We firefighters are constantly training to improve our capabilities and discussing strategies and tactics to find the safest and most practical firefighting methods. Many of us attend seminars, expositions, classes, and clinics to obtain even more information to use to protect ourselves and other firefighters.
Yet, no matter how many fire service magazines and texts we read, no matter how many training sessions we attend, how many times we sit around the dinner table solving the fire service’s problems, there will still be firefighters who will not return from the alarms to which they respond. Despite our reputation as a rugged and tough bunch, each line-of-duty death (LODD) saddens us, whether we knew the firefighter or not. We know that it could have been us or a member of our department who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Since joining the Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department Honor Guard six years ago, I have stood guard at numerous firefighter funerals. Interestingly, no matter where in the United States we travel to pay respects to a fallen brother or sister, the fraternal camaraderie among firefighters far exceeds that of any other public safety service. Sadly, we are all too familiar with “the sea of blue.” Firefighters from departments near and far dress in sharp uniforms worn to honor the fallen, apparatus is polished and draped with dark bunting, and our community begins the long process of mourning and paying tribute to one of our own. It is always a sight to behold; firefighters and civilians alike walk away impressed at the number of people who attend. Everybody gathers with the common purpose of honoring a fallen firefighter.
We need to remember another equally critical reason for providing an LODD funeral service, which we can easily forget. Yes, we attend to honor and say goodbye to the fallen, but we are there primarily to help the family, for whom we must provide tremendous support in the midst of our fire service loss. After all, the fallen brother or sister was only on loan to us from that person’s family.
In the family members’ darkest hour, we are there to provide a lasting and touching remembrance of what their loved one stood for. Our collective strength must lift up the family members so they can see that their loved one did not dedicate and give up his life in vain and that the loved one will not be forgotten. Family member after family member has embraced me after funerals, looked me in the eye with tears streaming down their cheeks, and told me how much they appreciated our services. Honor Guard services have a greater impact than most of us realize.
It takes a specific approach to do it right. Honor Guard personnel must remember that for that one day it is not about them or anyone else on the job. They cannot entertain complaints about how hot or cold it is or how long they have to stand and salute. They must remind themselves that whatever discomfort they experience is a small sacrifice compared with the enormous one that brought them there. An LODD funeral is not the time or the place to dispute about who should be in charge or who is better at calling commands. It is about the fallen member’s family and making sure that they are taken care of, demonstrating that they have the support of a much larger family.
Whether the fire department is career, paid-on-call, or volunteer, at an LODD funeral, we are all firefighters.
But it does not end with the funeral. We must provide ongoing support and remembrance by attending our state fallen firefighter memorials, the International Association of Fire Fighters Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Colorado Springs, Colorado, or the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Each year, thousands of firefighters and their families journey to these memorials. Fallen members’ families attend these services and are shown a level of respect and honor unmatched anywhere else. After such a tragedy, I can think of no greater accomplishment.
Whether we are members of the Honor Guard or not, as the Milwaukee Fire Department Honor Guard’s official motto declares, we should all be “Honoring those who have gone before by standing tall with those still beside us.”
BRENT JONES is commander of the Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department’s Honor Guard. He also serves as a firefighter, an emergency medical technician, and a member of the department’s heavy urban rescue team.