The Lesson of the Chocolate Firefighter

The 2002 “memorial weekend” honoring America’s fallen firefighters was a particularly large event, mainly because it included the tally of firefighters murdered at the World Trade Center on 9/11. It was so big that it was moved to the MCI Center in Washington, D.C., to accommodate the large numbers of survivor families and firefighters. Many participated in a procession to the gathering at the convention center, where there was a moving and inspirational ceremony, including Bill Manning’s unforgettable “Sea of Blue” tribute. By all accounts, the pride and honor exhibited in our nation’s capital was an exceedingly beautiful experience. It was a fitting and lasting mark of respect.

And yet, despite the reverence paid to our fallen brethren, there is the case of the chocolate firefighter. Rising perhaps 20 feet above the hotel lobby’s floor, a monstrous figure of a firefighter carrying a child, made of chocolate, greeted firefighters and family members. Why was this creation placed in the rotunda of a hotel to be seen by those about to honor firefighters who had made the supreme sacrifice? Why would someone trivialize and fantasize about the loss of a firefighter’s life in such a way?

That chocolate firefighter says something about how we have treated line-of-duty deaths. We have gotten so caught up in paying our respects that we have become disrespectful to those who died by ignoring how and why they were killed.

Don’t get me wrong. It is right and proper to honor the fallen. Many fire departments have developed elaborate and tasteful ceremonies. It is this high level of reverence for those who have been killed in the line of duty that has no comparison with any other group of people save the police and the military.

We should expend as much effort working toward making improvements as we do memorializing. There is a time for honoring. Once the bunting and bugles have been put away, there should also be a time for studying and fixing.

It used to be that critiquing a fire that resulted in a firefighter fatality often evoked an angry “How-dare-you-question-their-actions?” response from fellow firefighters. It was a natural reaction, like pouring salt on a gaping wound. Circle the wagons and lash out at those who have the nerve to inquire.

The problem with this philosophy was that it was counterproductive. Losing a firefighter is the most expensive of lessons, a cost that no fire department wants or should have to bear. Failing to look inward is also a dishonor to the memory of those lost.

Since 9/11, there has been a subtle yet perceptible shift in this attitude. It is finally becoming culturally acceptable to ask questions and review actions taken. Can you imagine a lost firefighter saying, “Please ignore what happened to me-I’d rather you spend all of your time and efforts building me a big memorial”? I can’t.

It is good to see that the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), the organizer of the memorial weekend, is taking a more active role in working to save the lives of the living. Through the 16-point “Everyone Goes Home” initiative, the NFFF has set the right course for firefighter survival. Taken together with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) firefighter fatality investigation reports and two Web sites dedicated to reducing firefighter injuries-firefighterclosecalls.com and firefighternearmiss.com-we have the ingredients to understand how firefighters are being killed and injured.

Now, it is up to the fire service to take these efforts to heart. What is the best way to honor those who have made the supreme sacrifice? Learn the lessons of the tragedy. Even more important, apply those lessons-the truest form of “never forgetting.”

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