Why We Have a Responsibility to Commit to Firefighter Safety

On Dec. 23, 1997, Assistant Chief Brian Hauk of the Logan-Trivoli (Ill.) Fire Protection District left his home on a fire call, as he had done hundreds of times before. While he was responding, another individual pulled into the path of his vehicle; he swerved to miss the vehicle, ran off the road and was killed.

In the aftermath of this terrible tragedy, I have had the great honor of becoming close friends with Brian’s wife, Tina. She is an active member of the survivor network within the fire service and has managed to channel her grief into an incredibly compelling example of grace and composure. She is a class act.

Tina is one of those people who can tell you to kiss her ass and leave you smiling for having taken the time to talk to you. She is always upbeat, always smiling, always giving. She has two beautiful children who are grown now–Kate Rebecca and Jacob Mychal–and several grandchildren. One day, she sent me a series of photos that I was not prepared for. When I opened the e-mail, they took my breath away.

Tina had taken one of her grandchildren, Parker, to meet his firefighter grandfather. And so comes the picture you see here. 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I could write columns for the next 20 years and never capture all that is in this photo. When we talk about “never forgetting,” we generally refer to the firefighters who have given their lives. In reality, we should be talking about our responsibilities to those who we say are most important to us.

There continues to be a vocal segment of the American fire service that argues that those who are committed to safety are somehow robbing our calling of all the richness of its tradition. They say that being a firefighter is inherently dangerous and that if we were a little more focused on putting out the damn fire, we might not have to waste so much time talking about safety.

They conveniently forget that we have a uniquely American tradition of trading firefighter lives for nothing. Unfortunately, those same individuals who claim to be “real firemen” are never around to help pick up the pieces of a broken family. They are always too busy to attend the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Weekend, where they would actually have to look the families in the face and expound on the “costs” of being a firefighter. Their arrogance is eclipsed only by their disrespect of those whose names are on the wall.

Too often–not always, but far too often–survivors of fallen firefighters communicate that they feel abandoned by their fire department in the aftermath of their loss. Fire departments, grieving in the very same way that families are, segregate themselves for a wide array of reasons, including guilt and a fundamental inability to find the words to express their grief. They are in the exact same place that the families are, but instead of working together to find the “new normal” that comes after losing a firefighter, they bury their feelings, their anger, their sense of loss in the misguided hope that it will all go away.

It never goes away.

Survivor families, likewise, will sometimes abruptly end their relationship with the fire department, either because they cannot get past the anger over their loss or because they never really came to terms that their loved one was a firefighter in the first place. In the end, there is more than enough anguish and anger to go around.

The families of fallen firefighters have strength and a courage that cannot be adequately described in words–it must be witnessed. And until kids like Parker don’t have to visit their families in graveyards, we must continue to do everything we can to bring every firefighter home alive.
When do we stop fighting for safety? Never.

Author’s Note: The NFFF Memorial Weekend will be held this year, as it is every year, in Emmitsburg, Md., on the site of the National Emergency Training Center. This year’s service will be on Sunday, Oct. 7, at 10 a.m. All are welcome.

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