BY RICK LASKY
As we wind down the Pride and Ownership series with this final segment, I can’t think of a better time to talk about the whole “never forgetting” thing. We’ve mentioned it several times in past articles, but it definitely seems to be an issue again.
Several months ago, I was invited to give a keynote speech at a fire department conference and was graced with the presence of one of that city’s aldermen. The host chief had invited him to speak at the opening ceremonies and had brought us all together the morning of the conference for breakfast. We sat and visited about different issues and somehow got on the topic of funding within the fire service and the lack of it in many areas of the country, that law enforcement seems to have done well, and that we just wanted our share and it doesn’t have to be that big, just something. Well, we must have pushed the right button because the alderman starting going off about the fire service and how all we want to do is spend money, hire more firefighters, and build our own little kingdoms. He acknowledged that September 11, 2001, was a terrible tragedy and that we suffered a horrible loss, but he said that people shouldn’t lose focus of reality and what is reasonable. He added that it’s not right to use that event to emphasize a specific need or want and that that type of tragedy doesn’t happen that often.
As you can imagine, I was starting to rise off my seat, as I’m sure you would have. I could feel my neck getting hot and my eyes burning. But while I was feeling that way, I kept reminding myself to keep my cool and not say anything that I would regret later or that would embarrass the host chief. I could tell he was feeling bad enough already about what his alderman was saying. So I decided to bite my tongue and did until it bled, all along thinking about and planning how I was going to play this one out and make a point with this guy. I knew that arguing with him at breakfast was going to go nowhere and arguing with someone like that was about as useful as shouting at the rain. He just wouldn’t get it. So I waited. I waited until it was time for my keynote speech. I decided at that very moment that the speech I was going to give was going to have to wait and I was going to go with something a little different. I asked the chief who was introducing me to change the title of my speech from Pride and Ownership; the Love for the Job to Have You Forgotten?
As it worked out, I got my chance to speak right after the alderman. The next 35 minutes got to be very interesting. I began talking about what happened on September 11, 2001, and about the loss we all felt after losing so many firefighters, not to mention the hurt our brothers in New York felt. So much talent, so many special people gone.
We looked back at all of the ceremonies, the fund-raisers, and the efforts put forth not by just the fire service but by our entire country. We also talked about some of the pictures and handshakes with all of the politicians back then. Notice I said some, not all. There have been so many good politicians who have fought and continue to fight for us and what we need. They truly do care about us. But, then, there is that other group into which some, like the “good alderman” I mentioned earlier, fall.
Before I move on, I have to mention that he stood up there and went on about how he has this great relationship with the fire service. Great relationship? What? What in the world was he talking about? I was there. I heard him at breakfast. Wasn’t this the same person who said all we want to do is build our little kingdoms and spend money? You know, the dark hole where all the money goes. Wasn’t this the same guy who said we should stop using 9/11 as a crutch to get something? And back to the picture and handshake thing, wasn’t he one of them standing next to us in the pictures and putting his arm around firefighters? He sure was! And I bet if you look back, it was an election year for him and he needed votes. I was astounded that he could have forgotten, forgotten everything.
But then it hit me. He hadn’t forgotten. It’s kind of hard to forget something you never believed in in the first place. Talk about using something as a crutch! What was he doing with the fire service back then? I continued with my speech, all along mentioning how some have found it easy to forget, but I remained calm and professional all the way. Well, I got a little loud a few times. What I really wanted to tell the alderman to do was take his “crutch” and break it off, well you know.
I didn’t stop there; I didn’t just stop with September 11. Next, we talked about the fire chiefs and, yes, even some of the firefighters who had forgotten, and I couldn’t help but keep thinking that never forgetting means never forgetting. There were chiefs and city managers who fought us on staffing issues, training needs, and safe equipment and apparatus, but when September 11 hit, they disappeared, at least for a while.
Well, they’re back and they’re fighting us on the same issues again. And they will continue to do so until the next big one. Then, they’ll disappear again. The politicians will be back though, for pictures and handshakes, but no surprise there. But I won’t be there standing next to them next time. Not with those people. I will, however, be right next to those who support and help us-the “good” ones. I’ll always be there for them as they have been there for us!
And, what hurts a little is that as of the time I am writing this article, President Bush and his administration are contemplating cutting funding from the FIRE Act again. Again! What’s wrong with leaving us a little? The cops will still have plenty.
And back to our own people, our firefighters, officers, and chiefs. What about not forgetting not only those we lost on September 11 but also those we lost before and after and recently? Never forgetting means never forgetting. Collectively, all of them. Even forgetting just one is too many. Have we forgotten them all? Have we forgotten what they meant to us? What they did for us? How they affected our lives? So many special people!
