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If you and your family were trapped in a burning home and there were just three options for escape, which would you choose? This is the dilemma facing American voters today.

Three Firefighters

You and your family are sleeping and aren’t aware of the fire until the entire back portion of the house is in flames. You’ve long known that the world outside is dangerous, so you’ve had burglar bars installed on all the windows. It’s only now that you realize the bars also trap everyone inside. You and your family reach the front door, and you’re relieved the family dog has made it, too. But the door is locked with a deadbolt that can only be unlocked with a key. You usually keep that key on a table near the door, but in all the smoke and confusion, you can’t find it. When you open the speakeasy window in the door to call for help, you see three firefighters on your front porch. Thank God!

If you and your family were trapped in a burning home and there were just three options for escape, which would you choose? This is the dilemma facing American voters today.

Before you can say a single word, the two firefighters on the right speak in unison. “Union rules dictate that only one of us is allowed to help you escape. You have to decide which union you want to help you.” The firefighter on the far left opens her mouth to speak, but the other two continue. “She doesn’t belong to any of the firefighter unions, but she insisted on coming.”

“What the—” You’re stunned that they aren’t breaking your door down right away. What the hell is the matter with them?

“We’re trying to organize a union right now,” the third firefighter manages to squeeze into the conversation, “but the other union leaders are making it difficult.”

“For God’s sake!” you shout. “Shut up and help us!”

The three firefighters exchange glances. You see a few other firefighters way back on the sidewalk, waving frantically at you but blocked from approaching by large barriers. You aren’t sure why they all can’t work together, but you’ve seen the various firefighter unions on TV promoting their own particular escape and rescue plans while dissing the others. There’s certainly no time to figure it out now. You slap the door as loudly as you can to gain the attention of the firefighters. “Help us get this door open! We can’t do it alone!”

The first firefighter takes a tiny step forward and speaks. “Sir, I’m not going to be able to get your wife and three children out of the house, but I can get you out. It’s going to take a while, and you will get second and third degree burns over 25% of your body, but I can definitely get you out. Definitely.”

You’re too stunned to respond.

The first firefighter steps back in line while the second firefighter steps forward and says, “Ma’am, I’m 99% positive I can get you out. With hardly any burns. Plus, I’m pretty sure I can get your husband out, too, perhaps with just a few burns. Maybe even one of your kids. But we’re simply not going to be able to save the other two. We have to face harsh realities.”

“What in the world are you waiting for?” you shout. “DO something!” If you get out of the house alive, you are going to file a complaint. Two complaints. Three. As many as you are able.

After the second firefighter steps back in line, the third firefighter approaches and says, “Ma’am. Sir. I’ll get both of you out, your kids, too, if we all work together as hard as we can. My plan is riskier than that of the other two firefighters, so it’s possible we won’t succeed, but I don’t intend to leave anyone behind. It’s a real gamble, I know, but trying to get all of you out is the only acceptable approach.”

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You can hear the roar of the flames behind you. You can feel the increasing heat. You find it more and more difficult to breathe. The firefighters have waited so long to help that your situation will soon be hopeless. You have just seconds to make up your mind. Which of the escape plans is best?

Your thoughts fly by quickly, like a dying person’s life flashing before their eyes.

You must make up your mind right now!

It’s hard for you to imagine anyone choosing the first option, yet you’re aware that firefighting statistics show it’s surprisingly popular, especially in the Deep South and in rural parts of many states. Are home fires different there? If so many people choose this option, you wonder if they understand something you don’t. It can’t be dismissed out of hand. Perhaps that’s the option which offers the most certainty. What is certain isn’t very good, but people know what they’re getting, and some people need that.

The second option is more popular in urban areas, especially on both the East and West Coasts. You even know some friends and relatives across the country who’ve had to make this choice. They regularly see therapists to cope with their survivor’s guilt, but you know your best friends from college were able to save the life of their oldest child, and that one child has had a good and productive life because of their decision. They’ve told you more than once that they can’t imagine anyone being foolish enough to risk losing all three of their children when they know they could have saved one.

Yet you can’t imagine any parent heartless enough to willingly allow any of their loved ones to burn to death. How can you accept your own survival without also making every attempt to save the rest of your family? While the second option seems far superior to the first option, it’s nowhere near good enough. You remember seeing on the news the statistics provided by the firefighter unions showing how rarely the third option works, and your heart beats even faster. You also remember your friends declaring how selfish it would be to choose that third option. Besides, you’ve always been pro-union, so it almost seems unethical to pick option three.

The flames are getting hotter and closer. Your children are crying in fear and pain, coughing now more than crying. The dog has stopped barking. You and your spouse look at each other, your eyes stinging from the smoke, and clasp your hands together tightly.

What do you do?

Ultimately, you know this isn’t a decision anyone else can make for you. Your life is the one at stake, and the lives of those you love most. You’re aware that no matter which option you choose, some of your friends and relatives are going to disapprove, maybe even cut off contact with you forever. You have this brief, absurd realization that your friends and relatives actually expect you to consider their feelings while making the choice of how best to save your spouse and children. That they have the audacity to be offended because you want to save every last person in your family.

You wonder if what they feel isn’t offense but shame over their own choices.

But feeling superior isn’t what you want. You want to live! You want your loved ones to live!

Johnny Townsend

This terrible night will soon be over, and you will have to live with your decision as well as the opinion of others for the rest of your life.

Which firefighter do you choose?

Johnny Townsend