Dividing the Angels (October 6, 2014)

by Glen

For this coming week I’ll  be republishing the five most viewed blog posts and Huffington Post pieces of this past year.

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POLITICS CAN BE ALL ABOUT playing with the truth, arcing it so that it suits a certain purpose. Spin-doctors love it. Parties live on it. The public gets confused and occasionally infuriated by it. And occasionally people are emotionally hurt from its effects.

In London’s municipal campaign, one mayoralty candidate, endeavouring to show that he was a different, out-of-the-box thinker, stated last week that pay parity between firefighters and police officers must be broken. His reasoning was simple enough, though it lacked the understanding of the complexities of the forces. Police personnel can take a bullet in the front or the back at any time, he said, and because of that reality they deserve more compensation than firefighters. He acknowledged that fire personnel often take on difficult tasks and that their job isn’t easy. But, still, when you add the dimension of mortality, he pictured the police as in a different classification.

I was a professional firefighter for almost three decades and nothing he said corresponded with that work experience. I wish he hadn’t called them “firemen” because we have had some pretty awesome women firefighters on the force for years, but I just took it as a rookie mistake.

But his statement flew in the face of statistics. In London, there have been four recorded police officer deaths in the line of duty – one each in 1891, 1892, 1898, and the last one in 1925. The RCMP has suffered more recent and tragic losses, but the mayoralty candidate was talking about the London police force. Provincially, since 1804, there have been 254 police deaths, whereas there have been 604 firefighter fatalities in Ontario. All of them were tragic and each occupation carries its own set of risks.

In the city of London, there have been 22 line-of duty-firefighter deaths since 1855, the last one in 2009. Some of these deaths occurred at a later time but resulted directly from toxic exposure or injuries received in fighting fires.

This should never have been a comparison battle. In my years of service, I was blown out of upper story windows on two occasions, was trapped without oxygen for some terrifying moments, and thought I was about to leave this world on a number of occasions. In each of those moments no bullet was necessary; the violent nature of fire itself was as equally deadly. On many of those occasions it was London police officers who helped to carry me to the ambulance, who visited me in hospital later, and secured the fire area so that others weren’t hurt. We were a team, despite being from different forces, and I never viewed it any other way. There were department rivalries, to be sure, but we all knew we faced a common task – the protection of citizens and their property

I recall police officers occasionally bursting out of a flaming building for the lack of breathing apparatus as firefighters fought their way in. And there were those times when someone brandishing a firearm suddenly appeared and we as firefighters were ordered out as the police took charge of the situation.

I was only on the job one year when firefighter Richard Roman fought for his last breaths as his fire truck rolled over on him following a collision with an ambulance. I wept and wept. That night, police cruisers drifted by the fire station with doughnuts and coffee as the shock of it all worked its way through all of us. I was at Rick’s funeral and the sight of so many officers in police uniforms reminded all of those in the fire service that we each face death in our way, but that our job was to work together as forces to protect the public from tragedy.

There are so many stories like this, but I need not go on. The protection of the public becomes the ultimate calling for any police officer or firefighter who signs up. They might come up against a bullet or a backdraft, but at no point do they brag that one’s danger is greater than another’s, and politicians shouldn’t be foolish enough to do it either.

The need to look tough in politics is a constant temptation and perhaps some cost efficiencies could be found. Fair enough. But the need, as politics frequently does, to pit firefighters against police, soldiers versus peacekeepers, public servants against the taxpayers, or one brand of citizens against another, only erodes public confidence further. It’s tough to unite a community following an election if you’ve spent your time dividing it on the way in. At the end of such poorly researched statements are real people whose lives can be deeply and painfully affected by words designed for political effect or advantage. Anyone aspiring to a better kind of politics should be above it.

I leave you with a mental and emotional image from our recent past, of two towers crumbling in New York as police, paramedics, and firefighters struggled and lost their lives trying to overcome mayhem. Courage is merely ordinary people doing extraordinary acts. Heaven is full of such angels and to make a distinction between their levels of bravery won’t diminish that bravery, but it will cheapen any community.