Victoria

'Hero firefighters' speaks volumes about society rather than the firefighters themselves

Hero firefighters. The two words coupled never fail to make me cringe. 

 Almost 20 years ago, after a small but nasty bushfire that killed three neighbours in the Dandenongs and destroyed more than 30 homes, I reflected in these pages: "People keep saying we firefighters are heroes. I wish they would stop. I don't feel like a hero. Instead, I am possessed by unutterable sorrow."

John Schauble says setting up the expectation that firefighters are expected to act heroically is pretty much contrary ...
John Schauble says setting up the expectation that firefighters are expected to act heroically is pretty much contrary to everything in their training. Photo: Rob Carew

 Nothing has changed. The myth of the "hero firefighter" persists because it suits a social narrative that only vaguely reflects reality but makes for a good story. The mainstream media – and now social media too – seem to breathe fresh life into it with every new conflagration.

 "Hero" is a word bandied about these days with the same sort of hyperbolic abandon that has neutered other once meaningful words like "awesome", "strategic" and "absolutely". It is applied to a whole range of characters, from sportsmen to celebrities and others just doing their job with a glib abandon that has made the term all but meaningless.

 "Hero firefighters" speaks volumes about the society we have become rather than the firefighters themselves. In a world where reality television has become a surrogate for real life and backyard makeovers have supplanted genuine compassion, little wonder that people are left clutching at meaningful role models to which to aspire.

 What is missing from the story is what firefighters actually do and who they really are. Ironically it devalues the very genuine contribution they make to the social good and to community while encouraging almost perverse thinking and behaviours.

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 If anything, setting up the expectation that firefighters are expected to act heroically is pretty much contrary to everything in their training.

 Not without reason, for example, does CFA drill a "safety first" culture into its members. Firefighting is an inherently dangerous business. Firefighters get killed doing it (although, as in the US, the biggest killer of firefighters on the job in Australia is heart disease). All the more reason to insist that anyone engaged in this business takes every measure possible to preserve their own life in the process.

 So we need to reset the index on heroism. Confronting the burning bush and running into burning buildings are not heroic acts, but actions in which risks are calculated and mitigated, where safety is not thrown out the window in pursuit of glory but steps are taken to help ensure everyone comes home.

A tired parallel is sometimes drawn between firefighters and the Anzacs. In a 2009 essay, historian Tom Griffiths noted that "we revere the heroism of the firefighters and compare them to Anzacs", going on to quote then prime minister Kevin Rudd's reference following the Black Saturday bushfires to "a new army of heroes where the yellow helmet evokes the same reverence as the slouch hat of old".

Well, no, not really except possibly for some modern jingoistic political end. About the only thing truly in common between the Anzacs and Australia's modern firefighters is that the majority of them are volunteers; both backed by a much smaller coterie of paid officers and permanent firefighters in cities and towns.

There are a few other similarities, but they are of construction rather than essence. The language of firefighting long ago adopted quasi-militaristic terms. Firefighters are organised in "brigades" led by captains, lieutenants and commanders. They "fight" or "battle" fires, lengthy bushfires becoming "campaigns".

The more laid back approach that some volunteer brigades might have had a couple of decades ago is steadily disappearing in Victoria, as volunteers train to equivalent standards to their paid counterparts and deliver a service both fitted to and demanded by their communities across the state. As communities change and grow, more paid firefighters become part of that service delivery where this becomes necessary.

But the idea that somehow modern firefighters have become surrogate Anzacs is nonsense.

Firefighters, both volunteer and career, are motivated by a more complex set of drivers than those that sent generations of young Australians off to fight in wars. Theirs is a role rooted firstly in community and in a sense of service. There is certainly a large element of self-sacrifice, particularly among volunteers. Occasionally there is danger. But few heroics.

As Tom Griffiths noted, firefighters understand that there is no shame in retreat in the face of bushfire, noting that firefighters did not feature in the Black Saturday fatalities. On Christmas Day 2015, a whole community successfully retreated as a fire roared into Wye River and no one died.

I don't want to suggest that at Wye River, or at countless other fires this summer, there hasn't been plenty of gutsy and determined firefighting, where calculated risks have been taken and many homes saved.

Let's not confuse that, however, with heroics or elevate to hero status men and women who are doing what they are trained to do for all the right reasons. Commend them for their self-sacrifice, praise their skills, thank them for their service. Just don't tag them with a lazy and less meaningful epithet.

John Schauble has been a CFA volunteer for more than 30 years. He eschews heroism in favour of coming home in one piece.