When Vice President Joe Biden addressed a hotel ballroom in Philadelphia this afternoon, he probably expected the blue-collar throng to be a friendly crowd. After all, firefighters have few friends in Washington, DC more loyal or admiring than he’s been. Few politicians appreciate the influence wielded by firefighters better than Mr. Biden, who once referred to them as Delaware’s third major political party.
As you might expect, the Vice President set a complimentary tone in his remarks, assuring firefighters that he and the President see them as the key to protecting America’s middle class. It was unclear whether he meant this literally or metaphorically. Perhaps it was both.
For the most part, the Vice President’s remarks suggested he was aiming to evoke the sort of mutual adulation that firefighters and politicians routinely share with one another in public. GIven the political season, Mr. Biden did not shy away from taking shots at the other side by suggesting the Obama Administration supports firefighters and their brothers and sisters in blue, the police, but those other guys, represented by Mr. Romney, do not.
Not long after he finished speaking, the reviews were in. Most firefighters were glad to see the second-highest ranking elected Democrat reaching out to the party’s traditional base at a union convention. But some expected more.
One of those who was not exactly thrilled with Mr. Biden’s remarks was the president of the Philadelphia local of the International Association of Fire Fighters, who expressed dismay bordering on disgust because the Vice President had not explicitly cited and endorsed the union’s victory in an arbitration case that awarded Pennsylvania firefighters protection against furloughs and a pay raise. City officials in Philadelphia, like those in Mr. Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, which recently implemented unilateral cuts to all city workers’ pay in a desperate bid to avoid bankruptcy, are appealing that decision.
These are tough times for cities. And that’s because times have been tough for city-dwellers. Not only have many Americans seen the value of their homes plummet, but many have seen real wages shrink even as their workplace tenure has become more tenuous.
Firefighters face few of these problems. For the most part, their pay has been stable or increasing since the recession started . Their benefits remain far more generous than those available to comparably trained workers in similar occupations. (I know, firefighters think no one has a job like theirs. They are right about that, many far riskier jobs provide far less secure employment and much poorer pay and benefits. Take fishing for instance. Or driving a taxi.) And until recently, they could be reasonably confident that they would continue being employed.
Now that the recession has lingered far longer than anyone expected, many firefighters are finding themselves in much the same position as those they protect. And that doesn’t sit well with a group that sees themselves as different, even special.
Firefighters have a difficult time relating to the plight of cities. Perhaps this is because so few of them live there. In most urban communities the days when fire departments were composed of neighbors stepping up to help one another is long gone. Today, the fire department is just another municipal service we pay others to provide.
Mr. Biden suggested that firefighters are the very soul of their communities. I am sure he meant to imply this was true of the communities where firefighters work, not the ones where they live, since these are rarely the same place anymore. I’m not sure he didn’t get this the wrong way around though.
Like Mr. Biden, though, I still admire firefighters. After all, it’s hard not to like anyone who enjoys his or her job as much as firefighters do, especially when they take so much pride in doing it well. But this does not make firefighters special. Neither do the risks they take. Although firefighting has its dangers, firefighters succumb to these far less often than one might imagine. The same things that kill other workers in far less dangerous occupations claim firefighters lives too, and take many more of them than fires do.
What makes firefighters special in my book is the peculiar compassion they show for others in their times of greatest need. Mr. Biden recognized this when he spoke of the selfless actions of responders to the Aurora theater massacre. Sure, these men and women faced perils in responding to an active shooter call. But the actions they took caring for the wounded was not simply about confronting risks or the skillful performance of well-practiced routines. It was also about the concern they showed not just for the physical wellbeing of those involved, but for their emotional and psychological welfare as well.
You can’t really train people to do this. They either feel empathy or they do not. The fact most of them do feel empathy means that the mere act of showing up when needed is the point at which they add the most value.
This value can easily get lost in debates about what the work people do is really worth. It can also get lost in the heat of a political fight for the heart and soul of a great nation whose public servants like her people have started to become just a little too numb to the pain most of us share.