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Section overviews

The "Didja' Ever Want To Be a FIREMAN?" paper is divided into five sections, each examining a different question as to how, what, why, which, and when children dream to become firefighters.

Nearly 150 pages in length, and containing hundreds of photographs and first person quotes, it is not practical to reprint the entire paper here on the Internet at this time. However, you are welcome to read the section overviews below and then
download a "pdf" version of the complete Didja paper for your own personal use and enjoyment.

SECTION I: How a childhood dream was born

Chapter 1: Once every eighteen seconds
Fires and fire fighting in modern American life

Chapter 2: And the firemen… are a great institution
Fires and fire fighting in 19h Century American life

Every eighteen seconds a fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the United States. By 1998 statistics, there are over 31,114 fire departments in the U.S. and over one million firefighters -- the vast majority (80%) being volunteers. Firefighters are an important part of American culture. Their heroics adorn the covers of newspapers, magazines, and the nightly television news. Their exploits have been lampooned in political cartoons and comic books. Their image has been used to sell gasoline, foods and beverages, medicines, and nearly ever conceivable consumer product. The fire service has been the topic of countless films, radio and television programs, and popular books. In short, firefighters have become an important part of popular culture, and they often serve as an icon of American independence, initiative, pluck, and spirit.

Given this climate, it is easy to see how being a firefighter became a popular childhood aspiration.

SECTION II: What roles children have played in fighting fires
Chapter 3: Interested to the full every boy in town
Children fighting fires and working with firefighters

Chapter 4: Heroes and heroines in-waiting
Children playing and role-playing


Edward Everett Hale stated in his 1915 essay, A New England Boyhood, "I need hardly say that the old method [of firefighting] interested to the full every boy in town.  If his father and mother would let him, he attended the fire, where he could at least scream 'Fire!' if he could not do anything else." 

This section takes a historical overview of the various roles and relationships between children and firefighters. From the earliest days of firefighting when children actively participated in bucket brigades, and as fire company aids, torch boys, and runners, to their more ceremonial roles of "mascots." When the options for active participation in firefighting duties diminished in the twentieth century, toy companies began producing a host of toy fire engines, pedal cars, and firefighter costumes that enabled children to continue their roles in fighting fires, if only in their imaginations.

SECTION III: Why children want to be firefighters
Chapter 5: The excitement of it all

Chapter 6: Those guys must be heroes
Heroism, hero-worship, and role models

Chapter 7: A Fire Laddie Just Like My Daddy
Children wanting to emulate mom, dad, and other family members

Chapter 8: All stations, all ages, a nation of joiners
Children wanting affiliation and participation

So -- Why do children want to be firefighters? In 1998, an unscientific questionnaire was developed to gather primary-source data for this project. Over the next four years, the "Didja' Ever Want To Be a FIREMAN?" survey was distributed to family, friends, colleagues, and via the World Wide Web. Two hundred and nineteen replies were received from forty-one states and four foreign countries. The vast majority of respondents, (164 versus 55), stated "yes" to having some childhood desire to be a firefighter. While the survey was conducted with an unscientific sample group, (more replies were received from firefighters than non-firefighters), the numbers are supported with abundant secondary evidence. Indeed, even those who denied having any such aspirations themselves, stated, "yes!" they believed most kids do want to be firefighters at some point in their lives.

The nine survey questions asked about childhood recollections and experiences with firefighters, and probed for the underlying reasons why children aspire to be firefighters. The replies were as telling and varied as the individuals providing them, but four primary reasons emerged: Because of the excitement, the profession's heroics and hero-worship, family connections, or for the group affiliation and camaraderie.

SECTION IV: Who wants to be a firefighter
Chapter 9: A universal dream?
Which children want to be firefighters

Chapter 10: Yes, I wanted to be a fireman -- that's why I didn't become one
Girls aspiring to be firefighters

It's easy to generalize by saying, "All kids want to be firefighters at some point in their lives," yet until recently, for many children that dream has been unrealistic. Traditionally, fighting fires has been a dirty, dangerous, low paying, blue-collar, civil service job. It was for men with strong backs, weak minds, and "with arms as big as anvils." Although european-ethnic immigrants filled the the ranks of the firehouses for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the allure of fighting fires was strong. Several well-known women were fire company "mascots" in Victorian-era California.

The various social-equality movements which arose in the 1960s and 70s, helped prove that anyone, male or female, Black or White, can not only dream to be a firefighter - they can actually BECOME one!

SECTION V: When children grow up
Chapter 11: Childhood dreams and defining moments

A long photograph from Marlborough New York dated "30 May 1929," shows a large group of children, all wearing matching toy fire helmets, sitting on top of a fire engine before a memorial day parade. They are holding a banner that reads, "Next Generation - 1935 - Active Service." The implication is clear, in six years these children will become the "next generation" of active firefighters. The American fire service is a unique institution. It was founded on the concept of community service and volunteerism. While children played important roles with the volunteer firefighters of the nineteenth century, it is the volunteer fire departments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that are providing opportunities for many to live out their dreams. Robert P. Smith, a volunteer firefighter who dreamed of fighting fires as a child writes, "Obstacles such as diplomas and licenses usually stand between grownups and the fulfillment of their childhood dreams. The real world seldom accepts a kid's fantasy as an adult's credentials. But fire departments do, at least the majority that rely on the million-plus men and women who volunteer their services."

For many the childhood dream to be a firefighter remains just that, a dream. As adults the "little kid inside" may still get excited at the sound of the siren, yet for the majority this excitement is stifled by the realities and responsibilities of daily life. For others however, the allure of the dream is too strong.

If you have any questions or comments, you are welcome to contact the author,
David Lewis • e-mail: