I Knew You’d Come

Bobby Halton   By Bobby Halton

The character of an individual is but a reflection—of the family, of the training, and of the institution from which he comes. Today’s firefighters are both the inheritors and the caretakers of the culture, artifacts, and institutions of the fire service. This fire service and its mission and traditions are bound together by an intricate and well-developed relationship among a core set of unique virtues that comprise our moral sense.

Today some question whether loyalty and service still matter to the fire service. To be blunt, there is no more offensive comment. Never let it be said that any honest and good firefighter ever besmirched the name of the fire service intentionally or was intentionally disloyal to the fire service, the community, or the country.

Loyalty in a simpler time was described by Epicurus, who said, “It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confidence of their help.” Our loyalty is embedded in our virtues that have been exemplified generation after generation by true American heroes. Heroics do not skip generations; they are part of our culture. Selflessness does not come and go in a society; it is perpetuated. And loyalty is not taught in books; it is learned from example.

In July 1940, Billy Fiske was a rookie pilot at age 28. Billy was an unofficial American Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot; you see, he had posed as a Canadian to join the RAF. Back home, some people called him a traitor and were calling for his arrest for his defiance of the 1935 Neutrality Act. But none of that mattered to young Billy Fiske. It was values that drove him; it was his respect for freedom. He understood that there are things that virtuous men fight and die for: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association.

On August 17, 1940, Billy Fiske, two-time Olympic bobsled champion, movie maker, the man who founded the Aspen ski lodge, a millionaire who could’ve avoided war altogether, became the second American to die in combat in World War II. On his coffin were the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes.

In the early days of the Vietnam War, a unit of soldiers was out on patrol when a burst of gunfire suddenly hit the point man, severely wounding him. The other soldiers jumped instinctively behind a berm, taking cover as bullets hit all around them with deadly accuracy.

The wounded point man began crying out in terror and pain for help, pleading for someone to please come and help him. After several agonizing moments, one of the soldiers threw off his rucksack, grabbed his M14, and began to climb over the berm.

His fellow soldiers grabbed his ankles and dragged him back. “It’s a trap,” they screamed at him. “It’s a trap, and if you go out there, you’ll get yourself killed and nothing else. He’s gone already, and there’s nothing you can do.”

The point man continued to cry out, again calling for help. Behind the berm, the soldier could stand it no longer. He again grabbed his rifle, left the safety of the berm, and ran under horrific fire to try to get to his wounded brother.

As the gunfire continued relentlessly, suddenly, at the top of the berm, the soldier appeared carrying the dead point man back to the security of the berm. The soldier was fatally wounded himself, and as he lay there bleeding to death, his fellow soldiers asked him, “Why? Why would you go out there, knowing the point man was a dead man already, knowing you were throwing your life away for nothing? Why?”

The exhausted and dying soldier looked up at his fellow soldiers, and with his dying breath said, “Do you know what he said to me when I reached him? He said, ‘I knew you would come.’ “

On September 11, a former NYPD police officer, now an FDNY firefighter, Chris Engledrum, who served in Operation Desert Storm in 1990 with the 82nd Airborne, was searching among the rubble when one of his fellow crew members from Ladder 61 came across an American flag. Chris called for Captain Mike Dugan and asked where they could raise this flag. Captain Dugan grabbed a nearby ladder and threw it up to a light post. With Chris bucking the ladder, they raised that flag.

This is not the iconic flag photo that you all have seen that was taken later in the day. This was a flag raised moments after the collapse. Several weeks after 9/11, Chris would learn that members of his old unit, the 27th Brigade, were going to back-fill the legendary 69th New York Irish Brigade for duty in Iraq. Chris couldn’t let his old unit go without him, so he reenlisted. He reenlisted because of a sense of loyalty, a sense of service.

On November 29, 2004, the armored Humvee carrying Chris; Specialist Wilfred Urbina, also a firefighter; another FDNY member, Daniel Swift of Ladder 43; and three other soldiers was hit by an improvised explosive device. Chris and Wilfred were killed.

Chris Engledrum became the first member of the Fighting 69th to die in Iraq. Chris Engledrum was the first member of the FDNY to die in active duty military service following 9/11.

Across America, citizens trapped in burning buildings will dial 911 and know that we are coming, that we will enter those burning buildings and rescue them; we will come. We will come because every firefighter knows there are some things more important than our own personal safety. Yes, loyalty and service are alive and well in the American fire service.

