I’ve been regularly covering what’s called the “police beat” or “cop beat” for most of my career.
That means my job has mainly been about witnessing the uglier things in life, things that no sane person wants to be exposed to, so that I can report back to you. In theory, this allows you to make judgments as citizens and voters about how we, as a society, should deal with the things we’d rather ignore.
I’ve covered shootings, stabbings, fires, chemical leaks, child abuse, rapes, tornadoes, exploding oil wells, and horrific traffic accidents. I long ago lost count of how many men, women and children I’ve seen dead, mangled or driven into the private hells of their minds by trauma, loss and pain.
But the hardest part of this job isn’t the PTSD-inducing sights, sounds and smells. Rather, the worst part is what it does morally to those who are exposed to those things. And I don’t just mean journalists, by the way— I also mean cops, firefighters, EMTs, the folks on the Rescue Squad and everybody else who has the title “first responder” attached to their names. The worst thing, at least in my humble opinion, is that over time it can become progressively harder to tell the difference between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” In my quieter moments, in fact, I wonder if that sort of moral discernment eventually becomes impossible.
This might be a positive thing. We all believe we know what words like “Good” and “Bad” mean, and we’re usually not too shy about slapping those labels onto other people. But I’ve seen too many heroes turn out to be villains in disguise, not to mention too many examples of the wicked outdoing the saints in good works. It can be sobering and sad, but it teaches humility and perhaps even wisdom.
But there’s one group of warriors for the Good who rarely, if ever, seem to be trapped in the moral ambiguity that’s the bane of other life-and-death professions, and it’s not because the members of this elite group are somehow more noble or wise than other men and women.
After all, each mythical band of brothers (and sisters) is defined by their enemy, and their enemy is one that’s been known to all humans, in all places, in all times. And that enemy is fire.
I’m talking about firefighters. Those men and women who show up whenever buildings go up like torches, when cars smash into each other, and — yes, truly, I’ve actually seen it happen — cats need to be rescued from trees. I’ve seen them risk life and limb to save total strangers, and I’ve seen what happens when their luck runs out and they end up paying the price for gambling with fate.
It’s always struck me as a little strange, not to mention unfair, that firefighters don’t seem to be as romanticized as their uniformed peers, police officers. While most everyone will reflexively agree that firefighters deserve the appellation of “Hero,” I can tell you that cops get far more attention. I’m not going to speculate on why that’s the case, I’m merely going to ask you to name all the TV cop shows that you’ve seen, and then name the number of TV shows about firefighters. (And I’m not ragging on cops here, by the way — this isn’t their fault, and all the officers I’ve known have nothing but the utmost respect for their firefighting partners.)
So, why pick today to say nice things about firefighters? I could say that it’s always a good time to tip our hats to the folks who have volunteered to be heroes, to raise a toast to the ones whose battlefields are wreathed in flames. To say thanks to the people who pry victims from mangled cars, who dig out crushed construction workers, and who are often the first ones on scene with a defibrillator when a heart is in danger of beating no more. But I think that answer, even if it’s true, is just too trite and cliche for words.
Here’s why I picked today….
Unfortunately, I’ve had to be helped by the folks at both the Knoxville Fire Department and Rural Metro Fire Department (once also the local ambulance service) more than my share of times. Fortunately, it also means I can personally testify as to their skills and professionalism. When I was 23 years old, for instance, I was extricated from a crushed Honda Civic by firefighters wielding the infamous “jaws of life.” In my late 30s, the term “organ failure” entered my vocabulary, and KFD crews have always been the first to reach me when my family called E-911. They’ve never been anything less than awesome, able to keep me aware and calm no matter how bad the pain or confusion was that day. But what I’d most like to thank them for took place just a couple of hours before dawn in early 2015, when KFD managed to save more of my family’s memories than I’d have believed possible from a house fire that very nearly took our lives.
That fire happened six years ago, this week.
My entire family still has nightmares about waking up to a house full of smoke and screaming. My daughter remembers being hurriedly wrapped in a blanket and pushed through the front door. My wife recalls stumbling out of our bedroom and immediately being blinded by a cloud of black smoke. I’ll never forget how the blaze looked as it surged down the hallway, and how monstrously fast it was.
We were incredibly lucky on that early March morning. No one in our house died. We lost a lot of our belongings, but far more of our books, pictures and heirlooms survived than I was able to believe at first. That, however, was not luck — that was due to the fact that the folks at the Knoxville Fire Department knew what they were doing and stopped the inferno before everything was reduced to ash and memories.
Those who serve the public all have their roles to play, their enemies to fight. Reporters fight for truth, cops fight for order, and firefighters do battle with all the horrors that would claim our lives by accident or with intent. Each day they rise to do battle with Death itself, and if that doesn’t make someone a Hero, then nothing does.
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published March 26, 2021