What's the lifestyle difference between police officers and firefighters?
Photo credit: Frank Borelli
Just this morning I was exchanging emails with my boss about various business topics. Since our owning company (Cygnus Business Media) owns properties that serve all aspects of the public safety industry (law enforcement, firefighters and emergency medical personnel), part of the discussion was about the differences that exist in the PEOPLE who fulfill those different positions. Having served in several different uniforms (military, police and firefighter) I found myself pondering the different motivations and aspects. I’d appreciate your feedback on my thoughts if you disagree or if you have a different insight.
First, please understand, that I do truly believe the calling to public safety service, or even uniformed service in general, is in the blood. I am adopted child, separated from my mother at birth. I never met any of my siblings until about ten years ago. I found out, at that time, that I have six brothers and two sisters for a total of seven boys and two girls that my mom had. Of the seven boys, five of us have served in uniform. All five have worn a military uniform, and two of us have been police officers for a full career after having served in the military. How does one explain having so much in common when we didn’t have a common up-bringing?
Further evidence: Not long ago I made a presentation to a group of tactical officers. There were roughly 200 officers in the room. A quick question & answer session accompanied by a show of hands revealed that about three-fourths of them were either second generation public safety personnel OR they had blood relatives also serving in a public safety uniform. About two-thirds of them were prior military before joining a law enforcement agency and about one fourth of them were both law enforcement officers AND volunteer firefighters.
Second, we have to recognize that there ARE distinct differences between “cops” and “firefighters.” While many of us do serve, or have served, in both uniforms, by and large we are one or the other. Being “one or the other” is easy to observe when you consider some of our outlook or behavioral differences. Bear in mind as I list some of them, these are my observations based on my local work experience and what I’ve seen/heard as I’ve traveled around the country.
“The Brotherhood”: Within law enforcement this is generally strong. Whether you’re a town, city, county, borough, state or federal cop, a brother cop is a brother cop is a brother cop – unless it’s a SISTER cop – but we’re all still family. There are the exceptions and you do run into the “I’m better than you because I have a bigger jurisdiction,” issues, but in general, if “a badge” needs help, every “badge” will come to the rescue. We’ll make time to bicker afterward about something petty that doesn’t matter and then we’ll all tip a cold one as we tell war stories and reminisce. Often this is called “Choir practice,” and if we’re not careful we get ourselves in trouble during or after.
In fire departments, while firefighters will all work together to save lives and douse fires, when they’re not actively doing either one, they can fight like only brothers can. I’ve seen a whole fire house empty out into a parking lot carrying sledge hammers and axes to fight a whole ‘nother fire house that showed up on miscellaneous pieces of fire apparatus. And it can be one ugly fight. Of course, they usually also have all the necessary skills to patch one another up when they’ve gotten it all out of their system. The difference here is that firefighter PRIDE is usually what’s driving the fight. Which is the better house? Who has the better response time? Who runs the most calls? With a law enforcement agency such things aren’t usually debated except in good fun and certainly on fights over who runs the most calls. Usually we’re too busy trying to avoid assignment at the busiest district unless we’re young, highly motivated and eager to fatten up our personnel file with good stuff so we can pursue a transfer to a special unit.
“The Lifestyle”: There is no doubt about it – being a law enforcement professional is a 24/7/365 lifestyle that impacts not only the cop but the cop’s family. It affects everything from absences during holiday celebrations to holding hands with your significant other when walking in public (that gun hand has to stay empty). It affects how you drive, what you wear/carry, and where you sit in a restaurant. It affects how much you relax in a movie theater, especially since the Aurora, CO theater mass shooting, and when you prefer to shop during the Christmas season. What I’m trying to say is that “the job” affects how a cop lives every minute of every day EXCEPT (possibly) when (s)he’s home, relaxing, with all communication devices turned off.
Firemen are a different breed. In their “normal” life (the volunteers anyway) they do any job you can think of from plumbing to HVAC to stock broker. MOST of the ones I know are employed in “blue collar” jobs. Those jobs are what they do to pay their bills, and it’s time away from the firehouse that they tolerate out of necessity. They spend the necessary time with the families too, but they LIVE to be at the firehouse, eagerly awaiting the call to a working fire. I can’t begin to describe the disappointment I’ve heard when a fire truck arrives on the scene and there’s “smoke showing,” only to find out that it’s “food left on the stove. No fire.”
Often, if you ask these brave folks (and I’m not kidding about that; more in a moment) what they do, they’ll identify themselves as a firefighter even though that’s not where they get their paycheck. It’s how they visualize themselves. It’s the driving motivator in their day to day life. It’s what’s on their mind 24/7 as much as possible. The HUGE difference is that it’s what they CHOOSE to do with their free time while most cops WISH they could escape their profession during their time off, but can’t completely.
Now, about my comment that firefighters are brave folks: I am not kidding in any way. Yes, law enforcement professionals are equally courageous and we’ll bicker with our firefighter brethren about who is the bravest. We joke about being each-others heroes and we make fun of how we each face life threatening situations.
“If fighting fires was easy, cops could do it.”
“If fighting crime was easy, firefighters could do it.”
We joke, but here’s reality: I am a cop and was a volunteer firefighter for about six years back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. One day I went on a fire call – a good working fire in an apartment building – and when I got to the doorway a little voice in the back of my head said, “One day the fire’s going to win.” It was my last fire call. I did what I had to do and did it well that day. Afterward, back at the station, I went to the fire captain and told him I’d only run EMS calls from then on. I knew that my hesitation… my doubt… might get me or a fellow firefighter hurt.
Why do I have that outlook about firefighting but not police work? Fire is a force of nature. Police officers enforce the law on and help PEOPLE. Think about it: fire’s not going away forever. We use it too much. Too many people are careless. It behaves in unpredictable ways sometimes. Fighting a fire is an unknown quantity and that’s exactly what appeals most to some firefighters – the unknown level of danger they face as they perform. Fighting people is more of a known quantity. Sure, they might be high on some drug that makes the fight ugly, but ultimately people can be disabled or killed; you can never be totally sure about that with a fire.
In the end, when you think about it, law enforcement officers – the large majority of them – do the job because it’s their job and they accept that it will impact how they live their life until they retire (and honestly? Even after that). Firefighters live for the rush and pride of saving something or someone; the potential to be a hero. It’s a good thing we have each other though, because none of us could do it all by ourselves.