"I heard that the janitors at the Pentagon are the same pay grade as we are," my friend S. said.
I considered this. "I could be a janitor at the Pentagon. You probably get to work by yourself."
"You probably don't supervise anybody."
We sat in companionable silence.
"I cleaned the toilet in the hangar today," I said.
"I mopped the floor in my office," he said.
We giggled. It wasn't really funny though. Between us we have over fifty years fighting fire, leading others, and managing contracts, among other high risk duties. Our base pay after all this time is less than people just starting out make in many fields. A majority of the firefighters on the front lines saving people's property, and sometimes the people themselves, make less than $15 per hour, which is what a lot of employees want for working at fast food restaurants.
I don't know what the janitors actually make. And look, clean toilets are important! We clean our own bathroom at my office. We have one toilet for a minimum of 12 people in the summer months, so ignoring this basic task would quickly reduce the office to a level of unacceptable squalor. But sometimes I wonder if people whose houses are threatened by fire know how little most wildland firefighters are paid (we aren't on the same pay scale or schedule as structural firefighters, by the way). I wonder if they know that when they read about a firefighter killed on the fireline.
We chose to stay in this profession, so there are a lot of other reasons we are here. Many people don't get paid to fly over national parks to look for fires, or see the actual physical results of their labor. When you save a house or even just a hillside, you can look up there and say, I did that. I was there.
And maybe there is some janitor at the Pentagon reading about firefighters. "Dang," he says to his buddy. "Those people who run helitack and hotshot crews make the same as we do! I should do THAT."