Four years have elapsed since the Amarillo, TX, Fire Department lost our brother, Brian Hunton, after a fatal fall from a moving fire apparatus while responding to an emergency. The attached documents summarize our journey since Brian's death. Out of respect for Brian and for all the others that have lost their lives serving, we ask that all firefighters take a few moments to read and reflect on what we, the members of the Amarillo Fire Department, learned from Brian.
What We Learned from Brian
Firefighters save lives. In that sense, Brian Hunton is no different than any member of the Amarillo Fire Department. What sets him apart is that he saved firefighters lives four years after he died.
It's not hard to find firefighters who ignore the perils around them, rushing through smoke-filled doorways shielded only by personal heroism. They're in movies. Real firefighters face real dangers. Safety, for us, isn't a tether to be cast-off; it's a lifeline to be grasped. Brian was a real firefighter - trained, disciplined, focused on the hazards around the next turn.
Waiting around that turn on April 23, 2005, was a routine structure fire. It's a call units in the city respond to every day - business as usual. What stands out, in hindsight, is the ordinariness of that day. This could have been any call on any shift answered by any unit. Brian Hunton could have been any firefighter. In the end, he is every firefighter who ever struggled with equipment, dressed on the fly, or looked ahead to the smoke, flames, and the danger.
What happened on April 23, 2005, is Brian's story. What happened after is ours.
April in the Texas Panhandle brings a plague of fire hazards. Warmer days take people outdoors where a spark from a power tool or errant cigarette can light up the sprawling, dry winterkill. Nights and mornings barely break freezing so fireplaces hang on for the last, frigid gasp of the season, which on this night resulted in a structure fire.
A fire station is a study in efficiency. Every firefighter knows the importance of time. Time burns. The difference between a rescue and a grisly recovery is measured in seconds and the crew of Ladder One, an American LaFrance Quint, knew how to shave precious ticks off the stopwatch. Their movements were fine-honed to instinct, a Pavlovian response, triggered by an alarm. That alarm sounded at 10 o'clock on a typical Saturday night. Three units from the Central Fire Station were on the street in less than a minute.
Brian, 27, with two years in the department, grabbed his gear and climbed into the apparatus. He took a place in the backseat of the cab, an enclosed area protected by a heavy side-door. He began equipping himself en route, pulling on his coat and struggling with the bulky air pack.
One block from the station, the ladder turned and Brian, still donning his pack, fell against the door. For firefighters, the sensation of shifting inside a moving truck as it snakes through traffic was as familiar as walking. It is weight against metal as gear-wrapped torsos crash against interior doors without giving the experience a second thought. This, after all, is a safe place - far safer than clinging to the rear of a speeding ladder truck. It's part of firefighting. It happens all the time.
Only this time the door opened. Brian's head struck the pavement causing massive trauma. Two days later, he was gone from us.
News of a fallen comrade runs through a fire department like electric current. We all feel it. The strength of our department--of every department--is that we prepare for any scenario. We had the right training. We had the right procedures. And yet one of our own was dead and the piece of safety equipment that could have saved his life lay only a few inches away.
Brian had not buckled his seatbelt.
The AFD was, by any measure, a safe department. We had the paperwork to prove it. Reporting rookies received a binder full of SOGs and SOPs covering everything from flag raising to water use. We had a safety chief heading a safety committee that met to discuss any potential safety issues.