Six reasons why firefighters are the most respected profession, and what this means for politics

Science policy scholars huddled in brownstone buildings, occasionally on the verge of hyperventilation, frequently express disbelief that firemen are more admired and respected than professional scientists, especially in the United States. This lament is frequently accompanied by discussions of policy gridlock related to climate science. These scholars seem to disregard the following characteristics of firefighting when they poo-poo the public’s ignorance and lack of respect for evidence, facticity, and advice.

1) Firefighters are in some sense professional scientists, of the “applied” variety. How would firemen save houses and victims from an inferno without understanding through a collective act of research and investigation what is the likely trajectory of the winds, the impact of chemical suppressants and water, etc.? When fire crews announce the inferno 80% contained, this is considered credible partly because onlookers can see less pointy red flames and smoke when they drive by on the freeway.

2) Firefighters respond regardless of what caused the fire. This is universally respected because everyone knows fire is hot. Fire is hot and dangerous. When you see a cigarette butt burning on a pile of loose mulch, you stomp on it out of civic duty. There is a civil allegiance the public can feel for firefighters. Do other professional scientists deserve more empathy, more sympathy?

3) The fires are not predicted in the future. They happen in the present, and often they happened in the past and have grown beyond control. In the words of a famous science policy writer, this is a form of “tornado politics” where everyone with eyes can agree something must be done, regardless of its likely or rumored causes. Firemen are tornado politicians, uncomplicated in their aspect. We appreciate their matter-of-fact agenda for its clarity.

4) If a fire is small but dangerous, capable of growing to a raging beast, there are procedures for containment. Firefighters take care of this with scientific precision, despite the common knowledge that wind conditions and precipitation patterns can shift on a dime, chaotically and without notice. There are further procedures for responding to forces of nature that extend beyond the powers of firefighters. There are strategies for fire mitigation that presuppose nature’s eventual cooperation. This produces a quality of perseverence that people find appealing. Firemen have this quality of perseverence in the face of chaos and heroic obstacles.

5) Firemen do not rant about their lack of perceived honor. When they take the podium they possess an unmistakable gait, beyond any capacity for fabrication or embellishment. Their credentials and evidence are written in the lines of their face. There is ax-handled passion fighting alongside intellect and tribal allegiance when fires are doused and outsmarted. Honor, respect, and admiration are communicated through narratives of fires fought.

6) No professional scientist operating without bias would withhold admiration and respect for firefighters.

As a result of these considerations — and there are more besides these — science policy scholars must needs face up to the realities of both human culture and contemporary science policy. Despite the tremendous difficulties these professional scientists face when communicating to the public and acting on chaotic ecosystems, whiners will typically score lower on the respect and admiration index than the smoke-streaked faces of male and female firefighters.

The contrast couldn’t be clearer. The firefighter vs. the de-territorialized polar bear. The domestic inferno vs. the wilderness imperilled.

This is the no-spin zone. You decide.

1 Comment

  1. This post was written in order to be debated. There are provocative statements herein.

    The author writes a few things that make firefighting seem a lot closer to climate science than first meets the eye. Where does tornado politics end and climate politics begin? The difference is, in part, a matter of observable objects called fires, compared to more diffuse entities like global climate systems and global average temperatures. There are raging infernos threatening houses in a temporal scale of hours and minutes, on one hand, and cylindrical ice cores threatening global economies and dozens of cultures on a temporal scale of years and decades. The difference is also therefore one of familiarity and cultural memory. As a result of climate science’s newness, there is an experimentalist need in the narrative construction of cultural responses that is quite likely to produce counter-productive actions under an agenda that, for so many, is as clear as the fire department’s. Fire science is also a product of history, and was not always so highly regarded. In the 1800s there were wars between fire departments in the Republic, and houses were often sacrificed to tribal and jurisdictional conflict — the scenes from Scorcese’s Gangs of New York represent actual happenings. In those times, firefighting was not inherently worthy of applause. Quite the opposite, a tenement fire could be something of a scandal and a spectacle; and it was often the fire departments that were scandalized.

    Perhaps climate science, then, needs its makeshift historical epoch of tribal conflict to emerge respectable in the eyes of citizens? Perhaps climate science needs its Robert Downey Jr. fall from grace before it can expect to command audiences?

    But alas, there are demands. Demands that promise discrepencies in behavior. There is to be a before and an after. “Climate regime modification.” I’m not aware of a fire department acting in that capacity historically. Perhaps, then, one of the enduring virtues of the firefighter is this heroic anonymity? The willingness to play a bit part in a Scorcese picture where larger economic and cultural forces take center stage? Can climate science succeed without taking over? And perhaps more importantly, can it possibly succeed by trying to take over? Is there another, more pragmatic, more cinematic, and perhaps narratively enriching path?

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