Hero complex

Photo by Bill Gabbert
Photo by Bill Gabbert

Structural firefighters occasionally find themselves in a position where a victim is in a dangerous situation and is need of rescue. This can involve an element of risk for the firefighters who have to evaluate the pros and cons of rescuing the victim versus the the risk they would take.

Firefighters on a wildland fire almost never encounter a situation that would REQUIRE them to take a serious risk in order to accomplish an important objective of managing the fire.

An article in the Texas Observer looks at what may motivate firefighters to take unnecessary risks, sometimes ending in fatalities. Below is an excerpt from the article.

…There’s a saying in the fire service: risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, and risk nothing to save nothing. When Houston firefighters entered the abandoned crack house that February morning in 2005, they didn’t do so with the intention of saving lives; they knew the house was empty, so the objective was solely to extinguish the fire. Abandoned houses are particularly precarious, and firefighters described the building as “heavily involved” in flames. Therefore, the report concludes, fighting the fire from the outside—what the fire service calls a “defensive attack”—would have been more effective and could have spared Burke’s life.

The report highlights a little-known problem: In their desire to save lives and property, to be a hero, firefighters sometimes rush into buildings when restraint is called for. It’s a problem that some fire chiefs and the state fire marshal are trying to address following one of the deadliest years for firefighters in Texas history.

There’s an idea of heroism that often colors firefighters’ perceptions of the job. It’s the Hollywood image: the fearless firefighter diving into a burning building and emerging with a child slung over a shoulder. Soon after graduating from the academy, firefighters realize those incidents are actually unusual and that the job more often involves handling mundane assignments and smaller fires. The rare large blazes become their chance to be the heroes they believe they’re expected to be—and some take disproportionate risks to earn the reputation.

Fire departments favor aggressive candidates who aren’t afraid of the myriad hazards the job poses. The tendency to hire strong-willed alpha males—as most firefighters describe themselves and each other—into an aggressive and stubborn culture can be a deadly combination…

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

4 thoughts on “Hero complex”

  1. It’s this attitude of labeling firefighters with a hero complex that shows how little the press knows about us and how the agency supports no liability at all cost. This smug attitude that nothing warrants committment has caused the current WUI issues wildland firefighters face now.

    A hundred years ago we (the gov) cam up with Smokey and all fires were bad. Sixty years latter urban sprawl is interface. We told the public we could put out all the fires, that we would protect them, and never educated them. All the sudden out of the recent. The public is stupid for building homes in the woods and we shouldn’t have to defend those homes. WUI isn’t going anywhere and the public has an expectation that we’ll solve the problem. We should accept the responsibility that we created and get good at interface firefighting. The public pays our salary and this job isn’t about strolling in the woods anymore. If you don’t want to be a public servant go do something else.

  2. Firefighters KNEW the building was vacant…..on paper….that article was clearly written by someone who writes for a living…on paper. I guess we all know that once a building is vacant, no one ever goes back inside for any reason.

  3. I read the article on another site, and I took a couple of exceptions with it.
    It seems like the real “hero” types dont seem to stay long without the constant recognition they seem to need. I personally feel that boiling it all down to the need to be a hero is extremely short-sighted.
    Secondly, a structure is never “known” to be vacant until searched. Even “abandoned” houses.


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