Should there be a difference in ceremony between line of duty, on-duty, and off-duty funerals? It is best to collect your members' thoughts now and plan ahead before the event. (Bill Carey photo)
When someone has any type of emergency, they call 9-1-1 and get an EMT, Paramedic, Firefighter or Police Officer. No matter the time of day or night, they, the citizens we swore to protect, know they will get the help they need. But when we have an emergency we don’t have a magical number to call to fix our problem. We have to rely on each other. And no one takes better care of their own then the fire service. Sometimes, too well.
Here is what I mean by that. We all have those people on the department we absolutely love and look up to. Everyone likes them and thinks they are the greatest thing since sliced bread. They have the knowledge, or are easy to talk to, or maybe they are the funniest person around. And if that person dies off duty or post retirement, we want to give them a funeral befitting a king.
When one of our own dies in the line of duty, it affects the whole fire family. Uniformed men and women show up from all over the U.S., and beyond, to help pay final tribute to our fallen and show the family they have support. We carry our fallen on an engine company, cross our water towers and hang a flag between them. Then we toll bells and tears fall from our eyes as we listen to taps and the bag pipes play amazing grace. We do this because there is something honorable about dying in the Line of Duty. I’m not saying we want to, I’m saying we accept that fact and we will always honor and remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
So why do we want to take something so sacred and give it to everyone?
There needs to be that line of distinction between retiree, active duty and line of duty funerals. I am not saying that the person that made it 30 plus years in the fire service and was lucky to retire, doesn’t deserve anything. But do they deserve the same as someone that died falling through a floor at a working structure fire or was treating a patient in the back of an ambulance when it was hit?
One department I know of reads the bell ceremony and tolls the bell for retiree funerals and another that reads it for active duty funerals. It states right in the reading:
"When a firefighter had died in the line of duty, paying the supreme sacrifice, it was the mournful toll of the bell the solemnly announced a comrades passing. We utilize these traditions as symbols, which reflect honor and respect on those who have given so much and who have served so well. To symnolize the devotion that these brave souls had for their duty, a special signal, of hree rings, three times each, represents the end of our comrades' duties and that they will be returning to quarters."
When we lose an active brother or sister off duty, it’s still a great loss. It’s not somehow easier to deal with an active duty loss when it’s an accident, medical problem or even a suicide. Everyone on the department is stunned and at a loss for words. And, as a department and honor guard, we are going to be there for that family and help them and our department members through this terrible time.
A department near mine had an active duty member die while off duty. Although I didn’t agree with the fact that this department was giving their firefighter a full honors funeral, I was still honored they asked me and another honor guard commander to help train them. After assisting them with training on pall bearer duties, I was walking to my car to leave, and an older gentleman shakes my hand and says “thank you for helping us, he was a great guy and deserves this”. All I could think was, “if he wasn’t a great guy, would he still deserve this”? Think about this, if you give a well liked retiree or an active duty member a full honors funeral, and then a few years later a not so liked member dies, are you going to do the same? Because now the precedent is set and that family may want the same for their loved one. And rightfully so.
A wise man once told me, if someone wants more than what your protocols allow, tell them this, “Tradition dictates that this is what we do for this type of funeral.” And we in the fire service are all about tradition, right?
If your department doesn’t have protocols defining what to do should you have to assist in planning a retiree, active duty or line of duty funeral, you may want to start putting some together. Start by surfing the internet. There are many honor guards and departments that have their protocols online. We have sent our protocols to many different people looking for a template to start with. When writing our protocols, I downloaded and paged through protocols from 20 different departments, honor guards and statewide honor guards to include the military. We have been updating and adjusting our protocols since then. Look around and see if there is an honor guard nearby that will come help you. There are a few places out there that have classes on how to set up an honor guard, set up protocols and will train you on the basics of honor guard duties. You can learn everything from basic drill, to posting/presenting the colors, casket guard duties, pall bearer duties and flag folding detail.
Everyone that has served honorably as a firefighter/EMT deserves some type of recognition for their service when they pass. But we need to be sure we don’t grey that line between tradition and what feel someone should get.
20 years Fire service
17 years Milwaukee Fire Department (WI)
Former Commander: Milwaukee Firefighters Honor Guard
Commander: Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin Honor Guard
Commander: Wisconsin State Firefighters Memorial Funeral Guard
Deputy Commander: International Association of Fire Fighters Honor Guard
Lead Instructor/Founder: Milwaukee Honor Guard Clinic