Every Day Heroes?

I am sure I will get some flack for this one, but here goes.

I understand that police and firefighters have relatively dangerous jobs. I really do. But their level of danger (at least here in Madison) must certainly be far lower than a HVAC mechanic, an electrician or a sheet metal worker. Every single day the tradesman faces potential electrocution, handles acetylene torches that could misfire, and in general deals with things that could easily maim or kill them every day of their working lives if they are not careful.

In contrast, yes, firefighters are brave souls that could possibly enter a burning building, but this doesn’t happen every day. Cops sitting in the cruiser handing out speeding tickets aren’t exactly living on the edge. Don’t get me wrong, cops do have to make arrests and deal with a lot of crap that I would rather not.

But it seems in the narrative of today that firefighters and police are held up to some sort of hero status at all times. The word hero is used far too much. Every time I see an obese police person or firefighter, I wonder how safe I would really be in the event I actually needed their presence at my house to help me.

Maybe I am crazy and they really are heroes all the time.

What this post is really about is that soon I believe that Scott Walker is going to take on the police and firefighter unions so our state doesn’t sink under an absolute mountain of debt. I already know what the narrative will be – “Scott Walker takes benefits from everyday heroes”.

27 thoughts on “Every Day Heroes?”

  1. My son is a firefighter here in California and his principle risk is from brush fires. Once in a while there is a firefighter killed in a brush fire, one from his area was killed a couple of years ago by a fire that was arson, as many of them are. Still, I agree with you. My brother-in-law is a retired Chicago cop but he never used his pistol in his career. Frank Flanagan, a family friend who I memorialized here some time ago (And I’ve been told his daughters didn’t like me writing that it was sad he never had a son), I don’t believe ever fired his gun although he was Chief of Homicide. Frank did let me fire a Colt .45 automatic when I was about 10 years old but that was another matter.

    I agree that police and fire fighters are over indulged by the media. There was a time when the Fraternal Order of Police was concerned with defending cops from threats about shootings or citizen complaints about brutality. Now it is all about dollars and cents. Ditto for the firefighter’s union. When me son applied to the Long Beach City FD a few years ago, there were five thousand people in line for about 50 potential positions. That does not call for a union.

  2. In California the public labor unions rule the state. They were brought in by Jerry Brown during hist first tenure as governor in the 1970s. Which not coincidentally is when our long decline started.

    They are a major problem today with our financial crisis. That and burdensome regulations that are driving businesses out.

    I got a laugh the other day – Texas seems to be doing everything right and California everything wrong. They pay their legislators $7K a year – and they meet biannually, like California used to do in its heyday (until 1966) , when it was changed to a full time “job”. . Now they are paid $130k/year + substantial benefits – as one wag said “Who says you can’t buy stupid?”

    A prison guard makes $250,000 a year – and the retirement – a substantial portion of that. Now I know that most of us wouldn’t want that job but I’ll bet you could still get plenty of good applicants for half that.

    I know what you are saying as I started your post and of course it generates ambivalence in most of us.

    Truth is both groups do a job that most of us wouldn’t want to do.

    But at what price?

    The bottom line is that public labor unions are a malevolent force in govt politics, when they buy and support the very people who pay their members.

  3. I rather expect that Police and Firefighters unions are next in line. They deliberately placed themselves there when they ignored their duty to enforce the law and sided with the demonstrators. If those who are sworn to uphold the law, fairly and evenly, decide that they get to choose where, when, and against who the law is enforced [and conversely who is exempt from the law]; then they are no more and no less than hired muscle for whichever group they are giving their allegiance to for whatever price at the moment. And before people get all heated up and call me a cop hater; I am a retired Peace Officer who meant the oath I swore.

    Subotai Bahadur

  4. Two things, Dan.

    One, I spent the last week on a fishing trip with two veteran cops. Their biggest fear is potentially pulling over a traffic violator who happens to be a violent armed crack head with a felony record, especially when a vehicle has tinted windows. They just never know who is behind the wheel. Both claimed they would rather enter a hot zone knowing what they are getting into. Each of them are on the SWAT team and the Drug Enforcement Task Force and have been in the line of fire a few times.

    Two (we spoke of this before), they both told me that a concealed carry permit holder is not required (by law in Indiana) to tell a policeman during a traffic stop that he is armed. Then they both quickly added, “but we sure would appreciate it.” : )

  5. Yep Gerry, not saying that they aren’t in danger, but I think we see a little too much hero worship in the press and sometimes in general.

    Also, different cops certainly have different risks, as a cop in Gary for instance would be in much more danger during his normal day in the cruiser than say a cop in Madison.

