By Bob Capaul
In the April 2009 issue of Fire Engineering, my son, Justin Capaul, a lieutenant at Kootenai County (ID) Fire and Rescue (KCFR), wrote an article titled “Fire Service Brotherhood.” The article discusses the true meaning of brotherhood in the fire service and how it impacts each of us. In this article, I will discuss the direct impacts this brotherhood has had on me, my blood family, and my fire family.
Throughout my 20 years in the fire service, I have thought a lot about the "Brotherhood of Firefighters." I have lived it, felt it, and watched it. What is it? What does it mean to me? What brought it about? These are questions that can’t be answered simply. If you ask most people when the brotherhood of firefighters started, most would say after 9/11.That tragedy probably mainstreamed the brotherhood, but it started with me way back when I was young. I was one of the fortunate kids that spent a lot of time with his dad at the fire station; watching parades, fixing toys for the underprivileged, and visiting with “the guys”: his “brothers.” This group of men knew what family was all about; they knew how to take care of each other and knew that their survival depended on each other. To me, that was the start of my journey into the “Brotherhood of Firefighters”
When someone asks me today, “What is the Brotherhood of Firefighters all about?” I tell them ….there are more than 343 definitions of the "Brotherhood of Firefighters." It’s a feeling you can’t explain; it’s in your heart and soul. It’s a love of the job and the people who make it up. It’s when you find out a brother has terminal cancer, and you mow his lawn, shovel his snow, fix his car, and put that window in his wife has always wanted but he hasn’t got around to doing. Then, after he passes, you do the same for his wife and kids.
It’s when your son—who is also a firefighter brother—breaks his ankle off duty and can’t work for six months sees all his shifts are covered while he still receives a paycheck; no questions asked, no “pay me back later.” Six months later, he is back to work and is diagnosed with testicular cancer, and again, your brothers kick in their sick leave so their brother’s family can survive.
It’s when you find out your brother’s (my nephew’s) wife loses her twins at birth and, with two phone calls, there is money for headstones, the funeral, and a good portion of the medical bills.
It’s when my sister—a woman who idolized the fire service and its brotherhood, who was so proud to see her son become a firefighter—passes away from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and her funeral, held at the largest Catholic Church in the county, is filled beyond capacity with Class A uniforms.
It’s when you lose your friend, your Brother, who’s also your lieutenant; to a duck hunting accident; and you and your apparatus stand sentinel over the river until the river gives back his body. Then, you take watch over his family until their lives return to normal.
The Brotherhood of Firefighters appears when you get that multialarm structure fire that sends you running to the apparatus, jumping into the driver’s seat, and starting your mental check list as the grouchy white-haired Captain seats himself quietly. You pull out onto the apron, stop, reset the parking break, and look over, knowing that hell better be freezing over. You ask, “Sir, if I do something stupid or over look something very important that has the potential to severely hurt or kill me tonight, would you do me a favor?” Impatient to get moving again, he replies “Sure, what?” I say “Will you tell my wife and kids that I love them?”
The captain looked directly into my eyes and, in his growly voice, says “Brother, you know I will, but better yet I will do everything I can to not let you be stupid and keep you safe.” I gathered my courage, looked him directly in the eye, and replied “I knew that’s what you would say. Thank you, my Brother. Now if you would buckle your seat belt, we will be safely on our way.”
Several years later, in September 2012, my son Justin, unbeknownst to me, tried his hand at the seat belt culture. He was instrumental in KCFR being recognized as the fifth Idaho fire department to prove its commitment to firefighter safety by obtaining 100-percent participation in the “International First Responders Seatbelt Pledge,” a daunting task indeed.
The Brotherhood of Firefighters is 343 names on a monument, who found they were making the decision of their life as they stepped off the apparatus, looked each other in the eye, grabbed an extra bottle, and then did what was right.
It’s after 20 years in the fire service that your Brothers pick you up for a surprise retirement party in your favorite Seagraves. The one that has the same qualities as you: it looks used on the outside, but can still hold its own on the inside. You get your one last ride in the right seat.
It’s knowing that whatever happens to me, my wife and kids will be taken care of by my brothers and sisters.
I know what the Brotherhood of Firefighters is all about; I have lived around it my whole life. Being the third generation of firefighters in a four-generation family, I understand that just being in the fire service doesn’t make you a Brother. I watched my grandpa and my dad learn that if you take care of the ones you love and do the right thing, and then do it all the time (especially when no one is looking), you will be accepted into this coveted fraternity.
From the sidelines, I still watch and pray for my son, my younger brother, my nephew, and some cousins, knowing that the Brotherhood will take care of them as it has taken care of me.
For years, it has brought me great joy and peace knowing that I am a part of the greatest group in the world: the Brotherhood of Firefighters. Today, I have not lost that joy and peace, but sadness has crept in. Sadness knowing no other profession, no other fraternity, and no other organization in the world can experience a true Brotherhood offered by the Brotherhood of Firefighters.
Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Elwood J Blues.
Bob Capaul is a lieutenant/first responder (ret.) for the Kootenai County (ID) Fire & Rescue. He is also a Idaho State Fire Instructor. A third generation fire officer in a four-generation fire service family, Capaul was a 20-year volunteer firefighter for the state of Idaho and has been employed in the construction business for the past 40 years. He teaches for the National Fire Academy and Brannigan Building Construction class to firefighters throughout the northwest. You can contact Capaul at firstname.lastname@example.org.