Does Brotherhood Really Exist?

By John D’Alessandro

I love being a firefighter. Let’s get that straight from the beginning. Aside from my marriage and the birth of my children, it is my greatest accomplishment. But despite the personal satisfaction it has given me I have often been frustrated with the lack of brotherhood and respect we sometimes show towards each other. I don’t mean false brotherhood–support your brother or sister firefighter without question: right, wrong, or indifferent. What I’m talking about is the true brotherhood that the fire service is built upon—the sense that we have a special connection and are part of something bigger than ourselves. Admittedly, I’m kind of old-fashioned. I believe that being a firefighter is a noble calling. I believe that it is not simply something you do but it is a part of who you are as a person. And I also believe that it is the responsibility of experienced firefighters to impart the importance of respecting each other to every young firefighter. That does not mean we are better people than anyone else. That does not mean that we are part of an elite group. It just means that we are ordinary men and women who have made a solemn commitment to respond together when called upon because all lives matter.

Almost five years ago, members of my department were deployed to the other end of our state to assist in the recovery efforts after a natural disaster. I remember when we arrived at our assignment and walked into the firehouse as if it was yesterday. Our hosts were sitting in their ready room exhausted. When they looked up and saw us they immediately had that “you-must-have-taken-a-very-wrong-turn-off-the-highway” look on their faces. You see, the two groups of firefighters could not have been more culturally different. After a few minutes of introductions and strained small talk, the tones dropped and we were off to our first joint call. Little did we realize that stepping into our rigs was the first moment of a lifetime friendship. For the next five days, we ate, slept, laughed, and worked side by side. The people of this community were not our friends, family or neighbors, but they had become just as important to us. And even though we probably didn’t realize it at the time, as firefighters we had become connected on some deeper level. The common purpose of helping people in need made us brothers forever.

Now don’t get me wrong. Over the years we do not exchange holiday cards or call each other twice a month to catch up. Occasionally, we connect on social media to say hello and see what’s going on. But for the most part the two groups continue to protect their communities and live their lives. Until that one day when we needed to be brothers again. You see, recently one of the members of this other department lost their spouse in a tragic way. In the midst of the chaos and extreme emotions they were going through, we received a call to tell us that they “needed their brothers” to be with them.  Needless to say, several of us made the trip because that’s what you do for your brothers. That’s what you do for family. Even if it causes a temporary disruption in your own life.

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When one analyzes why there might be diminished brotherhood and respect in the fire service, it’s easy to blame the other guy. Of course, it’s the older, disgruntled member or the new recruits who think they know it all, or even the leaders who don’t really care about leading. Although that may be somewhat true, the real blame lies within each of us: the firefighters who feel that we are privileged to be part of an honorable profession. If we allow our frustration to render us silent, then we have conceded defeat. And that is something that dedicated firefighters just do not do. We regroup, reassess, and hit the problem from another direction. It is our responsibility to set the example of respecting those that did the job before us and to teach those who will do it after we are gone.      

If you are a firefighter who feels that it’s just something you do, then I’m happy that it works for you. But I can’t help believe that you are missing out on an invaluable personal benefit that comes from being a firefighter. I will undoubtedly continue to be frustrated by the way we sometimes treat each other. Yet I refuse to abandon the belief that honor, loyalty, and respect for each other are the foundation that enables us to serve our communities. And when I do get frustrated, I will fight that feeling by remembering that phone call asking their brothers to be with them in their hour of need.

John D'AlessandroJohn D’Alessandro is a firefighter for Halfmoon Fire Rescue and the association secretary and volunteer programs coordinator for the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY). He has previously served as commissioner for Halfmoon-Waterford Fire District #1 in Saratoga County, New York, and is also the recruitment lane leader for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Vision Project, a member of the IAFC’s VWS Resources Working Group, and a member of the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control “Moving Forward” Workgroup. He has presented on the critical issues of volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention in a number of venues.

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Fire Service Brotherhood

158

BY JUSTIN CAPAUL

I have spent the past several weeks contemplating what the words “brother” and “sister” truly mean. Everyone around the fire service has used or at least heard these words get thrown around the firehouse, but is there really a defined meaning behind them? For this article, the word “brother” refers to our brothers and sisters as a body.

Over the past eight years, I have heard and used the words “brotherhood,” “brother,” “sister,” and “family” frequently, but lately I have been asking myself if everyone who says these words means them or even knows what they mean. You may tell yourself, I know what brotherhood means, but is it the same thing that Firefighter Joe or Medic Sue thinks it means?

