Saturday, June 11, 2016

what I wanted to say

This spring I went back to high school, and it was much better than I remembered.

I was over at the vocational/agriculture building to give a talk on aviation in firefighting.  I was early, so I wandered the building.  In it, students were building sheds or making things in the metal shop. Girls were driving tractors (you go, sister!)  Outside there were farm animals in pens.  This wasn't an "alternative" high school (do they still have these?) but a program offered through the regular school.  Despite the lovely shelf shaped like an owl that I built in wood shop in school, I wished something like this had been around then.

The students were enthusiastic.  I hit the high points: rappelling from helicopters, camping out in remote areas, impressive fire pictures.  It's all I had time for in the 15 minutes I was allotted.  But here's what I really wanted to say:

This job is hard.  You'll never get rich from it.   Your starting wage will be less than what fast food workers and some politicians are advocating for as minimum wage; in exchange you will risk your life for other people's and for their property.  Even with twenty years in you will probably make less than brand new college graduates in many fields. If you do it for a long time, something will chronically hurt: your back, your knees, your shoulder, and you will probably need surgery at some point.  No matter who you are, you will be expected to keep up and carry as much as everyone else, whether you are male, female, five feet tall  and 90 pounds or six foot five and 270.  When you are fifty you will be expected to keep up with 21 year olds, if you are still on the line.  If you have moved to an administrative job, you will be stuck in meetings and at a computer all day and you will very rarely see any fire.  You won't be able to get a permanent job after age 37 if you haven't gotten in before then, and you will be kicked out at age 57 no matter what.

You will probably lose relationships, because people in "regular" jobs will get tired of your schedule or lack of one.  You will be gone a lot, and live in a tent and work 16 hour days.  It's hard to have pets.  You will miss birthdays, anniversaries, and parties in the summer.  Most likely if you stay in long enough you will know people who die doing this job.  You will come close to it too.  You will be scared, bored, dirty, and tired a lot of the time.

But.  You will save people's houses and you will save people.  Little kids will make signs saying "Thank you firefighters" and put them up on the lawns in front of courthouses in small western towns.  You will meet some amazing people, an incredible brother- and sisterhood of firefighters who will have your back and risk their lives for you.  You will lie out under the stars on a remote fire and hear elk bugling and watch a fire burn like a thousand candles up on a hillside.  You will sit in a helicopter and feel the ground letting go as it moves into translational lift.  You will get to see places like Yellowstone and the north slope of Alaska and half the time wonder how you got so lucky.


5 comments:

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  2. It's a fine line between encouraging people and giving them the hard truth.

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    1. Yes, I don't know if it would have changed my mind either at a young age.

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  3. Honest post and it makes me want to say thank you to every firefighter that serves to protect people, houses and our countries natural resources!!!!!

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    1. Thanks MF! I appreciate the support. We hear too often about how we are spending taxpayer dollars, not clearing out enough around people's personal homes, etc.. if they only knew what this job was really like and how little we are paid.

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