By Fr. Jim Swarthout
I was a young priest and had just walked into the firehouse. The firefighters, one of whom was my dad, a volunteer, were just returning from a tough run. Sweat was running down their faces, and as dad came off the step of the truck, I saw he was full of black soot. They all began to clean up, share stories, and rehash the call. The sweat on their faces and the lingering smell of smoke turned my head—that has stayed with me to this day.
I’m the son of a Leatherhead. My dad’s helmet that he wore for over 20 years before he retired is now worn and tattered and all beat up. Nowadays the helmet sits in a place of honor. Growing up, the firehouse was a second home to me. On my daily walk home from school and probably as a way to avoid homework, I would stop by to visit the guys. “Hey Jim,” they’d ask, “You gonna be firemen like us when you grow up?” Later I would find that a plastic collar would be more suitable to me than a leather helmet. But what a calling that would have been!
As a priest who is invited daily into the lives of first responders and their families, my childhood memories return, I find myself honored to be of service.
This will be my fifth year being at FDIC International, and every time I come back, I feel I could retire quickly if only they would let me open up a confessional and charge five bucks for absolution for the past year’s firehouse activities. I’m sure the line would reach out to the front of the convention hall.
Within the firehouse you are organized like armed service personal, but your war is not against people. The enemies are fire, destruction, disaster, and human suffering. As in combat, you eat together, sleep together, train together, and brave danger together. As in combat, you must be able to rely on one another when things go wrong. And, as in combat, you must be able to handle injury and death. These skills are honed into unconscious habits until job requirements and the way of life are intertwined as if they were one. When we speak of a “baptism of fire,” we’re not using a metaphor.
As FDIC International 2019 approaches, Paul Combs will share his gifts of heart to hand through illustrations. Presentations will be listened to. Old friends will be found and new friend will be developed. Awards will be given and received. Bands and drill teams will bring in flags and the bell will ring, reminding us of those who have passed. The FDIC 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb that many are now training for is why we gather.
It’s no wonder our culture observes the educational ritual of the visit to the firehouse. It’s no wonder that when we ask children what they want to be when they grow up, we often get the answer: “Firefighter!” You here and now are a near ideal form of human community. No wonder we come to conventions such as this. It’s a family reunion. Let us pray from heart to heart!
Blessed are you, Lord, God of mercy! You have given us marvelous example of charity and the great commandment to love for one another. Send down your blessings on these your servants, who so generously devote themselves to helping others. Grant them courage when they are afraid, wisdom when they must make quick decisions, strength when they are weary, and compassion in all their work. When the alarm sounds and they are called to aid both friend and stranger, let them faithfully serve you and their neighbor. Amen.
Jim Swarthout is director of clergy and alumni relations for the Rosecrance Health Network, home of the Florian Program. The Rosecrance Florian Program is designed to address the complex biopsychosocial issues unique to the culture of firefighters, paramedics, law enforcement officers, and military.