Crediting the Good, While Debiting the Bad
It’s come up in the comment sections, but I’ve been meaning to comment on Michael Morse’s essay describing the ghosts that haunt the urban firefighter-EMT’s dreams after twenty years on the job since I first read it in early June. Michael puts those who focus on the affordability of public-sector pay and pensions in a delicate position — deliberately, I imagine. Who could look such a man in the eye and balance tax rates against the trauma of his experience?
Such balances have to be made, however, and both sides of public policy questions have to be weighed. Were resources unlimited, and were human nature less complex, we might be able to assess the value of every job based on the case that its practitioners could make for themselves. As it is, we have to be a bit more circumspect about various measurements of value.
For one thing, firefighters and EMTs are not solely rewarded through their pay and benefits. Michael provides a bullet list of dramatic scenes — murders, suicides, child abuse, and accidents — but (for this particular essay, at least) he places his hand over the other side of the ledger. How many days did he drive home justifiably feeling heroic? How many lives has he had the opportunity to save? People to help? His twenty years haven’t been a long slog of death and unavoidable failure, and while one can place a dollar value on neither the strain of helplessness nor the euphoria of defeating death and destruction, at some abstract and variable point, they would surely balance without any monetary compensation at all to make up the difference.
The careful reader might note a mild contradiction in Michael’s text: When speaking of the passage of time between his early days on the job and the present, he writes that “20 years passed in the blink of an eye.” Yet, a few sentences later, “20 years in firefighter time is a long, long time.” That’s hardly an “a-ha!” catch on my part. “The blink of an eye” is a mere turn of phrase, and the reference to “firefighter time” evokes the fullness of the days, weeks, and months. An important point hides within the contrast, though.
Michael’s twenty years have been rich in experience, and despite the tone of his essay, not all of them have been haunting and negative. Some midlevel corporate functionary who’s trudged through the same length of time among gray cubicle walls bathed in florescent lights pushing numbers along some process watching his body soften and sag every time the computer screen goes blank won’t have the smell of charred infants in his nostrils, but neither will he know the pulse of a revived heart beneath his palms. Time is slow, indeed, for those with no cause to blink.
Even with life affirmation and a sense of purpose somehow factored into the equation, it may very well be that twenty years is too long for some men and women to spend battling flames and injury in particular environments. If that’s the case, it still isn’t obvious that the solution is twenty to thirty years of retirement, particularly when the cost thereof threatens the very solvency of the local civic structure. Perhaps the solution lies in the opposite direction — removing the incentive to linger on the job for so long, making firefighting an experience shared by more people, earlier in their lives. Or perhaps the necessary changes needn’t be so dramatic.
Whatever the case, I can only encourage Michael to enlist the memories of his victories in the fight against his demons. An unsustainable pension system can in no way substitute for the strength that he has within.