Combatting Firefighter Fatalities

I have been the Information Coordinator for Firefighters for several years. Firefighters are good people doing a terrifying, hard, and rewarding job.

I recently became ill and had to give up active firefighting. Sessions I've had since then have allowed me to see the constant terror I was living on top of, and numbing myself to, in order to do the job.

I'd like all RC firefighters to do some discharging, thinking, and writing about a growing trend around the world, particularly in the United States, of more firefighter fatalities and injuries for the smaller number of fires we are fighting. I think this terrible trend is a direct result of working-class men's oppression.

Firefighters are strong and caring men and women. In bad situations we know how to be there for each other. Despite all the teasing and restimulations we run at(*) each other at the station, when the alarm goes off, we go fight a fire as a team. None of us would ever leave another to face the fire alone.

Fires are scary. Even with all of our training and protective gear, when we are on the scene -- with a fire blowing and going, people hollering, essential work to be done in a short time (usually without enough people to do it), lots of noise, everyone watching us (including TV cameras), ten different requests for information and resources hitting us at once, and, of course, the possibility that if we make the wrong decisions people will die -- it is difficult to think clearly.

Men's internalized oppression dictates that when men can't think, they go forward. That's how the military gets its "cannon fodder." The fear of looking like a coward or letting down one's buddies is bigger than the fear of getting hurt or dying. Although as a woman I had not been conditioned in the same way, sexism and my internalized women's oppression made it tough for me to be an effective ally against this men's internalized oppression. For many years I believed there was something wrong with my thinking and that if I could only learn to be like the men, I wouldn't be so scared.

Men's oppression ensures that the discharge that would allow us to retain our flexible thinking is viewed as "wimpy" and completely discouraged. "Mental health" oppression tells us that if we discharge we are "losing it" and need professional help or to numb out with booze,(**) drugs, gambling, or sex. (Firefighters have high rates of divorce and alcoholism.)

Two firefighters were badly burned last month at a "typical" apartment fire in my city. The captain mistakenly stayed in an apartment when it was about to "flashover" (become hot enough for all the combustibles to burst into flame at once). He ignored the warning signs, probably because he didn't want to look like a coward (and because his internalized oppression told him that his life wasn't that important). Two firefighters died recently in Houston, Texas. The chain of bad decisions leading to their deaths was defended: "Houston always fights fires this way." Six firefighters were killed in Massachusetts, four in Illinois, dozens in New York City. The numbers go up and up. Every year over a hundred firefighters are killed in the line of duty.(***)

I believe these deaths are the direct result of working-class men's oppression. The men who died based their fatal decisions on the misinformation that their lives were not valuable and that it was okay to risk their lives for little or no possible gain. It can make sense to risk one's life, or even die, in an attempt to save another's life, when saving it is a possibility. However, this isn't the type of situation that usually kills us. It is the unthinking "get in there and put the wet stuff on the red stuff."

Lots of firefighters have been dying lately. I don't want us to become numb to it, ignore it, or think "it couldn't happen in my city." I want us to think about how to get the means of discharge and re-evaluation to the men and women who do this job. I want us to figure out how to set things up so that firefighters can think more clearly, make better decisions, and stay safer. It is possible to fight fires in a way that makes sense. Let's see if we can use the tools of RC to make it happen!

Jeanne Bulla
Seattle, Washington 98126

(*) Run at means direct at.
(**) Booze means alcoholic beverages.
(***) In the line of duty means while doing their jobs.


Last modified: 2017-05-06 23:35:41-07