Its only ten days? It is only ten days a month? What a cushy job you must have; while everyone else is working you must be relaxing, doing what you want, leading a life of luxury with such a forgiving schedule. Ten whole days? Man I need a cushy gig like that!
It sounds simple enough, the life of a firefighter. I have been one since 1995. When you say it out loud 10 days a month really does come across as a dream job of employment, and to some degree it can be. Yet the reality is, 10 days a month can lead to 50 years (30 working + hopefully 20 retired) of despair.
Our schedule is a nifty one and it has changed a few times over the years. From days Mon-Fri 0800-1700, to the Kelly schedule which consists of one day on (24 hours) and one day off (24 hours) for three shifts then four days off (96 hours), to the current scheduling of 48 hours on and 96 hours off.
When I became a full time firefighter it felt as though the world had screeched to a halt. Previously my work schedule consisted of 6 days a week and anywhere from 12-14 hours a day. I was paid by percentage for materials moved so although I could have worked 5 days a week and 8 hours a day I was in fact a hustler. If you even hinted there was more money to be made I would hustle for it, it was who I was and I enjoyed it every time I opened my paycheck. It is a part of me the fire service completely stifled as I never found a direction within the wide array of specialties we provide that kept the hustler feeling alive.
That was me, and I fully understand it is the same schedule of many hardworking Americans today. But the reality is most means of employment consist of an 8-10 hour a day schedule or a 40+ hour work week. A person is paid for the hours put in on the job and provided overtime for anything over those 40 hours. Hopefully being paid accordingly for the effort.
So why does it bug me when someone gives me shit for supposedly only working 10 days a month?
Here is my beef anytime someone, anyone, gives me that smart-alecky you have it so lucky, you must work several jobs cause you have it so easy type attitude.
Yes I work ten days a month, 10/24 hour shifts which never by the way work out to those 10 days a month. You see we are always working extra, which I don’t mind, in fact one of the requirements for being a firefighter is you possess that type A personality which consists of always being a problem solver while continually taking the lead. On anything and everything. Example: We don’t just put the fire out, we stay behind no matter how long it takes to ensure the building is safe, you are safe, you have what you need, your neighbors are ok, hell we have even taken the family pets back to the firehouse and cared for them until arrangements are made! It is just is who we are! Helpers!! But let’s make sure we have our facts straight before running our mouths and tripping over our tongues shall we? Also let me clarify when I say working extra. Working extra comes from mandatory hold overs, shift trades, extended incidents, sick leave/vacation coverage, mandatory training, or recalls for large incidents. Plus we are constantly understaffed so you can see how quickly 10 days grows to 12, 14, or 16 days at the firehouse! That’s half a month away from your family. Half a month away from watching your children participate in life, half a month that you wife is really a single mom.
As I said ten days a month is our base, this equates to a 56 hour work week on average. Sometimes it is much more, other times it is a few hours less. So right out of the gate we are already above the 40 hour work week. Now let me say right here, no complaints on our part at all, it is what we signed up for and trust me when I say there is a LONG line of qualified individuals waiting to step into any vacated position!
But whenever someone whines to me about how cushy my job is with this luxurious 10 day a month work schedule it bears truth to remind them of the pleasantries a 40 hour work week affords them personally. That’s right pal you get up in the morning after sleeping alongside that super special someone very night and head to work. Then after putting in 8-10 hours, you can go home, or to the bar, or an adult league softball game, or bowling or to your kids school play or, or, or, or this could go on indefinite. Every night if you so choose its dinner with the family, spending time with the loved ones, working on that project in the garage, watching late night and then going to sleep next to that super special someone to do it all over again. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Here is my work week or 2.5 days that I work.
