glassell Park.
In this case, some teenagers were messing around fishing in a flood control channel and one of them fell in. The city sent what must be tens of millions of dollars in equipment and more than a hundred people, all moving as fast as possible including by air and water, to save one person who screwed up. No one asked if he was from Los Angeles, or even if he was from the United States. No one asked if he’d paid up his fire and rescue subscription. The city, in the form of a huge commitment of resources, said “No problem. We got that.”
There’s a big fight in America right now about health care. It’s actually a fight about money, of course. Currently the economics of health are hilariously broken, and there’s a war of ideas on what to do about it. Some want very much for the public to provide care for those otherwise without, and other people resist the idea of paying with their own tax money for people they disapprove of, or dislike, or fear.
For those of you who don’t want to pay tax to support the medical bills of others: I invite you to consider the fire department. It’s terribly expensive. There’s a lot of waste. There’s corruption. And worst of all, they take our tax dollars and spend it on any idiot or loser who falls asleep smoking or does a y’all-watch-this stunt or texts while driving. They even spend our money saving whorehouses, dive bars, criminals, illegal immigrants, and people who’ve taken a vow to kill us all. .
And you wouldn’t have it any other way, because if the fire department isn’t for all of us, it just won’t work. There’s no time to check green cards or get out the big book of moral ideas and decide whether this conflagration or severed artery meets our local standard. There is only time to help, or not.
So whether this influences your view on the current health care debate or not, I hope you will take the time to ask yourself: which town do you want to live in? The one who says “Yeah, we got that, no problem”? Or one that can’t figure out whether you’re worth their trouble in time to save you?