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I Knew You’d Come

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Bobby Halton at the FDIC 2014 Opening Ceremony.
Bobby Halton at the FDIC 2014 Opening Ceremony. Photo by Tony Greco.

by David Griffin

As I sat in a packed room of more than 8,000 firefighters and heard the words “I Knew You’d Come” from Chief Bobby Halton, I was motionless, but my mind was racing. This phrase that was etched on every FDIC challenge coin, plastered on every FDIC poster, and advertised in all forms of social media, echoed throughout the halls of the convention center on April 9, 2014. Chief Halton had brought this phrase to life while he passionately strode from one side of the stage to the other, finally ending at the podium, striking it with a closed fist like a hammer exclaiming, “WE DEMAND IT.” When this took place, a room full of thousands of firefighters sat silent, in awe of the energy and inspiration that we were witnessing.

At the conclusion, I speeded through the crowd on my way to the next class of the day. When I arrived, I hurried to sit in my chair to stare at the brilliantly designed challenge coin so I could find its real meaning. On the front center, the text read “2014 Fire Engineering FDIC.” Around the top curvature of the coin read, “Training the Fire Service for 137 Years.” On the bottom curvature was the text, “Where Leaders Come to Train.” Powerful statements that indicate the historical significance of Fire Engineering and FDIC. Now flip the coin over, and we have a highly detailed depiction of a firefighter carrying another firefighter out of a smoky environment. The words next to the depiction read, “I Knew You’d Come.” Now at first glance and without any reflection, one may think this is a simple meaning. The down firefighter is saying “I Knew You’d Come” to the firefighter that saved them. But look closer and think deeper. You will see the essence of what being a firefighter is all about.

As I studied this coin, I thought about all of the times this phrase is used in our profession without us even knowing it. My mind was filled with examples. This is when I realized that in every action that we perform as firefighters, this phrase is applicable. How? Read on.

Watch Chief Halton’s FDIC 2014 Opening Speech Here

Think about it. When we respond to a structure fire with citizens entrapped and make our way through extreme conditions to make that rescue, whether conscious or not, that citizen knew we would come. When we arrive on a full arrest with someone lying lifeless on the ground and a family pleading for us to help their loved one, they are doing so because they knew we would come. When we respond to a diabetic who needs medicine and food, they may lay motionless, but they knew we would come. When a mother is unable to make it to the hospital while giving birth, a husband calls 911 for help because he knew we would come and deliver that child. When an individual overdoses on drugs and falls close to death, someone makes a call in a panic because they knew we would come. When there is an active shooter and people are wounded or killed, 911 is called because those involved knew we would come. When a family is in an automobile accident and a loved one is pinned, the family members scream for us to help the others. What do we do? WE COME and reunite them. In the darkest moment of a fellow firefighter’s life, they call a mayday. They do this because they know we will come and give our last breath to save them. When one of our brothers or sisters faces a tough time in life, feels lost, and has nowhere to go, we open our hearts to them. No matter how deep their pain is, they knew we would come. And most importantly, when a firefighter loses their life, we flock to them and their organization by the tens of thousands to give support. Every one of those firefighters knew we would come.

It’s in our DNA. It’s what we became firefighters for. We serve in every capacity possible because we want to help others that know we will come on the worst day of their lives and give it our all to make it right. This will not always be possible, but if we train hard, increase our education, and remember that this profession is about public service, not ourselves, we will be successful.

Each shift when we arrive and place our gear on that rig, we must understand that this phrase is going to be uttered to us by someone in some form or fashion over the tour of duty. They don’t do this because they’re bored. They don’t do this because they hope we are ready to help them when the time comes. They don’t do this because they want to do. They do this because they DEMAND that we are ready and they KNOW THAT WE WILL COME. We must live this phrase in everything that we do because it’s who we are as firefighters. If we do, our careers will be full of examples of times when we saw others with fear in their eyes, but deep down inside they felt a calm because in their mind they KNEW WE WOULD COME!

DAVID GRIFFIN, a member of the Charleston (SC) Fire Department’s Training Division, has a BS degree in education, an MS degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctorate in organizational leadership and development. He is a certified fire officer and is enrolled in the Executive Fire Office Program. He is the owner of On A Mission, LLC.