A recent search on the Internet from dictionary.com yielded five definitions: (1) “the condition or quality of being a brother or brothers”; (2) “the quality of being brotherly; fellowship”; (3) “a fraternal or trade organization”; (4) “all those engaged in a particular trade or profession, or sharing a common interest or quality”; and (5) “the belief that all people should act with warmth and equality toward one another, regardless of differences in race, creed, nationality, etc.” It wasn’t until I got to this last definition that I thought I was finally making progress in my quest to define brotherhood, fire service brotherhood at that.

I have always had an idea about what I thought brotherhood was. Around the station, I have heard brother and brotherhood used in so many different ways that I thought it was a loose term that you used to greet fellow firefighters to show them that you have accepted them into the “brotherhood.” I really didn’t know what the “brotherhood” organization was, but I only hoped that I was part of it. More recently, I have been involved in several situations that I thought truly defined brotherhood and painted a clearer picture in my head.

Before I move on to my definition of brotherhood, I want to point out that everyone has their own definition that works for them. Some people’s definition may mimic the one stated earlier, “the belief that all people should act with warmth and equality toward one another, regardless of differences in race, creed, nationality, etc.” This is a great definition; it outlines what the brotherhood is all about. There really is no wrong definition of brotherhood. But, to me, this is not the all-encompassing definition of the firefighters’ brotherhood.

LEVELS OF BROTHERHOOD

There are three levels of brotherhood I believe most firefighters should have among themselves; they have evolved into my definition of true brotherhood.

Physical

Driving down the street, you see a vehicle with firefighter license plates, a union sticker, maybe someone wearing a fire department shirt. We give each other the “wave.” I can think of so many times on and off duty that I have given and received this wave. Don’t confuse this with a full lifted-arm wave. Every brother knows this wave; it can’t be defined on paper. This “wave” signifies that each party recognizes they are brothers. It also signified that we all “serve” and share in a common vision for the community. Often, it feels almost as if we already know each other.

Verbal

This relates back to the statement above that we have all heard “brother,” “sister,” and “brotherhood” used around the firehouse. Everyone knows or has seen firefighters who call every firefighter “brother,” regardless of whether they personally know the firefighter. What they do know is that there is a brotherhood within this occupation and they want to be proactive in that organization. A great way to promote your organization or brotherhood is to call each other brothers. Some view this practice in a negative light. They think that words are just words and that actions are louder. But, behind every word is a definition. When you are called “brother,” you know you have been accepted into the “fraternal or trade organization.” Your fellow firefighters know that you share the same qualities and have the same occupation or hobbies. They realize they could be relying on you one day. At some point, you might train together, fight fire together, or even grieve together.

Sadly, for many individuals, this is the level at which their brotherhood stops. They have accepted that by saying “brother” they have laid their roots into this fraternal organization and that they are now part of the brotherhood.

This, to me, does not define the entire circle of brotherhood. I believe the definition of brotherhood lies in step three.

The “Brother” Experience

This third level is the hardest to define; but when you find the answer, you will know you have found brotherhood. This is the level where you find out what it’s like to be a brother. You find out that when you need your house roofed two weeks before snow, six brothers, off-duty, show up eager to give you a hand. You realize what the brotherhood is when you break your leg and can’t work for six months and your brothers show up to mow your lawn, fix your showerhead, and ensure that your family is taken care of. You live the brotherhood when a brother loses his infant son and you make one phone call; before you know it, you are handing that brother a check to cover the headstone, the funeral, and a big portion of the medical bills. You feel the brotherhood when you get diagnosed with testicular cancer and you receive an outpouring of support, cards, love, and true concern for your health, above and beyond what any other “co-worker” could give you. You know the brotherhood when you lose a family member and the first 10 rows of the church are filled with uniformed firefighters.

This is the true definition of brotherhood. It took me eight years to find my definition of brotherhood, and I couldn’t find the definition at dictionary.com. I have lived through all of the examples above, and every one of them defined more clearly what the brotherhood was about. I try to always remember the oath I took when I joined Local 2856: “…do you further promise that you will never knowingly wrong a brother/sister, or see him wronged? … to all of this you pledge your honor to observe and keep as long as life remains….”

•••

Following is a quote from my dad, who has more than 20 years in the fire service: “For years it has brought me great joy and peace knowing that I was 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 that no other profession, no other group, and no other people in the world can experience “The Brotherhood of Firefighters” as I have for more than 20 years, and my brothers and sisters will forever.”

Reference

Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 29 Oct. 2008. Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/brotherhood.

JUSTIN CAPAUL is a fourth-generation firefighter with Kootenai County (ID) Fire & Rescue. He has an associate degree in fire science and is working on a bachelor’s degree in business management. Throughout his eight-year career, he has become an engineer and EMT-I. He is involved with the Idaho State Region I Hazmat team and the Comprehensive Plan Leadership Committee and is an active member of the technical rescue team.