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FDIC 2013: Chief Halton on Fallen Firefighters and ‘Service Culture’

‘Final Honors’ are reserved exclusively for men and women who are firefighters, law enforcement officers, and members of the military. They are in recognition not only of their service but also of their devotion to their oath to protect and defend the Constitution of these United States, our states’ Constitution, and the laws of our communities. Final honors are the most eloquent display of respect from the people of a grateful nation. For the honoree, it represents a commitment to something greater than self.

— Robert Halton, Fire Engineering editor in chief and FDIC education director; 2013 Opening Ceremony & General Session

“Every firefighter takes an oath of service; other people simply accept a job. As such, those who lead the fire service have a moral and ethical obligation to those they serve and to their families. For swearing this oath, for pledging our fidelity to the Constitution, our nation, and our communities, we are provided final honors, one of our nation’s most respected traditions,” Halton told audience members, as he stood on the stage in Sagamore Ballroom among screens depicting the Greenwood (IN) Fire Department Honor Guard performing “Final Honors” for the Fallen Firefighters of 2012 at last year’s Opening Ceremony and General Session.

Halton wove the threads of Honor, Final Honors, Responsibility, Past Fire Service Legends, and today’s fire service members who are true to their “oath” into his message that memorialized past members of the fire service, encouraged and advised members in the audience, and inspired audience members to leave the auditorium proud and eager to serve in the fire service and to exemplify the “service culture.”

He reassured the audience that they should not interpret budget decisions as signs that the public does not respect the work they do. He also reminded them that their individual and group actions and reactions can affect public perceptions. “Regardless of how we feel or how unjust we see a situation,” he noted, “it is critical that we as oath takers remain true to our fire service values. We can never allow our conduct or other firefighters’ conduct to tarnish our reputations or the hard-earned honor of the fire service.”

Firefighters need to protect and treasure, after our family and faith, our reputation, our character, and our honor– not our homes, our cars, or our 401Ks or pensions—Halton stressed. “Our personal honor is a direct reflection on our profession’s honor.” And, Halton added, “When out in public, it is critical to always remember that the fire service’s reputation is the result of the selfless sacrifices of tens of thousands of firefighters who have come before you.”

“Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage define the culture of the fire service,” Halton explained, “but one value—selfless service–defines the firefighter culture above the rest. It is the value that guides us in the darkest of smoke and the most intense of fires.”

Halton depicted the most impressive aspect of the fire service as “the quality of the individual firefighter—the firefighter who despite all odds, despite all limitations, and despite all the risks, continues to pursue our mission honorably, continues to bear true faith and allegiance, in the correct order, to the Constitution, the fire service, and the community.”

Illustrating how “the roots of our culture of selfless service go back many years,” Halton took the audience back to December 29, 1894, to a sixth battalion buggy slowing to a stop and a chief stepping off it into a cold New York City night. Halton presented a gripping account of the fire that took the life of FDNY’s Battalion Chief John J. Bresnan, the inventor of the Bresnan distributor, the hose roller, and a swinging harness for the horses, and Assistant Foreman (Engineer) John L. Rooney, when a water tower collapsed on them in the fire.

The legacy, Halton pointed out, is documented. “It was said of Chief Bresnan that ‘no braver, abler, or more conscientious man than John J. Bresnan ever drew a paycheck in the service of the City of New York,'” Halton noted. Chief Bresnan’s entire career record was ‘unsullied’ by any official complaint of any type.

“His was the obituary of a true fireman,” Halton said. “Chief Bresnan exemplified personal courage and honor. He lived our fire service values. His behaviors displayed his commitment to our highest principles, safety, extinguishment, survival, and discipline. Safety was his number one fireground consideration–safe firefighting, safe training, and safe post-fire operations. He led the most disciplined, skilled firefighters of the day, whose survival was his utmost concern.” Firefighting, Halton added, requires more than talent and passion; it requires character, and it requires quality individuals of honor like Chief Bresnan and Engineer Rooney.

The audience was brought also back to 1995, when a young U.S. Air Force pilot named Scott O’Grady was shot down during a flight mission over Bosnia. He was rescued by helicopter after surviving six days of being hunted by hostile ground troops. He returned home to a hero’s welcome, but he denied being a hero. Halton related that O’Grady, looking back on what drove him to serve his country and to do his best to represent it with honor and personal valor, said, ‘It isn’t the reward that matters or the recognition you might harvest. It is your depth of commitment, your quality of service, the product of your devotion – these are the things that count in a life. When you give purely, the honor comes in the giving, and that is honor enough.’

Halton drew the audience back to today by expounding on the ‘Honor Enough’ concept. “In every community across this great nation, selfless quality firefighters are setting an example for us all,” Halton related, “giving purely, defining honor, and exemplifying character.” He gave some examples in which the principles exemplified that ‘the honor that comes in the giving is honor enough’:

  • A crew from Rochester was training and saw smoke in the sky. It responded to a fire and rescued a male in his 50s from the burning home.
  • An off-duty Churubusco firefighter came on a burning house. After reporting the fire, he entered and discovered a man inside. The firefighter pulled him out on the driveway and called for the paramedics.
  • Lt. Eric Wallace had declared a Mayday while conducting interior operations in Bryan ,Texas. Lt. Greg Picard was part of the rapid intervention crew that entered the heavily involved structure to rescue Lt. Wallace. Conditions were unbelievably dynamic. All three firefighters sustained severe burns while locating and extricating Lt. Wallace, who was dead. Lt. Picard died from the burns he received in that rescue.

“Capt. O’Grady was right,” Halton confirmed: “When you give purely, the honor comes in the giving, and for us that is honor enough. It is honor enough for every firefighter–honor that can only be won by individual acts of courage, honor that can be won only by selfless service to others. We leave here today dedicated

to our mission to being quality individuals like Chief Bresnan, Engineer Rooney, Capt. O’Grady, and Lt. Picard. We leave here today dedicated to our oath, dedicated to serving purely, and knowing that the fire service honor is intact because its honor lives in you and in me.”