    It will be interesting to see how our conceal carry bill ends up here in Wisco as to whether I have to inform a cop who pulls me over if I am packing or not.

  6. Dan, you are absolutely right.
    Besides, one can not be called a hero if ‘heroism” is his job description. The job he is being paid for, and paid very well.
    Hero is someone who acts heroically out of moral obligation and enthusiasm exceeding his paid duties. Doing something extra, something he is not expected to do in his position, something out of his own volition. It is not the case with PD and FF

  7. We accord police and firefighters extra respect because they occupy the social and emotional niche as soldiers. Like soldiers, their job is to place themselves at individual risk for collective good.

    We do forget that there are a lot of people out there working very hard and dangerous jobs to provide us all with our standard of living. There are a lot of reality TV shows out there today that showcase the dangerous and brutally hard work of people like fishermen, loggers, oil field workers, coal miners etc. Heck, farming gets pretty scary at times and we all like to eat. However, we don’t accord these people the same respect as soldiers, police and firefighters because we don’t expect fishermen, miners, loggers, oil field workers, etc to show up and save our lives when necessary.

    I think it clear that in many cases, police and firefighters have become like the heros in a greek tragedy. Their honestly deserved accolades have gone to their heads and they’ve become narcissistic and arrogant. Praise and pay they once regarded as being special because of their noble actions, they now regard as only their just due and they demand even more pay and praise to mark themselves as special. It becomes a vicious cycle that ends up like all greek tragedies.

    I would point out that most police and firefighters get payed way, way better than young people actively fighting in wars. If we were going to pay somebody a six figure salary it should go to a door-kicker in Afghanistan instead of a prison guard in California. Of course, soldier don’t have their own politicians bought and paid for.

  8. Generally job risks are priced into compensation. Pretty much everything I’ve ever read in the literature shows a very clear risk premium in wages, both for union and non-union workers, that varies by occupation and is on the order of $5-10 million per fatality.

    Given this, I would expect compensation for police and firefighters should be determined much the same as they are for any other hazardous job. The occupational fatality rate for PO/FF is around 0.02%/year – roughly an order of magnitude higher than a typical office worker. This is well below the highly risky jobs (fishing, logging, underground mining, farming), and in the same general range as most contruction trades, truck drivers, and other transportation workers. This suggests that the wage premium for PO/FF should be on the order of $1-2,000/yr (compared to a municiple clerk)

    Pratically speaking, the appropriate compensation is whatever it takes to get the pool of workers you need, but no more than that. If you have very low turnover and a large pool of qualified applicants for every job, you’re probably paying too much.

  9. Shannon…”the dangerous and brutally hard work of people like fishermen, loggers, oil field workers, coal miners etc”

    Orwell referred to the coal miner as a “grimy caryatid on whose shoulders nearly everything that is *not* grimy is supported.” Orwell was of course a socialist–can anyone imagine one of today’s “progressives” showing equivalent appreciation for the work of, say, our offshore oil platform workers? Seems most unlikely.

  10. -Unionization is part of it.

    -Fear is part of it, on the part of people who are scared to criticize govt functionaries who have practically unaccountable power over them or (in the case of media) whom they depend on as news sources.

    -There is also a kind of political correctness operating here, where some people feel the need publicly and frequently to salute our brave public servants etc., and for most other people it isn’t worth the social hassle to say, “yes, but lots of other people do hard, dangerous work without public recognition, and for every heroic govt employee there are others who are time-serving hacks or corrupt bullies”. Certainly there are heroic police officers and firemen, but not all of them are heroes any more than all third graders are spelling-bee winners. To pretend they are all heroes is to devalue the few who really are.

    -This political correctness is reinforced by the civic boosterism of American business culture. This culture is mostly a thing of spontaneously organized genius but here is one of its flaws. (You can usually find the car dealers in a town by looking for the biggest flags.) Again, many people won’t publicly object to the exaggerated heroization because 1) they agree with it or 2) it’s just not worth the trouble. So the public consensus is driven in the direction of excessive deference to govt employees.

  11. Wasn’t it some long dead Roman that reminded his emperor to “pay the soldiers first” ?

    One of the great trump cards of the current political order is that the police are virtually all unionized government employees, who will side with whoever is going to keep their gravy train on the tracks.

    When watching the protests in Wisconsin, it can only be assumed that the reason the capitol was literally trashed by thousands of unruly and disrespectful public employees UW students, and other riff raff is that the police sat on their hands in solidarity.

    Police union representatives and firefighters were openly supporting and even marching in the protests.

    Anyone who expects the armed sector of the public employee unions members to take the side of reasonable political reform are in for a very rude awakening.

