Carter: Simple Acts of Courage

We in the fire service are frequently called heroes by the public. My friends, I think that the word hero is one which is both grossly overused and frequently misunderstood by those who constantly bandy the word about. Many are the true heroes in our world, and their deeds seem sometimes to be diminished by the improper and overuse of the word. Each day in our nation there are those whose quiet, simple acts of courage should serve as our true inspiration.

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the tragedy in Worcester, MA, it is my belief that the time has come to make a simple statement about the members of that particular fire department. In the wake of a terrible tragedy, they have persevered and are still in business. Let me also suggest to you that they are still offering their quality services to the citizens of Massachusetts' second-largest city.

Many among you might be saying right now, "well duh Harry, what is the big deal there." They are a fire department and they are just doing their job. My friends, it is not that simple and people might say such things have apparently never been forced to endure the life-altering experience of losing friends or co-workers in such a sudden, wrenching fashion. Think of it this way: Many men marched onto the field of battle at the cold storage warehouse, but when the roll was called the following day, six men failed to step forward to answer the call.

I am not being dramatic here my friends. I am being pragmatic. During the course of my career in the Newark, NJ, Fire Department, which ran from 1973 to 1999, it was our sad lot to lose a total of eight members in the line-of-duty. My associates and I saw death on many occasions, but never in the numbers experienced in Worcester. As a fire department, we grieved, we honored the deceased members, we had a bite to eat, and then we went back to work protecting the citizens of our city.

Lest you think that I am some sort of dispassionate observer, it was my sad duty to be the voice of command at four of these funerals. Believe me when I tell you that it is gut-wrenching to see the effect that the loss of a husband, father, son, or brother can have on their families. There are few things tougher in this life than presenting the flag of our nation to the widow of a Brother who died in the line-of-duty. Yet, no matter the circumstance, my associates and I sucked it up and went back to the firehouse to perform our sworn duties.

Now imagine the loss of six brothers at the same time. I cannot. Like many of you I watched the funeral parade make its way through the streets of Worcester. Firefighters from around the country responded to the call to honor their departed brothers. Like many of you, I cried as I watched all of this. There is nothing wrong with a show of emotion. I learned that a long time ago. However, you cannot let your emotions immobilize you and render you useless.

However, when the ceremonies were over and the brothers had been carried to their final resting places, those members of the fire department who remained responded to their respective fire stations and resumed their sworn duty to protect the citizens of their city. They did this, as have generations of firefighters who suffered the loss of their buddies in the past. That is just what we do. We do our jobs.

Think about this my friends. Is this not a simple act of courage? It is one thing to show up for your shift on a regular basis. But what about shaping up for roll call after the loss of six fellow firefighters? I am sorry, but that is just not a regular circumstance. These fine people joined a long, historic line of people engaging in similar, simple acts of courage.

Let me share just a few with you:

1988 - Hackensack, New Jersey lost five firefighters at the Hackensack Ford Fire

1978 - New York City1978 lost six firefighters at the Waldbaum's fire

1972 - Boston lost nine firefighters at the Vendome Hotel fire

1966 - New York City1966 lost 12 firefighters (ranging from a probationary fireman to a deputy chief) at the 23rd Street Collapse

Sadly, there are many more, however, I just wanted to give you a representative sampling. In each of these tragedies the members of the fire departments affected went through the standard grieving process. Each person dealt with the pressures of the situation in their own manner. However, they all had something in common. When next it was their time to report for duty they shaped up and respectfully answered the roll call with a subdued, " sir."

I can think of a circumstance wherein a fire person that I came to know suffered the loss of a couple of associates in the line of duty. That person was so devastated by that calamity that they chose to leave the fire service. Since we are all different people, I will not be harsh or judgmental. What I will say, however, is that this action points to the true nature of the simple act of courage shown by the members of the Worcester Fire Department.

They came together and soldiered on. They continue to perform their duties in a manner which should serve as a beacon to the rest of us searching to make sense of what we have seen in the early years of the 21st Century. Let us never forget the sacrifice made by those brave men a decade ago. To do so would tarnish their sacred memory.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. He recently published Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip, which was also the subject of a blog To read Harry's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Harry by e-mail at