Everyone on earth recalls 9/11 and the heroism displayed by firefighters but beyond that how many really know what firefighters do each day?
Who are these guys who are willing to rush toward danger rather than away from it?
A number of my most successful athlete patients are from families with fathers or grandfathers who were firefighters. And these kids have similar traits of a solid work ethic, good manners and a respect for authority.
I have been thinking of doing a piece on the psychological profile of the firefighter and so I was delighted when I got a call from a reader who suggested I do a piece on the fire chief in Williston Park.
My own grandfather was a fire chief from Maine and so perhaps its destiny that I write this.
There is a long history of fire destruction and virtually every major city has suffered catastrophic losses.
More than half of Rome was destroyed by fire in 64 AD, one-third of London was burnt down in 1212, 776 buildings were destroyed by fire in Boston in 1872 and the fire of Tokyo in 1923 killed 142,000 people and destroyed 570,000 homes.
In my life, the worst fire I witnessed was in Massapequa Park.
We were driving home late one winter’s night and as we neared our block we could see giant flames leaping into the sky. I was afraid our home was burning down but it was the old three-story mansion that was next to ours.
Today putting out fires is merely one of many functions of the firefighter.
Fireman respond to fires, car accidents, help burn victims, deal with explosions, suicide attempts and now they even must deal with terrorist attacks.
So armed with curiosity and respect I met with Fire Chief John Perro Jr. of the Williston Park Fire Department last weekend to learn more about what makes a firefighter tick.
John supervises and manages a staff of 97 which include firemen, EMT’s and paramedics. He is originally from Stony Brook and comes from a long line of fireman including his grandfather and two uncles all of who were fire chiefs.
I asked John why he willingly devotes up to 30 hours per week doing this kind of intense and sometimes dangerous volunteer work and he told me “my grandfather instilled in me a willingness to help my community. I think the firefighters I know are unique people in that they freely devote their time and energy to get trained in order to help those in need.”
Research suggests that the profile of a firefighter is a Type A personality which means they are competitive, self-critical, devoted to their work, extroverted, organized and good time managers.
They also must know how to cope with exposure to multiple forms of trauma.
Chief Perro told me that they will on occasion use debriefing procedures in order to process of the traumas that they deal with.
But I think the thing that is missing from the research on firefighters is what Chief John Perro Jr. so amply demonstrates which is an extraordinary combination of quiet bravery and a high level altruism.
He reminded me of the famous Percival in the story of the Holy Grail.
In the Chretien de Troyes tale, young Perceval was raised alone in the forest without a father and longed to do good, be of service and to act bravely for the king.
Acts of bravery and goodness are exactly what these volunteer firefighters excel at. They risk their lives and devote their free time to keeping their communities safe. And they do this without pay.
Many years ago our family had a great tragedy and the most vivid memory I have of that horrible night was an EMT who took me into the ambulance truck, served me some coffee and comforted me in my time of loss.
I still remember how that moment of comfort changed me.
In 30 minutes that person restored my faith in humanity because I suddenly realized that I lived in a country and in a time where there were people who would be willing to save us from despair and horror.
This is exactly what firefighters like John Perro Jr. do every week and they do so without pay and without applause.
So thank you to Chief Perro and all the members of all the other fire departments on Long Island. I don’t think I’ve ever met an angel but if I did I think he or she would look exactly like a fireman.
Angels are those special creatures sent from God that watch over us, keep us safe and come to us in our hour of greatest need. That’s exactly what firemen do every day of the week.