It’s ever been a toss-up as to whether being a firefighter or emergency medical technician is the worst job you could have – or the best. No doubt the hours seem very good (Mpls C-Shift – 48 hours on, 96 off; 24 on, 24 off for the others and St. Paul) – so good that most of them also moonlight in some fashion, even own successful businesses on the side. On the other hand, fighting fires is very risky business. Certainly more firefighters have died on the job than do cops – and busy night with several runs, dangerous or not, can take a serious toll on a guy’s health. Not only for sleep-deprived schedules, but utter exhaustion after a series of fire or emergency medical runs in one shift.
And there’s the lingering sticky wicket: like cops, firefighting came up from early formation of the brotherhood – all-male, mostly white club like no other – and just as resistant to the inevitable changes brought home by the women’s movement and the segregation of their Black brothers dating back to the early 1800s here in the Cities. Protests and successful lawsuits have, over the last 20-25 years, pulled those old-boys’ clubs into present-day reality: that fire departments and their ranks must reflect the composition of the communities they serve.
Saint Paul’s current recruitment efforts take them steps closer to those goals. Women are hauling hose and lines alongside their brethren and no longer are there separate duty stations for Black firefighters/EMTs and white. Seniority still prevails – and the softer duty on the cities’ calmer outskirts go to the older veterans while the newbies staff the core stations with more calls per shift and rougher duty.
If this sounds military in its lingo, it’s because, like the police, this is a uniformed public safety unit of a community and uniforms and regimented hierarchies have traditionally been the order of the day, although some would say those trappings only make the wall between club members and the outliers – the rest of us – higher. But the job is no picnic once the pounds of equipment are piled on the body and the sirens wail toward the unknown.
TTT’s ANDY DRISCOLL and LYNNELL MICKELSEN talk with leaders of the two major city fire departments hereabouts and hear about the history and the changes and the reason why change must continue to work toward a department reflective of its constituents.
• TIM BUTLER -Chief, Saint Paul Fire Department
• JOHN FRUETEL – Assistant Chief, Minneapolis Fire Department
• AL BONEY (bow-NAY) – Saint Paul Firefighter, Recruiter, and Department Historian
• CHARLES RUCKER – President, Minneapolis Black Professional Firefighters Assn.http://tinyurl.com/BlackFirefighters
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