I get up in the morning, kiss my wife/kids goodbye and pray I see them in two days. I know this sounds overly dramatic but it is without a shadow of a doubt a truth you can only understand after dealing with the public and emergency responses over any period of time. There are so many things/close calls that have happened over the years I will never tell my wife because if I did, even though she knows the job and understands, she would never let me walk out the door again. EVER…
I arrive at work, get a cup of coffee and go over the morning shift exchange between ongoing and off going members. This is followed by a shift meeting covering our agenda or expectations for the next two days. PT time is observed and straight into morning chores which consist of station and equipment maintenance. The afternoon has training along with specialty projects and of course reports generated from emergency responses. Reports document the entire response for city, and county wide statistics, insurance and homeowner or patient investigations. This sometimes goes into the early hours of the night depending on call volume or deadlines needing to be met. We have dinner as a group and head off into our own directions. Some take a little personal time as in read, study for the next phase in their career, workout some more or as in my case write, while others head nose deep back into work projects. We head off to bed, hopefully sleep (I know right? How awesome I get to freaking sleep on the job!), wake up the next morning and do it all over again. Then we get to go home where the first day is usually kept for clearing our heads while catching up on lost sleep. The second thru fourth day is trying our hardest to spend time with the family and then back to work we go.
It all sounds easy right? Pretty darn cushy. Except for one thing. We handle emergency calls through it all. When the bell goes off we respond and we need to do so in under 2 minutes, no matter the time, day or night. That bell, that loud clanging bell knows no time limit or has a lick of sympathy because it is merely sounding an alarm to another’s tragedy. Tragedies also hold no time limit. They happen day or night, rain or shine, wind or calm. When it sounds we know no matter what kind of day we are having and regardless of how tired or worn we may be it is our duty to respond to someone else’s worst day of their lives! Not only respond but always, and I mean always be on our A game! Plus we get the distinct and amazing pleasure of retaining every single horrible thing we have ever seen or done while performing that job! We carry it around like a full suitcase of horror and that suitcase is always banging, shaking, live with action, gruesome action, reminding us constantly that we were there! Whats inside wants to come out so badly and there are days it does and those days are always at the wrong time, the wrong moment leaving you drained. Can you feel a bit of pressure there?
So let me break this down, yeah, break it on down now!
What that means is during my supposedly cushy ten days a month, I work, train, eat, run calls, fight the eternal, emotional nightmares, and oh if I’m lucky and it’s a good shift, I may get 5 full hours of sleep.
Yeah good times.
So let’s talk a little more about the mental aspect now that we have covered the basics of ten days a month.
When I started the chief told our graduating class: You are going to see some things out there, some really horrible things.
Yep that was it.
We all laughed because we were larger than life, we had in fact become firefighters which means we are invincible, indestructible and we fully bought into the bullshit associated with wearing a department shirt. Now I don’t mean that disrespectfully. That day I pulled my shirt over my head for the first time was one of the proudest moments of my life. I fully loved the career field I came from, but I always knew deep inside there was more, that I was supposed to do more, not for me, but for others. It gnawed at me day and night from the insides so when firefighting found me I knew it was what I needed to do.
It was difficult too. I had an established career, I owned a home and had a wife and child. To leave that all behind on the slimmest of chances that one day I may get hired was a tough pill for my family to swallow. All because I knew inside there was more. It’s why I get a little miffed when I see our shirts on non-fire personnel. You had to earn it.
We laughed, thought there was nothing we couldn’t handle and for a while it was surreal. Looking at your first dead person is overwhelming to say the least. Now throw in a side of body deformation, evulsion, amputation, violent drug overdose, murder, self-inflicted suicide by any means. Heck let’s play the old adage of children are the hardest. To me children are the hardest, but it’s not because they are dead. Nope death is an end, it sucks for someone so young, they never had a chance at life, but for me children suck and stay with you forever when they are the living.
Mom has overdose for the third or fourth time and said child walk in to witness us performing CPR to no avail. 5 year old in the back seat screaming for mom who is clearly a blood smear across the entire front seat, never coming back, never able to hold her child again. Son comes home from school to find dad slumped over the corner of the bed with half his head gone from self-inflicted shotgun blast. We arrive to an insane scene filled with screaming and hysterics. Yeah the living children always get me. It’s the father in me, I want so badly to take them home, help them anyway I can and it is always a very quiet engine ride back to the station.
But wait there is more…
There is no place in this damn town I can go without seeing a ghosts. Every place, even some of my absolute favorites have ghost standing around, looking at me, and asking me why?
