An air horn blasts and pagers beep. Minutes later, the big red trucks, lights flashing and sirens blaring, roar down the road, traffic parting to make way. The volunteers are off to another call. Is it a working fire or a false ala rm? It doesn't matter much to these men, [1] they'd still be there. They serve a unique role in their community: the volunteer firefighter. Over 90% of this country's firefighters are volunteers, who are on call 24 hours a day, ready to help those in need.

Why do these men do what they do? Are they just crazy guys who run into burning buildings? Are they out to prove just how tough and aggressive they can be? Or is there a serious commitment to the community? Kurt Vonnegut calls volunteer firefighters, "the only examples of enthusiastic unselfishness to be seen in this land." [2] I began an exploration of the volunteer fire department through interviews with ten members of the Swarthmore Fire and Protective Ass ociation while also exploring traditional and modern American masculine archetypes. There were three concepts which were especially interesting. The first is the analogy of firefighting to war. The second is volunteerism as unconditional love. The thi rd is the department as a rite of passage for young men and its connection to traditional masculine archetypes.

Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, following a Jungian approach, talk about "boy psychology" archetypes as a foundation on which the mature "man psychology" archetype build. They use four archetypes, each of which has a three part structure. "At the top of the triangle is is the archetype in its fullness. At the bottom of the triangle the archetype is experienced in what we call a bipolar dysfunctional, or shadow, form." [3] The four triangles come together to make a pyramid which is the emerging structure of the masculine Self. The mature masculine Self is based on the immature, a pyramid over a pyramid. They call the four mature masculine archetypes King, Warrior, Magician, and Lover. I will discuss the Wa rrior in greater depth.

Fire is the enemy. You're the soldier, attack. It's rather easy to make the analogy of firefighting to war. "Basically, the fire department is like the army, just an octave lower," says Phil Layton, Vietnam Veteran and Assistant Chief. There is a clear chain of command, officers leading their men into a building to "battle the beast." You've trained so hard you can do things automatically.
The man who is Warrior avoids self-consciousness, as we define it. His actions become second nature. They become unconscious reflex actions. But they are actions he has trained for through the exercise of enormous self-discipline. This is how Marines are made. A good Marine is one who can make split-second decisions and then act decisively. [4]

Making split-second decisions and acting decisively is what's required of a good firefighter as well. He needs to be able to take the training and apply it in a real life situation. The fire service calls for this same self-discipli ne.

The soldier/warrior is perhaps the most grounded traditional male archetype. Mark Gerzon notes, "Even now, when conservatives and liberals alike concur that total war would be unwinnable, the image of the Soldier is still invoked whenever our nation's leaders feel insecure and confused." [5] He says that the soldier in wartime was the American man's chance to work, not against one another, but together against the enemy. "Instead of the competiti veness and individualism of peace, they found the camaraderie and union of war" [6] This again reinforces the firefighting to war analogy. A diverse group of men can come together, and although the may argue and play politics, when the time comes, they are ready to work together to defeat the "enemy."

However, aside from the romantic notions of a "union of war" there is a horrifying truth. Men returning from combat have to deal with that truth everyday. Phil Layton gives the analogy that, "Being in combat is like stress testing a rope, you pul l it to its limit and when you're done testing it, you no longer have a useful piece of rope." I continue to refer to Phil, as he a clear example of a veteran who has worked hard to try and overcome what he encountered in Vietnam. As Thich Nhat Hanh wri tes in his essay, To Veterans, "Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the re alities of war." Phil also mentions that the only people who can truly understand what happened in combat, are the combat vets themselves. If we continue our analogy further, it is also difficult for those outside the fire department to completely under stand what we do. The destruction that occurs with fire is reality too. Rick Graham, Captain, relates the story of the first fatality he encountered:
There was heavy fire showing when we pulled up and reports of people trapped. Brad, Jimmy and I come up to the lawn. There was a smoldering couch on the lawn. I looked back and [it's] a body. I was really scared then, I thought we'd find a nother one. It wasn't a game anymore, it was very sobering. As far as counseling goes, when we were back at the station, Cris pulled me into the kitchen and said, "I need a beer, you need a beer. Go home and drink three or four more and go to bed." I had nightmares for six months. To this day, I'll never forget what that guy looked like.
Why do firefighters do it? Why go through all the training and spend countless hours? Is volunteerism a form of nonviolence? I'd have to say yes. Thich Nhat Hanh says that, "The essence of non-violence is love. Out of love and th e willingness to act selflessly, strategies, tactics and techniques for a nonviolent struggle arise naturally." [7] The members of a volunteer fire department give of themselves continually. "They are, when the alarm go es off, almost the only examples of enthusiastic unselfishness to be seen in this land." [8] Not one member interviewed disagreed with Vonnegut's writing, although some questioned the sincerity of other member's motives. Mo ore and Gillette discuss the archetype of the Lover at his fullness as being, "related and connected to them all, drawn into them through his sensitivity. His sensitivity leads him to feel compassionately and empathetically united with them." [9] It is having this compassion, this love, within yourself that is at the heart of nonviolence. For many of the firefighters, this seems to be a natural thing. Gabe Ross, student firefighter, talked about his realization of what a firefight er is:
You don't question who you help, it is the right thing to do. You do what you can to get them back on their feet. There's a person in trouble who needs help, you give it.
Does the department work as a rite of passage for young men? There are rites of passage within the department that are pretty clear cut such as being on the nozzle at a working fire, going to the bar with the senior members, or getting a smile from t he chief. The department also has lessons to teach that will help young men to grow. This could be looked upon as a ritual process. Moore and Gillette give sacred space and a ritual elder as the two necessary components of a contained ritual process. The department itself would be considered a sacred space. Removed from the outside world, a new member has responsibilities; they are an important part of a working team that serves an important role in the community. They have to over come obstacles, both physical and mental. The older members, the chief, the officers, are the ritual elders. "The ritual elder is the man who knows the secret wisdom, who know the ways of the tribe and the closely guarded men's myths." [10 ]

