Putting anger aside: Firefighters help everyone, even those setting fires

Duty speaks louder than words, and we must do what we were sworn to do –protect the lives of everyone


All I could do was pace back and forth in front of the television. I was on duty. The time was approaching midnight. I had multiple radios on, listening to the different incidents already in progress.

And then on live television I watched a young man pour an accelerant from a 20 oz. plastic water bottle inside the busted windows of a local business.

I ran up to the screen and pointed, “He’s about to light the building up!” as if anyone who could stop him would hear me. Suddenly the crowd dispersed and left behind were a pile of boxes engulfed in flames.

Firefighters and paramedics treat murderers, thieves, drug dealers and abusers all the time. We wrap their wounds. We treat their chest pain. We advocate when we believe they should be taken to the hospital versus going straight to jail.
Firefighters and paramedics treat murderers, thieves, drug dealers and abusers all the time. We wrap their wounds. We treat their chest pain. We advocate when we believe they should be taken to the hospital versus going straight to jail. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

I knew the building well. It’s the classic taxpayer-type construction, four stories high and runs the length of an entire city block.

The news camera panned away from the flames to focus on the mob of people scattered in the streets. I started pacing again, trying to prepare myself for how we would handle it when we got called in on the second alarm.

Then I started thinking about that young man. Inside my head, I kept watching him pour that bottle, carefully spreading it out to cover all he could inside that small business. I thought about that crowd gathered around him, and the way they ran from the flames, almost elated at the damage they were about to cause.

In a matter of about 30 seconds, all those video clips of rioters turning on firefighters and EMS set a fire in me, and my anger spun out of control. They didn’t care whether we lived or died.

I cursed under my breath and gripped the radio, awaiting the dispatch. But it never happened. We’re not exactly sure how, but someone – maybe a police officer or well-meaning citizen – had put it out.

Just as suddenly as it had arrived, that mixture of anger and fear I had been feeling subsided. I was reminded that out amongst all that chaos were a lot of good people, and they were going to need our help. Not our opinions or feelings. They needed us to just do what we do.

But how would I know that whomever I helped that night was not that young man who was trying to burn my city down? How could I make sure that I didn’t help him?

That answer was simple. I couldn’t. And even if I did, it wouldn’t matter. We would have helped him anyway. Even if he had burned his hands trying to set that fire, we would have treated his burns just the same as if he had gotten the injury while cooking.

Firefighters and paramedics treat murderers, thieves, drug dealers and abusers all the time. We wrap their wounds. We treat their chest pain. We advocate when we believe they should be taken to the hospital versus going straight to jail.

There are times when we don’t like it. But we still do it because it’s the right thing to do. And when it’s hard to do the right thing, we still do it because we know that when we’re in uniform, deviating is not a decision we make alone. We are representing everyone who wears a badge – fire, EMS and police.

The public trust we collectively carry is so delicate and easily lost. And the responsibility of any harm caused to our brothers and sisters should lie with whomever it may be who causes us to lose it.

I’m ashamed to say that I felt more outrage watching the young man pouring the accelerant than I did the first time I saw the killing of George Floyd.

Was I disgusted? Yes. Was I angry? Yes. But did that same flood of anger rush through my body when I saw that officer’s knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck as it did when I saw the young man trying to start the fire? No.

Today, as I sit here exhausted after another sleepless night on duty, I realize that I got it wrong. It should have been the other way around.

I do not condone the actions of either, because both were wrong.

But the fire that young man tried to spread in Birmingham isn’t a new one. It’s an ember from an old flame that continues to rekindle, this time in Minnesota, but once again, by one of our own. It’s a flame that has burned for far too long. It only knows hatred and destruction.

All that really matters now is what we do.

As a society, we’ve got a long, hard road to walk. And though we know what is right, the answers may not always seem to be crystal clear.

But as first responders, the answer is simple; it’s just not always easy.

We need to do what we’ve all been sworn to do and never waver.

We need to protect the public’s trust, especially from any of our own who attempt to violate it.

We need to protect the lives of everyone.

We need to do our jobs.

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