Why couldn’t we do anything or how did this happen? They tower like billboards flashing a message that blinds me, leaves seeing only white as repeatedly I flash back to that moment, that second in time where we either tried like hell or made base contact and called it as we saw it. D.O.A.
The man overcome with fumes in a grain silo that no one could get too. Another stepped in front of a train and faced it with hardened resolve, we picked up pieces for what felt like hours. A car full of teenagers, flipping over in the night, their burned bodies found when the fog lifted in the morning. The smell of burned flesh, young, old, that smell, it doesn’t discriminate and it never goes away. We pulled those kids out for the coroner, one piece at a time, one badly burned smelling piece at a time. A teenager hung in the garage, with obvious signs he had changed his mind to no avail, he was a victim of love gone wrong. Another teenager who shot themselves because that person was tired of being bullied. A former law enforcement officer kills himself in front of us as we turn the corner because he couldn’t stand the pain any longer. The CPR attempts, oh lord the CPR attempts! So many, more than I can count, and to be honest there have been so many that I can’t even put a win to loss ratio on them anymore and yes we do take it quite personally when we lose!
These are merely a few, a tidbit, the smallest of snippets of the calls I have been associated with over the years. Many so very graphic and disturbing. We as firefighters get the distinct pleasure of bearing witness to the most horrendous acts one person can inflict upon another or themselves.
I think back to what the chief told us, what I stated above: You are going to see some things out there, some really horrible things.
He was right and in his defense it was a different time. We were expected to be tough, to hold it inside, you were laughed at if a call bugged or bothered you in anyway. We used and still do use dark humor to quell the inner beast. Firefighters don’t cry, they are supposed to be strong, and brave. We are the hero’s so we must act like it. We never claim to be heroes and I personally cannot stand anyone within the service who acts as though they are, for we are people. People who do a job for which we are well trained. We have a need an overwhelming need to help and combined with that education that is why we do what we do. But hero? No
The ghost are real. They are fucking real and they never go away. We keep them from our families and our children but they pay the price.
Some days I just want to be left alone, I don’t want to talk and I’m a prick no matter how hard I try to keep it together. I am lucky, as I stated earlier my wife understands, but that is because she was once a firefighter so she knows the schedule, knows the struggles we go through and understands when I need to be left to my own devices. But that doesn’t make it right.
My children can’t do anything without me seeing the dangers! I am constantly all over them for whatever they do like an insane safety cop trying my hardest to keep them out of harm’s way. When either of my boys pulls out of the driveway I am constantly on guard, worrying the call will come that one of them has been killed in an accident. At the station when I finally get to lay my head down for a bit I pray they are all safe at home, yet images of horrific accidents or fire rolls through my head and are instantly transposed upon my family. I close my eyes tightly and fight the mental demon knowing (irrationally) that one day the tones will roll and my address with be on the tip of the dispatchers tongue.
Speaking of addresses, there is no count to how many times the dispatched address is a person or family within my personal circle. Working in the town for which you reside and your children participate brings with it another responsibility, another personal struggle when things go south. When things go well, the pats on the back are extra special, but when they go south they are twice as painful. If you perish on my shift either before we arrive or in front of me, it is a tough to pill to swallow when I don’t know you. Your ghost lingers and wonders why. But if you are a member of my extended family, close friends, or even well-known acquaintances then it’s even harder. Looking into the eyes of your surviving family members is so hard, there are no words to say, your ghost is much harder to deal with and every time we (surviving family) cross paths the pain is all to real. You wear it like a badge of failure.
The fire service has determined PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a real thing. Thank goodness, because we are losing way too many members to the mental struggles that resides within us all. I have only touched on a small portion of what rolls around inside my head. There is so much more and one day I will talk about it all. One day I hope to purge all the ghosts, at the very least erase the faces. I know this inside this won’t come until I retire as every shift has a new face attached. They say time heals all wounds, but these wounds never heal. They are covered in scabs, scabs that we keep picking at because we just can’t or in some cases won’t let them heal.
The best we can do is recognize the problem, show it to the world and find help for those who need it desperately. They are out there, and they need compassion and understanding for the weight carried upon their backs.
I have 6 years left to go.
6 years of only 10 days a month.
Pretty cushy gig huh?
A Veteran Firefighter in California