  12. On the one hand, there is the work that they do. I don’t think anyone would disagree that it is admirable.

    On the other hand, there are the special interest groups they belong to (the public labor unions in California, for instance–“a prison guard makes $250,000 a year”). Considering the damage these groups have done, I certainly can’t see anything heroic here.

    Heroic would be finding a way to curb their influence. And that would be anything but every day.

  13. An occupation I greatly admire for personal courage is electric lineman. These guys work up on poles and towere, in storms and the dark of night, handling high voltage. It is a risky business but they are usually well paid by the utilities. Partially that’s for retention so they know their territory.

    Here in San Jose, California, the policemen’s union took a 10% wage cut due to our city budget deficit. That’s was after the city councilmen all took 10% too. The alternative was a 164 man layoff so their self-interests were balanced.

    I am a bit envious of my neighbor across the street. He’s captain on a small local town’s police force. Great guy but with a HS diploma who’s expertise was riding motorcycles yet he’s making more than me and will retire at 55. I sweated through a very tough technical degree, got an MBA, and I’ll be working to 70+.

    Oh well, dem’s the breaks.

  14. Shannon-

    Of course, soldier don’t have their own politicians bought and paid for.

    I see… soldiers need to unionize!

  15. Over-paid public servants, yet another violation of our rights. Add it to the list of gov’t violations of our rights:
    They violate the 1st Amendment by placing protesters in cages, banning books like “America Deceived II” and censoring the internet.
    They violate the 2nd Amendment by confiscating guns.
    They violate the 4th and 5th Amendment by molesting airline passengers.
    They violate the entire Constitution by starting undeclared wars for foreign countries.
    Impeach Obama, vote for Ron Paul.
    (Last link of Banned Book):

  16. Jonathan,

    I think a lot of the rah-rah boosterism of the police came in reaction to the over-the-top vilification of the police by Leftists back in the 60s and 70s. Non-leftists began to support the police out of sheer counter-reaction. I think that prior to the 60s there was a more balanced attitude towards police and firemen.

  17. For what it’s worth……

    70% of firefighters in the US are volunteers, who get paid nothing. For many it actually costs them money, and a lot of time to keep their training and certifications up-to-date.

  18. One more thing, that Althouse link I provided earlier in the comment thread showed photos of a procession of firefighters to honor the fallen. The cops do things like this as well. I don’t know of any professions like loggers or linemen that do something like this. It just seems a bit too much “look at us” for my tastes.

  19. Dan From Madison,

    One more thing, that Althouse link I provided earlier in the comment thread showed photos of a procession of firefighters to honor the fallen. The cops do things like this as well. I don’t know of any professions like loggers or linemen that do something like this

    The culture or the police and firefighters is paramilitary e.g. they have ranks and are under legal order discipline. This inevitably comes with a certain amount of paramilitary ritual as well, especially funerals. When people depend on others for their lives, they develop powerful bonds that makes events like funerals more significant.

    A lot of harsh professions have somewhat ritualized funerals but they are intentionally private instead of public. Only those within the fraternity are allowed to participate they do not wish to share their mourning with those who do not share the bond. You used to see that with miners and it still persist to some extent among offshore oil workers.

    In thinking about it, I wonder if your enhanced veneration of police and firefighters stems from the fact that fewer and fewer people work dangerous and uncomfortable jobs? Back in the day when most men did dangerous and dirty manual labor, getting banged around or even killed wasn’t that uncommon. Today, when most of us work indoor jobs, police and firefighters might be the only physical workers we really see and empathize with.

  20. Interesting thought Shannon about perhaps empathizing. But cops in certain places, like Madison, for instance, really don’t see that much danger at all. We have I think one or two murders per year here. Gunshots ring out very, very rarely in this town. Again, I am not saying the cops have an easy job, since they still have to arrest people and deal with drunk college kids getting in fights and all the rest of the crap but their lives overall are very rarely in danger. As opposed to a cop in perhaps Gary, Indiana, who would have a much greater chance of getting popped on a daily basis. So why wouldn’t I empathize with a line worker or farmer in Wisconsin who has a much more likely chance of death, dismemberment or other injury?

    The hero worship of police, here at least, isn’t aligned with the real risk they have. We constantly hear quotes like “putting their lives on the line every day” – and many of them sit there and hand out speeding tickets, serve court summons for divorces and the like.

    As for firefighters, there really aren’t a lot of blazes here either. Madison doesn’t really have a ghetto or that much substandard housing. I can’t remember the last time there were fatalities in a fire.

  21. As for firefighters, there really aren’t a lot of blazes here either. Madison doesn’t really have a ghetto or that much substandard housing. I can’t remember the last time there were fatalities in a fire.

