Update: Hope College Professor Questions The 'Myth' Of The Heroic Firefighter

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Update, Wednesday, March 5: Detroit firefighters rescue 25 people in multiple-alarm fire -- West Side Blaze: Tenants Flee In Pajamas, Jumping To Safety

Jeffrey Polet, a political science professor at Hope College in Holland, has ventured into territory were few critics dare to go, questioning what he sees as the heroic 'myth' of firefighters, which he believes undermines rational decision-making in voting, budget matters and other aspects of democratic society.

In an article in Bridge magazine headlined "Even fire services should withstand budget review, but good luck with that," Polet says, "I can think of no group in our society more affirmatively mythologized than firemen. They are lauded as heroes, their sacrifices valorized, and their sites of failure taken as sacred ground.

No traction can be made on state and municipal budgets without considering police and fire protection. At the same time, no two interests have been more adept at insulating themselves from budget cuts. When Scott Walker challenged the public employees unions in Wisconsin, he left police and fire departments alone. Michigan’s “Right to Work” law provides an exemption for police and fire workers. These immunities have far more to do with political expediency than either principle or prudence.

Firefighters in Holland, he writes, spend little time actually fighting fires, though the situation is different in Detroit, which averages about 30 fire a day.

Polet also questions the use of the term "first responders."

Events such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the World Trade Center attack demonstrate that the police and fire personnel are typically the last persons on the scene. Most of the hard work is done by those already there. If your house is on fire, you best get yourself and your family out.

Long celebrated in movies, TV and the news media, the myth of the heroic fireman became even more deeply entrenched in public consciousness after the events of 9/11.

Polet asserts the New York Fire Department was more than adequately funded in 2001, even though the number of fires had declined in New York during the previous decade. "Yet a combination of turf battles with the police department, bureaucratic mismanagement, and simple arrogance resulted in an inability to communicate during the crisis," he writes, neglecting to mention 343 New York firefighters died in the terror attacks on the World Trade Center.

Polet writes:

The people who were saved in the towers were almost exclusively saved by people in the towers.

He concludes that in a crisis, "your best bet as a citizen is the people with whom you live and work."

Government officials tend to be latecomers to a crisis. Given the viciousness of human nature, and given the unpredictability of life, these persons are needed. Deliberate decision-making, however, requires sound judgment concerning the relative value of public employees, replete with a sense of what’s possible, and without illusion.

Read more:  Bridge Magazine
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