Yesterday, I had the unfortunate pleasure of attending a firefighter’s funeral in the town where I began my fire service career, a little over fourteen years ago. This brave firefighter and family man collapsed suddenly in cardiac arrest, after charging the hydrant for his crew, at a building fire earlier this week. Despite the best efforts of the paramedics on-scene, the fire service has added another name to the long list of firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs).
The purpose behind me writing this column, is to ask the question of what makes up “The Brotherhood?” Many of us hear those words sang around the kitchen table while sipping our coffee, or when someone needs a hand putting a roof on their house over a weekend; but has the title of “Brother” lost its meaning? Does it really make a difference if the firefighter was a paid/ career firefighter, or if they were a call/ volunteer firefighter? In the case of this LODD, the firefighter was a volunteer, from a department of about two-hundred.
I ask this question, only because of how disappointed I felt because of the turn-out, while standing in the pouring rain on a 4o degree day, paying my respects to this firefighter. Having attended too many firefighter funerals to count, I know of the usual turn-out, and how many people usually make these events. This funeral had maybe two-hundred firefighters total, show up. The worst part, to me, was that not even half the membership of this particular department showed up to honor their fallen comrade; and they had mutual aid companies covering the town for the duration of the day. Where was the so-called “brotherhood” then? Was it because of the poor weather conditions? Was it because this firefighter died outside the building, and not inside? Or even worse, was it because he was a volunteer, and not a career firefighter?
Today, I am employed by one of the larger fire departments in the country, but will always remember my humble roots. This is one of the reasons why I would not have missed this funeral. Many people forget that the paid/ career firefighter is in the vast minority within the fire service. “The NFPA estimates that there were approximately 1,148,100 firefighters in the U.S. in 2009. Of the total number of firefighters 335,950 or 29% were career firefighters and 812,150 (71%) were volunteer firefighters” (Karter, 2010). It is the volunteer fire service that protects the greatest majority of this country. I am also confident that the majority of the readers of this article would fall into this category, as well.
Most of us are aware, but maybe forget, that the funeral is not for the man or woman being carried on the back of the fire engine; but is for the family members who make just as great a sacrifice in their loss of their loved one. You can see it in their eyes, when they walk by the saluting masses or when they follow the casket for its final ride to the cemetery in the limo; and standing tall are hundreds to thousands of firefighters saying their farewells. Even with the low turn-out to yesterday’s ceremony, the family still seemed thankful for the support of their loved one’s fellow firefighters.
As of today, there have been thirty-one LODDs in the United States (USFA, 2011). We still lose, on average, around one-hundred firefighters every year, due to firefighting operations. Approximately forty to fifty percent of those are due to cardiac-related issues, and that figure has remained constant for over a decade. The United States Fire Administration’s (USFA) 2009 Annual report on firefighter fatalities showed that within the ninety firefighter fatalities, forty-seven were volunteers, with thirty-six being career and 7 were wildland agency firefighters (USFA, 2011). This still shows that volunteers incur the greatest amount of LODDs within the fire service; so why would the turn-out to one of their funerals be any less than a member of their paid/ career counterparts?
When someone calls me their “Brother,” I usually have to take it with a grain of salt. It used to be that I could consider any other firefighter “My Brother,” but those days are slowly drifting away. The fire service is slowly forgetting how united we once, and always were; it truly was a family. Many of us could probably boast about being closer to some of our co-workers, than our own blood relatives. Where did this go? Yesterday opened my eyes further to the chasm that is slowly dividing more and more of us each day. Is one firefighter’s death less important than another’s, because he volunteered his time versus making it a career? Because he died providing one of the most essential functions on the fireground, water supply, and not hugging the nozzle or being disoriented on an upper floor?
When I joined the fire service over fourteen years ago, I remember a feeling of belonging that few get to experience. It truly was joining another family. It’s this feeling that still drives me to visit some of my old friends in this volunteer fire department. This is the same department that I still go to, to recharge my vigor and zeal for the fire service, when my department has me feeling run-down or frustrated. It’s these men and women that I look into their eyes, and see a true passion for being a firefighter, not just a simple paycheck and pension opportunity. Is this the fire department you joined? If not, I encourage you to be the voice of change. Bring back this fellowship, and remember what this job is really about. Career or volunteer, helping others is the simple task we all swore our lives for. If this doesn’t sound like you, maybe it is time to seek another calling or career. The fire service is one of the strongest and greatest families out there, let’s continue to remember that.
Karter, M.J., Stein, G.P. (October, 2010). U.S. Fire Department Profile. National Fire Protection Association.
United States Fire Administration. (2011). Firefighter Casualty Reports & Statistics. Retrieved from: http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/applications/ffmem/ffmem_results.jsp?p_mn_status=1&p_last_name=&p_first_name=&p_fd_city=&p_fd_state_code=&p_death_year=2011