By Peter M. Leschak
A few years ago, two of my Minnesota DNR (Department of Natural Resources) colleagues and I drove to lower Michigan to help deliver an S-420 course for the Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact. Brian is a Type 2 Incident Commander, Bill a Type 2 Logistics Chief, and I tagged along as a unit instructor and a simulation role-player.
As we pulled into a motel in the Upper Peninsula, we noticed a young woman—clearly troubled—standing beside a car. She was staring at our government SUV with DNR logos on the doors, and as we exited the vehicle she tentatively approached. An anxious rush of words explained she was a military veteran of Afghanistan and was amidst an acute PTSD episode. She was only a couple miles from her house, but too distraught to drive. Could one of us get behind the wheel of her vehicle and take her home?
After an uncertain moment Brian said, “Sure, I can do that.” He and the woman got into her car and headed for the highway. As I steered in behind, Bill jotted down her license plate number. “I don’t like this,” he said.
Traffic was heavy, and after Brian and the woman slipped into a lane, I was forced to wait. Bill strained to keep them in sight. “I don’t like this,” he muttered again. Increasingly nervous myself, I stomped the gas pedal and wedged into a barely adequate break in the flow. I weaved forward and Bill spotted the car taking an exit. We caught up, and a few minutes later Brian parked at a house in a residential neighborhood. The woman emerged, tearful, and thanked us profusely. She said she’d decided to seek our help because we had a government vehicle. She felt we could be trusted more readily than an average citizen.
We’ve all heard the sardonic mockery of “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” usually uttered as an epithet—and, of course, bureaucratic snafus happen. But at root, government is the mechanism we create to help us foster trust. Ideally, government is a neutral arbiter, a “disinterested and dispassionate umpire” in the words of James Madison. The more we can trust the umpire, the more we can trust each other. My colleagues and I were encouraged that for a distressed veteran we represented faithfulness and refuge.
Fairly or not, the fire service is often viewed as one of the more trustworthy arms of government. Last summer I sidled up to a motel bar in Bozeman, Montana. I was wearing a T-shirt representing the rural fire department I used to work for, but it could’ve been any agency. As the bartender served my glass of draft, a voice called out, “That’s on me!” Two stools over a young man raised his beer, and said, “Firefighters drink for free.” I returned the salute.
A decade ago I was standing in the Jacksonville, Florida airport, just released from a fire assignment in Georgia. Clad in Nomex pants and boots, my identity was apparent. A security guard grasped my hand and said, “Thank you for your service.” I graciously acknowledged, but in truth I was a little embarrassed. After all, it was my job and I was being paid.
Where does “job” shade into “service”? The perception of hazard? Maybe, but loggers, miners, fishers, and others are also injured and killed at work, and some at higher rates than we are. In fact, my most dangerous job was as a high-side chaser and choker-setter on a logging crew in the Oregon Cascades in 1973. I dodged more close calls in one summer than during multiple seasons in wildland fire, and the labor was relentlessly brutal. Was that also service?
Our vocation has been romanticized in the cinema and other venues, but overall, in the wildland wing of the fire profession we’ve traditionally been poorly paid, at least in comparison to other skilled labor, and for some citizens that may enhance a cachet of nobility and sacrifice for the common good. Yes, we are from the government and we are here to help. We are expected to be trustworthy. It is presumed that we serve. What is expected and presumed is often what materializes, and I’ve taken profound satisfaction in being a “public servant”. When you examine the etymology of the word “serve”, some of the roots include guard, shepherd, foot soldier, to give aid, to minister to. Beyond fire suppression there’s prescribed fire, all-risk incidents like hurricane and tornado recovery, tree-planting, trail maintenance, and other natural resources projects. During the shifts dominated by underpaid pain and undue stress, I derived honest comfort from the idea I was serving the community by performing essential acts of citizenship, privileged with the opportunity of accomplishing tasks I considered mostly worthwhile most of the time.
That doesn’t mean politicians and taxpayers shouldn’t be more generous with wages and benefits—they should. But such is usually not the prime motivation of wildland firefighters. It’s interesting that our credo—Duty, Respect, Integrity—makes zero mention of the public, but they seem to recognize that code in us. In the sometimes disorienting dynamism of our society, that can be an anchor point.
About the Author
Peter Leschak recently retired as a career wildland firefighter with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry. For the past 25 years he’s been a fire instructor in both the wildland and structure realms for various state and federal agencies. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books, including Ghosts of the Fireground, and has produced more than 300 magazine and newspaper articles. Peter’s last blog post for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center “Refusing Risk – Authority and the Judgement of Emotion” was featured this February: https://wildfirelessons.blog/2022/02/01/refusing-risk-authority-and-the-judgement-of-emotion/.