Chief Concerns: Taking Care Of Our Own: Planning For The Unthinkable

We plan for everything! We pre-plan for fires, hazardous materials incidents, mass-casualty incidents and even for the safety of our people. We, as an industry, have embraced the customer service concept, and we do all we can do to provide quality service to our customers, both internal and external.

Yet, when our members and their families need us the most, some of us leave it to chance. While we continually strive to prevent firefighter line-of-duty deaths, we should prepare to handle the tragic loss of one of our own in the line of duty.

I recently attended the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation class, “Taking Care of Our Own.” It was an eye-opening, emotional experience. The people at the foundation have been listening to the survivors of our lost brothers and sisters about what the fire service could do to at the most unbearable of times, when a firefighter loses his or her life in the line of duty. What the foundation was hearing was that, although we plan for everything else, very little planning goes into what to do when such a tragedy occurs. Survivors feel that everything that happens following the firefighter’s death affects how quickly they and the fire department that their loved one served will heal from their loss.

The class was conducted at the National Fire Academy through a grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. During the development of the class, focus groups were conducted with chiefs who had lost firefighters in the line of duty. Much insight was gained and all the chiefs said they wanted to help the families of their fallen firefighters, but many said they did not know what to say or what to do to provide support for the families. The foundation also met with families of fallen firefighters. Through these meetings, the foundation identified what departments did do and could do to help the families.

Three distinguished instructors conducted the class: Chief Warren McDaniels of the New Orleans Fire Department, who has experienced the loss of firefighters in his department; Reverend Bevon Smith of Hattiesburg, MS, who is the proud father of a fallen firefighter; and Vickie Taylor, LCSW, a social worker from Prince William County, VA, who specializes in providing training, counseling and support services to public safety personnel, their families and organizations across the country.

The class is broken into five modules. Module 1 sets the stage for the day’s training. Self-assessment activities identify the need for pre-planning such a loss and provide insight to a department’s readiness to handle this event. The participants hear the chief’s story and a family member’s story.

McDaniels shares the story of loss of life in his department from two perspectives. He was exposed to the loss of a firefighter early in his career as a firefighter, and again as chief. McDaniels shares his feelings of not knowing what to do or say because information on one firefighter’s “Emergency Contacts” form had not been updated. He relays his story in such a way that one cannot keep from getting a lump in the throat.

Reverend Smith presents his perspective from the unenviable position of a father who lost a son in a fire. He has been a driving force for establishing a support system for the families of fallen firefighters, and his efforts have led to the establishment of support programs as part of the Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service weekend. He serves on the foundation’s Family Advisory Group and is a charter member of the Survivor Support Network.

Reverend Smith offers a touching story of the tremendous love of a father and his family for one of our brothers. His son, Paul, was a Greenville, MS, firefighter who was injured in early December 1989 and lost his battle three weeks later, on Christmas day. The story is full of lessons for fire departments on how a family dealt with this terrible event, from the notification of the accident through three weeks of hoping and praying for a critically injured loved one to the loss of a beloved son.

In Module 2, pre-incident planning is discussed and the major elements to consider for a plan are presented. Valuable information regarding survivor benefits is introduced in this time. Module 3 covers the five principles of notification, with the class divided into groups to brainstorm different ways of handling scenarios on reactions to the notification of a death of a firefighter. Samples of what to say during a notification are examined and participants have the opportunity to practice this difficult task.

Module 4 involves family support. Symptoms of grief and issues related to sudden death are presented and immediate and long-range support that the department can provide a family are discussed. A helpful exercise about interacting with grieving family members also is part of this module.

Modules 5 covers support for the department. This module introduces a “chief-to-chief” network and teaches participants how to access that network after a firefighter line-of-duty death. The kinds of support surviving firefighters need are identified, as are several ways that a fire department can remember the fallen firefighter.

Taylor facilitates the training, bringing a mental health perspective to the process. She has 20 years of experience in critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) and serves as the grief specialist for all National Fallen Firefighters Foundation programs. Taylor is a caring, compassionate person and as well as being an expert in her field. She also has an insider’s view of the fire service family as she is married to a firefighter.

All three are all outstanding presenters. They bring a unique perspective to the issue, are informative and are helpful in establishing the need to pre-plan such an incident. It is truly an honor to hear these three respected individuals present this very important topic.

The class is fast paced and ends too soon. There are many suggestions and exercises that will help every department pull together a plan to deal with a line-of-duty death. The text is easy to follow and has several supporting appendixes. Taylor and members of the foundation encourage departments to use the materials as a guideline. Many of these useful materials can be obtained on a computer disk, reducing the amount of work needed to create a plan for your department.

Fire departments should continue to make safety training their top priority. Our members’ lives must be our first and foremost concern. Preparing for a line-of-duty death should not take anything away from the injury-prevention effort, but should be a part of that process. Take the time to prepare now; this is not something that should be put off until it is needed. We owe it to our people to be prepared to assist their families in this time of tremendous need.

The “Taking Care of Our Own” class is scheduled to be given at least 10 times in 2000, including five sessions at the National Fire Academy on weekends and two during the Fire Rescue International conference in Dallas in August. To learn more about the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and upcoming classes, check out the website at The foundation may also be contacted at (301) 447-1365.

Chief Concerns is a forum addressing issues of interest to chief fire officers. Opinions expressed are those of the writer. We invite all volunteer and career chief fire officers to share their concerns, experiences and views in this column. Please submit articles to Chief Concerns, Firehouse Magazine, 445 Broad Hollow Road, Melville, NY 11747.