“…It’s disheartening and hurtful to be portrayed as the economic destroyers of the community, the ones who work such a short career and live such a wonderfully long retirement at the expense of the people we served – portrayed as something bad, as if our work, lives, careers were some sort of scam we have perpetrated on the community. I guess on a line item in a budget or in a ledger, we are just another number.”
Earlier this year, the Oak Park (IL) Fire Department had laid off several firefighter/paramedics due to budget constraints.
One of them is a brother that used to be a part of my crew for years at his previous department, and is one of those guys that can be described as a “fireman’s fireman”. So I can personally verify that the Oak Park Fire Department had lost the services of a great guy- just as we did when he left us for Oak Park.
Today, he is back at work in Oak Park, one of two firefighters just rehired.
The honorable and selfless acts of senior firefighters, who decided to hang up the leather early to make room for the outstanding younger guys to carry on in their place.
What an excellent punctuation mark on the fire service careers of these fine men.
Here, in his own words, is an article written by one of those jakes, Rich Wilkie, reflecting on a career with no regrets.
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I have just recently retired (after 27 years, two months) a few years early, short of a full 30 years of service. This was in order to effect the return to duty of the five young firefighter paramedics who were laid off last September. I was asked by one of the young firefighters today, “Were the years at the firehouse worth it all? What was your best memory and were there any regrets?”
It was worth every second of it. I would do it for another 27 years standing on my head. But I have already enjoyed a wonderful career serving, and theirs is just beginning. That is enough reason for me to know it’s time to go now. Not to mention that this job has taken its toll on my body physically and my spirit emotionally. There are so many good memories and stories; it would be impossible to single out one from the rest. So many challenging and rewarding situations in EMS and fire that you take with you, feeling and knowing you made a difference in someone’s life.
It’s a package deal, though. You can’t just take the good alone. Along with the good, you must carry forever the heartache and pain of the situations where you couldn’t change the outcome. You take those with you, too. There’s no vocation I can think of that gives you so much, spiritually, for your successful efforts and takes so much away for your failures. That’s how we think. We own our successes and failures, whether or not our actions could have possibly changed the outcome. We always want to help, save, rescue and succeed, and if we don’t, we feel responsible. We feel we’ve failed. That is why there is such a bond between us, “our band of brothers.”
It takes a special type of person to do what we do. We can’t do it alone; we need each other. Most people don’t really know or understand what is required from us and the toll it takes on us to do the work we do. Only those of us who do this work can understand what it is like to be us. A lifetime decision to willingly and without reservation give your life to help and protect the community you serve. It may sound cliché, but that’s the oath that every firefighter takes when he or she takes on this vocation.
It’s disheartening and hurtful to be portrayed as the economic destroyers of the community, the ones who work such a short career and live such a wonderfully long retirement at the expense of the people we served – portrayed as something bad, as if our work, lives, careers were some sort of scam we have perpetrated on the community. I guess on a line item in a budget or in a ledger, we are just another number.
But in my heart – and I hope in the hearts of the community in which I’ve lived, grown up, raised my children and served for 27 years – me and all my brother and sister firefighters are more than that. Your successes are ours and your losses are ours, too. Thank you for the opportunity and the privilege to serve you for the time I was able.
No regrets at all. Keep the faith and protect each other.
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Rich Wilkie is a 27-year firefighter for the Oak Park Fire Department and member of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 95.
Making a splash: Rich Wilkie helps Joey Midlash handle a fire hose at A Day In Our Village in 2004.
Photo by Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest File 2004/Staff