    Remember that the premise of Fahrenheit 451 was that all building was fireproof and firemen had little left to do. That is why they became responsible for setting fires, especially books. That is not that far from the truth these days. My son goes to very few structure fires.

    The attraction of very easy occupations is seen in medicine these days and will grow as Obama dismantles American medicine. One reason why Emergency Medicine is so popular now with medical students is the shift work and the absence of overhead. Most “lifestyle specialties” are very popular and turn away applicants. At the same time, general surgery, my field, is very unpopular and there are ads all over with good offers for general surgeons. A woman surgeon of my acquaintance told me a couple of years ago that she knew no general surgeon in San Francisco under the age of 50.

    Now, since the invention of antibiotics, general surgery is not dangerous but it is perceived as a demanding life. Some who consciously avoid demanding life styles may be in a sort of compensatory frame of mind toward those who do have more dangerous professions. Nobody is drumming up sympathy for surgeons, of course, as we are all considered rich, but something like that may affect public attitudes toward police and firemen.

  22. Late to the party, but a couple of points.

    Let’s not allow a distaste for the excesses of public unionism to demean the value of the work being done.

    I believe it was Barone who described public sector unions as a clever method of transferring tax money to the democratics pols who set up and authorized the unions to begin with, and that seems to sum it up pretty well.

    But any objections I might have to their union doesn’t mean that I don’t believe teachers don’t perform a vital and difficult task. It’s just that their misguided and obstructionist unions make it more difficult for them to do their job well, and for me to support them as I might otherwise do.

    As to police and fire fighters, it is well to remember the observation by Joe Wambaugh that the dangers of their work are much more emotional/psychological than physical.

    I know a retired police officer who was the first one on the scene of a murder case in which a disturbed woman killed her children and then herself. He still has nightmares.

    Also, police and fire personnel are the first people on call for any number of other emergencies and disasters, from terrorist attacks to chemical spills to floods and tornadoes. We expect competent and courageous response to a wide variety of daunting situations, and people to fill that role deserve a commensurate reward.

    There is plenty of room for criticism of any public employees, from performance to compensation, but it would be best if we didn’t find it necessary to belittle the nature of their job along the way.

  23. Veryretired,

    I don’t think that anyone wants to belittle public safety workers it’s just that:

    (1) A lot of the rhetoric in the last few years feels overwrought and manipulative. I am reminded of all the talk about air traffic controllers back in the early 80s. They had such high responsibility high stress jobs and deserved way, way more pay. That eventually led to their illegal strike and it turned out that a lot of people were willing to do those supposedly horrible jobs for the same or less pay. It is fair to ask just how much money we are supposed to shell out above and beyond the actual market rate to compensate for the supposed emotional toil. EMS workers have to deal with the real horrific side of everything and they must constantly fail to save lives yet we don’t seem to be in a rush to raise their pay.

    (2) A lot of people do dangerous jobs that exact an emotional toil. Off shore oil rig workers, fishermen etc don’t get to go home to their families every night but must spend weeks or months aways from them. Plus, they too face the risk of being haunted by having to watch people die, often just because of some stupid accident. I was told the man who discovered the bodies of my father and his colleagues developed alcoholism as a result of trying to suppress the horrific memory.

    (3) We pay a 45 year old evidence clerk who never faces any danger or psychological trauma way, way more than we pay a 19 year soldier fighting on the sharp end of the stick. Those kids are making something like $20,000 a year with board and benefits included. Nobody seems to be in a rush to raise their pay even though the physical danger and psychological burden they carry is far and away above anything any civilian will face regardless of job.

    I think it’s clear that there is a social/political dynamic with police and firefighters that drives their pay up above either the fair market rate or the capacity of many communities to pay.

  24. Shannon,

    I appreciate your reasonable response, but some of the comments above, such as police work isn’t very dangerous here or there, or that firefighters don’t fight fires anymore, etc., I felt were very dismissive of the complexity of the tasks we are asking these people to perform.

    My point was simply that, just because we don’t like the actions of certain associations affiliated with police work or fire fighting, that is not a sufficient reason to begin comparing them to file clerks or other non-comparable occupations.

    That includes soldiering, for which I have the highest respect. One of the problems our military is facing is that many critics are attempting to apply the rules of the civilian police to warfare, a bizarre and utterly erroneous standard.

    If you will check into it, you will find that a very significant part of our defense budget is for wages and benefits, although it is obvious that both could be improved considerably.

  25. “Generally job risks are priced into compensation”

    I’ll put this statement to rest – Convenience store clerks

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