Speak Up 10/12: The Firefighter Memorial Service

If one researches back in time, and I mean to the customs of ancient Rome, you will find that select professions established time-honored ceremonies. These ceremonies were with distinct purpose and effort to remember their dead in a fitting manner. The firefighter was one profession so entitled and honored in a unique manner.

Thus, we conduct many of our firefighter traditions, with deep roots, from long ago. And to this day, we not only sustain our ceremonies, but enhance them as we see fit so that they become even more distinct and honorable.

During my many years of research into the careers and lifestyles of the Roman firefighter, I so noted that the pump operator’s position suffered the highest line-of-duty death toll. Upon further research, I understood that the pump operator did not stand outside a fire building and pump water. Quite the contrary, he was the team member who carried his small appliance into a burning structure and discharged the contents into the fire.

These “pumps” were handheld metal and wood cylinders that contained approximately three to five liters of water. They were driven by a plunger-style delivery system, and the unit had a small nozzle or tip from which the stream of water was discharged into the fire.

The pump operator had to gain close quarter with the fire and in many cases building collapse occurred and buried this firefighter. If the collapse was severe, he usually died immediately. Otherwise, a strong man might linger for several days or even weeks at the castra (Roman firehouse) sick bay before death came. The primitive medicine of that time could not save anyone from crush injuries.

When a Roman firefighter died in the line of duty, a bronze tablet was struck in memorandum of his service. The tablet was inscribed with the firefighter’s name, rank, dates of service and manner of death. It hung in a place of honor on the exterior wall of the castra, for all of Rome’s citizens to see so they would remember the firefighter’s sacrifice.

Eventually, a day of honor was established, and the Roman firefighters came together to remember and honor their missing members. The families and friends of the deceased firefighters were invited to share in a remembrance ceremony, and of course, asked to stay for the collation and fellowship activities afterwards. Thus, what we still do today has longstanding ties.

With the roots of the firefighter coming from the ranks of the Roman soldier in 3 A.D., it is easy to understand our united bond in conducting such ceremonies and keeping alive our customs and traditions.

Today, we understand that it is fundamentally a day of mourning and sadness, but we must elevate it to also be a day of the celebration of the life that each missing firefighter established through his or her good works here on earth in service and duty.

It takes courage to come and honor our missing members. It’s never been easy to say goodbye to a member who has earned your friendship, respect and love. The bonding of firefighters is not quite understood until one enters the ranks or is a close family member or friend. Hard work along with training, courage and selflessness create something that has to be lived.

The closeness of firefighters come about because we fight uncontrolled fire or encounter other human tragedies first hand that require a team to mitigate to a positive conclusion. The military war veteran knows that all too well.

So we can come together as firefighters and bring expressions of our respect and love for our missing members. Wreaths, photos, ribbons, memorabilia and other meaningful items can all be used to decorate that place of honor.

A firefighter memorial service is that time to celebrate, decorate and commemorate the life of one who served. The sharing of stories and good times gives a positive and optimistic belief that the firefighter will not be forgotten. Handshakes, hugs and kisses also demonstrate that we are one family and that one’s loss is everyone’s loss.

Without question, firefighter memorial services are those times when we can all come together and remember that we were fortunate to have these great people in our lives as brother and sister firefighters. Let us go forward and practice steadfastly in our daily lives their spirit as honored firefighters.

Michael L. Kuk


Fire Chief

Fire & Emergency Services

Directorate of Emergency Services

Fort Polk, LA

Editor’s note: The 2012 National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend takes place Oct. 6-7 in Emmitsburg, MD; see weekend.firehero.org.


“Count Your Blessings”

I am a fire chief in Billings, MT, who wants to thank Chief Gary Ludwig for having the courage to write the column “Count Your Blessings! Nothing Is Perfect, But a Visit to a Friend’s Fire Station Spotlights What Is Good About the Fire Service” in the August issue of Firehouse® Magazine.

Having worked in five departments over my 40-year career, I have encountered a small percentage of career employees who just don’t appreciate what a privilege it is to be part of the fire service. Despite the challenges of our occupation, I wake up every morning counting my blessings and thankful that I was able to be part of such a wonderful profession that makes a difference in people lives every day. Your column made my day. Thank you so much for putting this topic into perspective.

Paul Dextras, MPA, EFO, CFOD

Fire Chief

Billings Fire Department

Billings, MT