Riding fire trucks & ambulances with America's heroes

Clifton Scott, Sarah Tracy

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

6 Scopus citations


The results are in, and the people have spoken. Once again, firefighter is at the top of the list in the annual AOL/Salary.com sexiest jobs survey. Our brave firefighters had some tough competition for the spot this year though, sharing the honors with the silverspooned CEO, whose median salary of more than $600,000 seems to be compounding interest not only in the bank, but also with the ladies. In the two male-dominated fields (more than 97 percent of firefighters and 96 percent of CEOs nationally are men), the fact that number one was a tie between the altruistic, brawny fireman and the bring-home-the-bacon CEO speaks volumes about what we find sexiest in men. But are these jobs really sexy? (Pappassun, 2006). The survey described above recently named firefighting the sexiest occupation, but when asked to comment on this finding in a media interview, one firefighter retorted, "It's a very rewarding job, but it's not sexy, not unless you think dealing with blood, germs and bodily functions is sexy." Another firefighter agreed, "Firefighting- no, it's not a sexy job." And yet, other firefighters interviewed for the same article (Pappassun, 2006) claimed that firefighting is the essence of sexy work. "Chivalry isn't dead. It is a chance to sometimes be a hero, to ride in like a knight in shining armor," said one. Another said, "It's true that when we arrive on the scene, we are all about helping them. If that makes us sexy, so be it." Indeed, in terms of how the public generally views the relevance of one's work, firefighting is arguably one of the best jobs to be had. In the post-9/11 U.S., it is difficult to imagine an occupation endowed with more public trust and esteem than firefighting. During uncertain times, the heroism, strength, and manliness attributed to this work by popular culture seem to be a source of comfort for many. Yet, as reflected in some of the quotations above, the everyday experience of actually doing the work of firefighting often seems far removed from the "sexiest occupation" surveys, beefcake calendars, and dramatic television shows that people might imagine when they witness the dramatic spectacle of the fire truck on the street. In spite of their prestige, firefighters regularly deal with tasks, clients, and situations that are physically, socially, and morally dirty. As we demonstrate in this chapter, the considerable validation given this occupation in spite of its dirtiness is in part a consequence of the "identity work" (Tracy & Naughton, 1994) that firefighters do to manage the tainted tasks, clients, and material filth that mark their everyday experience of this work. Managing the symbolic meaning of the truck and its surrounding activities is not only about "getting the job done" but also maintaining a positive, satisfying sense of selfidentity (Ashcraft & Mumby, 2004; Weedon, 1997). Fire trucks are not inherently meaningful except in relationship to those who ride them (e.g., firefighters), the other objects they are intended to save (e.g., victims, burning buildings), and the manner in which this work has been portrayed historically. Thus, for the firefighters, a sense of individual, collective, and occupational self can only be achieved in relation to this truck, its onlookers, the clients its technology is intended to save, and the hazards that inspire its dispatch. In this chapter, we explore a specific form of identity work, taint management, which includes the communicative efforts of employees to "make work meaningful" by organizing the meanings of stigmatized clients, tasks, and situations. We argue that the situated, local, mundane talk that comprises the everyday discourse of firefighters in this study often appropriates broader, societal discourses in a relatively privileged effort to manage work that might otherwise seem dirty to most outsiders (Tracy & Scott, 2006). While firefighters may seem like an unusual case, we conclude that this taint management is actually central to the identity work that firefighters- indeed that all employees-are trying to accomplish as they attempt, with more or less success, to feel secure about who they are in the work they do.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationDirty Work
Subtitle of host publicationThe Social Construction of Taint
PublisherBaylor University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)9781932792737
StatePublished - Dec 1 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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