Finally, how does all of this impact on me? After interviewing ten very different men and reading a number of books, I've thought a great deal about my involvement with the department. I am intrigued by the analogy of firefighting to war, at the romantic notion of battling an evil enemy. Yet I realize that for every battle we fight, someone is being hurt.

Working at the department is giving unconditional love to the community, to whoever it is that needs help. A firefighter, who is also an EMT, was telling me the story of going to a house, with the ambulance corps, for an overdose call. It was cle ar when they arrived that the patient had just beaten both his wife and child. This did not stop them from providing care to this man, even with the anger they were feeling towards him. I don't know what the next call is going to be. I could be in a cl ass and five minutes later, I could be inside a burning building tearing down a ceiling. All I know is that somewhere, someone needs our help.

I do feel as though the department has helped me to grow. After proving myself, I've been given numerous responsibilities, from showing the new members the trucks to taking an attack crew into the building at the live burn. I've had to challenge myself, prove to myself that I could do things that I otherwise would have thought I could not. I'm a firefighter. I have a crest on my helmet that says so too.

What we do and what it is that motivates us to do it is extremely difficult to explain. The experience is just amazing. Yes, there is responsibility and dedication but there is fun too. There's the incredible rush of adrenaline at the sound of t he horn. If this was completely boring, I probably wouldn't be doing it.

In a way, I'm living out my childhood dreams. I used to walk to the firehouse with my Papa (grandfather on my mother's side). I never thought, living in NYC where FDNY is "the bravest," that I'd get the opportunity to be a firefighter. I was at the activities fair, wandering around, bored, when I saw the ladder truck. The ladder was up and I couldn't resist the urge to go over and talk to the firefighters. That week, I went down to the station to check it out and I've been involved ever since. I get a warm feeling inside when I'm riding down the street in a truck, wearing my gear, and a little kid waves at me. I always wave back.


I had to cut the interviews, they were confidential, maybe someday I'll feel comfortable releasing them. The passages below are from Vonnegut's book. I wrote this paper spring semester 1995, for my Non-Violence: Theories and Practice class (whic h is why there is the slant in that direction). It's not the greatest piece of written work, but it's something. -- Dave

This is the "passage":

"Your devotion to volunteer fire departments is very sane, too, Eliot, for they are, when the alarm goes off, almost the only examples of enthusiastic unselfishness to be seen in this land. They rush to the rescue of any human being, and count no t the cost. The most contemptible man in town, should his contemptible house catch fire, will see his enemies put the fire out. And, as he pokes through the ashes for the remains of his contemptible possessions, he will be comforted and pitied by no les s than the Fire Chief.
"There we have people treasuring people as people. It's extremely rare. So from this we must learn." p. 211

and an additional quote from the same book:

"When you think about it, boys, that's what holds us together more than anything else, except maybe gravity. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers-joined in the serious business of keeping our food, shelter, clothing, and loved ones from comb ining with oxygen. I tell you boys, I used to belong to a volunteer fire department, and I'd belong to one now, if there were such a human thing, such a humane thing, in New York City." p. 32


William Betcher and William Pollack; In a Time of Fallen Heroes: The Re-Creation of Masculinity; Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1993
Kenneth Clatterbaugh; Contemporary Perspectives on Masculinity: Men, Women, and Politics in Western Society; Westview Press, Boulder CO, 1990
Mark Gerzon; A Choice of Heroes: The Changing Faces of American Manhood; Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1982
Sam Keen; Beginnings Without Ends; Harper & Row, New York, 1975
Larry May and Robert Strikwerda, ed.; Rethinking Masculinity: Philosophical Explorations in Light of Feminism; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Lanham MD, 1992
Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette; King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine; Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1990
John Stoltenberg; Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice; Breitenbush Books, Portland OR, 1989
Kurt Vonnegut; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or Pearls Before Swine; Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, New York, 1965
Thich Nhat Hanh; Love In Action
Thich Nhat Hanh; To Veterans

[1] I'm going to be talking specifically about male roles in the paper. I will generally be using man instead of gender neutral expressions. This does not reflect upon the performance of women firefighters, I've just decided to focus my study on the men in the department. [back]
[2] Kurt Vonnegut; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater p. 211 [back]
[3] Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette; King, Warrior, Magician, Lover p. 14 [back]
[4] Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette; King, Warrior, Magician, Lover p. 83 [back]
[5] Mark Gerzon; A Choice of Heroes: The Changing Faces of American Manhood p. 246 [back]
[6] Mark Gerzon; A Choice of Heroes: The Changing Faces of American Manhood p. 54 [back]
[7] Thich Nhat Hanh; Love in Action p. 39 [back]
[8] Kurt Vonnegut; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater p. 211 (see the end of the interviews for the entire passage.) [back]
[9] Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette; King, Warrior, Magician, Lover p. 83 [back]
[10] Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette; King, Warrior, Magician, Lover p. 7 [back]