What Makes a True Firefighter?

For almost three years now, I’ve walked through the doors of the North Las Vegas Fire Department (NLVFD) without giving much thought to the phrase displayed above the doorway leading to our administrative offices: Our City, Our People, Our Duty. This motto is not the handiwork of a hired consultant or an outside agency, but rather the heartfelt spirit and creativity of the men and women who serve the city of North Las Vegas every day.

Unconsciously, I might have assumed that this motto was like so many others that decorate the walls of commercial businesses–words without meaning, words without action. But I could not have been more wrong.

It was just after 2300 hrs on Thanksgiving Day when the crew of Engine 51 received a call for a fire behind a local business just a few blocks from the station. The crew of four donned their gear and started their response. A column of smoke was clearly visible as they turned the corner. As they arrived, the company officer noticed an unknown substance on fire in the parking lot a short distance from a heavily involved dumpster. Once on scene, he quickly made his size-up:  What was first thought to be a pile of clothes or rubbish was actually an elderly man whose clothes were on fire.

The crew extinguished both fires and the elderly male was rapidly transported to the hospital in critical condition with second- and third-degree burns over 65% of his body. As the days passed, the cause of the fire remained a mystery. So, too, was the victim’s identity–but his history was well known by the crews of Station 51.

The elderly man had frequently passed by the station and sometimes chatted with the crews as they performed their daily apparatus/equipment checks. By day, he was a cordial man down on his luck and in search of the opportunity to live in the comforts of his own home, to have a decent-paying job and a peaceful life. By night, he became a victim of life on the streets and the countless sociological challenges that plague our nation’s homeless. Over the years, he became what many in the fire service would call a “frequent flyer.” Because he often suffered from the consequences of overindulgence or temperature extremes, the crews of Station 51 had tended to his calls for help many, many times.

For several weeks, the unidentified elderly man remained in critical condition, unconscious of his surroundings. Sadly, in early December, without family present, he  succumbed to his injuries.

As the investigation continued, the man’s true identity was revealed. Wayne Green was a 62-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, separated from his immediate family for more than 25 years. Notification was made to his sister, his only known relative. After receiving the news of her brother’s untimely death, she tearfully shared that she was unable to finance the burial services.

In response to the tragic news, members of the NLVFD chipped in to cover the cost of the cremation services requested by Green’s sister. But that wasn’t enough. In the truest form of public service, they were determined to see that Wayne Green’s final resting place would be at home with his family.

Notified of Green’s story by members of the NLVFD, Southwest Airlines donated two round-trip tickets to allow members of the NLVFD to escort this American veteran home for Christmas. Thanks to the members of the NLVFD, and with the assistance of the Jacksonville (Fla.) Fire Department, Wayne Green was reunited with his sister back home in Jacksonville.

Over the course of our careers, we will be faced with some of the most tragic of circumstances, and in most cases we will bring calm to the chaos, stabilize the unstable and provide a second chance for those who face certain death. The knowledge, skills and abilities required to achieve these actions are what give us the right to call ourselves firefighters.

Oddly, however, what makes a true firefighter is not always what’s visible on the surface, but rather what lies deep beneath the surface–the selfless courage, the caring heart and the willful acknowledgement that our duty is to serve our community and our citizens to the best of our ability, without the expectation of praise or reward.

Today, as I walk into the reception area of the fire administration building, I look proudly overhead at the phrase that says so much more to me now, thanks to the brothers and sisters of the NLVFD who demonstrated the true value of a firefighter by living the motto, Our City, Our People, Our Duty

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