I know of one department that lost three firefighters in two different fires, and you’d be hard pressed to find a picture of them anywhere. They found it easy to forget. So much talent gone. Are we willing to forget what it took to get us to where we are today? What it took to get us to where we are equipment-wise, training-wise, safety-wise? Pretty much all of it is due to someone else’s hard work, sweat, and blood-and in some cases, their lives. Why does it seem so easy to forget? So many people worked so hard to get us here right now. So many special people, so much hard work. How did we forget them?
A lot of it reflects back to our leadership-and, in some cases, the lack of it-and their inability or lack of desire to make us remember. However, hold on: Some are out there fighting to keep it all fresh and to keep people remembering the sacrifices made by others. They are helping to explain where it all started and are working to define our heritage. They are still holding and conducting ceremonies and displaying honor and respect. They are not forgetting to hold a ceremony, any kind of ceremony, on September 11 each year.
But then the dark side appears again: There are some who don’t have the foggiest idea of where it all started and what we’re all about. They don’t have a clue about our history, our tradition. If they’re not willing to share and explain it all, it’s going to erode and wash away. Eventually, it will be lost forever.
But then again, maybe it’s more than the job of only our leadership to keep it alive. Maybe we need more of our officers and firefighters to remind others of where it all came from. If you’re a firefighter and don’t know, ask someone who does, and then go out and spread the word. Maybe fewer people will forget then. Never forgetting means never forgetting.
Maybe we need more classes on fire service history. Maybe more articles on it. We might even come up with a method for not forgetting. Maybe it’s time some “checked” their egos and stopped worrying about how much more someone else knows and care more about being good at what they’re already doing. I’m not saying that you should stop trying to better yourself or improve in an area. Quite the opposite. I’m saying we need to be a little nicer to each other and not forget what it means to be a brother or sister and what it took to get us all here. Never forgetting means never forgetting.
We need to remember also not to confuse a tribute with honoring someone. When we say goodbye to fallen comrades or to members who have passed, it’s time to pay them a tribute and acknowledge what they’ve done for us and thank them for their friendship. The time to honor them is before they leave us. We should be honoring each other while we’re still here, while we still have a chance to let them know what they mean to us and how much we appreciate them and not wait until after they’re gone. If we do that, we can truly say we’re a brother or a sister.
Maybe we need a few more ceremonies to honor and celebrate someone’s accomplishments and maybe a few more ways to remember. I really don’t want to wait until “another life” to tell them and show them just how much I appreciate what they did for me or us. I messed up that opportunity with my little brother, and I don’t want to do the same with a friend. I don’t want to just look up to the sky and say thanks. I’ve missed too many opportunities. I’m not going to miss any more. Never forgetting means never forgetting.
Our fire service family is way too special to forget about anyone or anything that got us to where we are today. Do you remember your retirees? Their names? What they did for you and how they made it a little better for all of us?
Maybe it’s a lot to ask. Maybe it isn’t. I’d like to think it’s worth trying a little harder. The fire service is the greatest profession in the world. And, as for the alderman who had a lot to say at that breakfast, I am never going to forget about those we’ve lost. If he wants to say I’m using them as a “crutch” to make our fire service better, safer, and a little better for the next guy, so be it. I know they’d say, “Go for it.” See, they can really still work for us and help us even if they’re gone, if you’re willing to never forget. What’s funny about the alderman is that when I was finished with my speech, he came up to me and said that it was great and it really hit home. I thought, “Yeah, for about five minutes in his case.”
It’s time for one more shot: If you don’t love this job, if you’re not willing to stand up for and protect a brother or sister firefighter, if you’re not willing to protect our fire service family and its image, it’s simple: Get out! Leave. Go away. What we really need are more people with that pride and ownership and that love for the job. Man, I love being a firefighter! ■
■ RICK LASKY, a 25-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. Previously, he was chief of the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department and training officer for the Darien-Woodridge (IL) and Bedford Park (IL) Fire Departments. While in Illinois, he taught at the Illinois Fire Service Institute and Illinois Fire Chiefs’ Association and received the 1996 International Society of Fire Service Instructors “Innovator of the Year” award for his part in developing the “Saving Our Own” program. He is the lead instructor for the H.O.T. Firefighter Survival program at FDIC West and is co-lead instructor for the program at FDIC and FDIC East. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and serves on the FDIC, FDIC West, and FDIC East advisory boards.