Sandy Hook firefighters hang bunting on their firetruck in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn. following the school shooting.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
As with most emotions that occur in the fire service we can’t describe it, but we all know it because it seems to be with us every day when we turn on the television – helplessness. As firefighters we are action orientated with one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to protect and to save. Those needs drive us from an internal computer program that was programed long before we drew our first breath; we few, we the chosen guardians.
As the news of the Newtown, CT, shootings flooded the airwaves we all no doubt sat there with that all too familiar feeling of helplessness, and that internal computer program was firing up and sending action signals to the brain even though the tragedy was occurring miles away. For me, I was 7,000 miles away manning a fire station in the Middle East with my military/firefighter brothers in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. As the news reached us at about 9:30 p.m. local time the sounds of bunkroom doors opening in the station could be heard as those action signals were taking hold causing us to all "just kind of" make our way to the station dayroom to do the only thing we could – talk about it. It was something though.
Every firefighter feels invincible to some degree, and confidant in their skills to the highest degree. That is why we can run into burning buildings and other disasters without hesitation or pause. While the emergency responders in Newtown, without a doubt did everything humanly possible and saved every life that could be saved, every firefighter in this nation felt that if they were there maybe "just one more" life could have been saved. Not because our skills are any better or we’d have done anything differently, but by believing that just having one more set of hands and skills on that emergency scene could have made the difference for just one more person; another person could have received CPR, had bleeding controlled, one more established airway. Even though these thoughts are in vain, that internal computer keeps firing off those action programs that we can’t control but only react to. However, in the end we were all just left feeling helpless.
But are we?
We are entering a whole new world driven by an increasingly numb society who turns to violence more and more to settle their differences. It is a rising problem in our civilization and the victims are no longer mobsters and gangsters killing themselves (which was bad enough); but now the victims involve women and children, and they are no longer just the innocent victims caught in the cross fire or hit by an errant bullet, but as in Newtown, they are now the targets.
These are non-traditional times and our communities are again desperately looking for heroes with answers and solutions. Historically firefighters have been just that. When this country needed someone to carry the torch we stood up. Our country has a fire problem – we are the solution, we have an emergency medical problem with people dying on highways and in their homes – we are the solution, we have a hazardous materials problem – we are the solution, we have a terrorist problem – we are a big part of that solution. We willingly stood up and grabbed these torches, many times without asking for, and almost always without receiving, additional funding or resources but it was the right things to do. We just simply said what firefighters have been known to say throughout our history when the threats presented itself: "we got this."
So how do we fit into the violence problem such as that which occurred in Newtown? What is our solution to this new threat that the innocent in our nation are facing? It's simple - our badge. As a profession we need to stop thinking one dimensional about our role in our communities. We need to step back and realize the awesome power we wield within our community simply because of who we are and what we do. Think about the awesome trust and faith our communities have just because of the badge that we wear and what we can accomplish with that type of power?
When was the last time you remember a parent restraining their child from hugging you when you are in uniform, or allowing you – a complete stranger – to put your hands on their child to lift them into the cab of the apparatus? Now think about that in the context of the violence befalling our children today. That my brothers and sisters is faith and trust! So what are you doing with that gift that has been entrusted to you?
As a fire service we are the only agency our communities turn to when they are in need because they know that regardless of their problem if we can’t fix it we can locate someone who can. They know that we are the ONLY agency in the government section of their phone book that will come when called and arrive in under six minutes. So why should this new threat to our community be any different of a challenge for us to help solve than hazardous materials or terrorism?
So how can the fire service offer a solution?
Prevention is the wave of the future and where we need to be as a public service, not only in order to survive, but just like always because it is the right thing to do. Community violence is another problem threatening our innocent, and as unquestioned heroes given limitless trust and admiration, we need to get involved and start earning what we have been bestowed.
Almost every community in America has agencies that address the community’s problems, and those agencies either work directly with violence or with the elements that give root to violence. Even your local schools have groups that attempt to prevent everything from violence, Students Against Violence Everywhere (S.A.V.E.) to bullying, Champions Against Bullying (C.A.B.). If your young school students are willing to take up this challenge to better their community then why shouldn’t we?
As firefighters we have the instant respect of anyone in any room, in any building, in any demographic, in any culture, in any community. We talk and people stop and listen. What we say has value because years have shown our sincerity and commitment to others. We are immediate experts to any tragedy because we have been there and speak from direct experiences. They know our eyes have seen what should never have occurred and know our passion comes from truth, honesty, and just wanting to do what’s right. That is an awesome power to wield and it is currently being wasted behind bay doors while our citizens are dying and our communities are decaying on the outside.
Can the fire service, or you as a firefighter, completely solve such violence as we saw in Newtown, Connecticut? Of course the answer is no. We can’t completely solve the fire problem either but we still attack that problem, like every problem that challenges us, with the belief that victory is ours or we will die trying. Any firefighter reading this would without a doubt risk their everything to rush into a completely unstable situation if they could save just one life. Why should addressing community violence be any different? If you could save just one life, or prevent just one act of violence, would you? Then why don’t you? What’s stopping you? If not you then who?
As a senior military non-commissioned officer with over 24 years of service I have sat through more than my share of leadership classes. Recently I attended a class on the impact a leader can have on their troops and a story was told. I have no idea if this was a true story, a parable, or a wives tale; but it struck home to all of us in the audience and is very applicable to this discussion:
One day a boy who was known to be quiet in school was walking home and carrying all of the books from his locker. An older boy was watching the younger one struggle with his load as he made his way down the street. The older boy simply shook his head and ignored the situation until the quiet boy dropped his books, sending papers and pages everywhere. Begrudgingly the older boy stopped to help pick up the books and papers and, feeling sorry for the younger boy, helped carry his books home. On the way the two struck up a conversation and realizing they had much in common became best of friends. Over the years the two became inseparable with the younger boy graduating his high school with honors; he was surely destined to do great things. During their graduation the older boy sat in the audience and watched his younger friend give the speech as his classes’ valedictorian. The younger boy began his speech by talking about his friend and how much their friendship had meant to him over the years and that if it were not for his friend he would not be there addressing his class at their graduation; because years ago on the day he dropped his books, he was on his way home to end his life and was carrying all his books home to clear out his locker so his mother wouldn’t have to. By just getting involved his friend unknowingly saved his life.
Think about that story and the impact of one person getting involved, of having a simple conversation and showing even the slightest bit of concern, and the difference it made in the life of that young boy. Has anyone done that for you? I am willing to bet three quarters of the firefighters in uniform today are doing this job because somewhere along their life a firefighter made an impression and/or was a role model.
Will your community be the next to suffer a violent tragedy such as what occurred in Newtown? Who will be the perpetrator? Is he walking by the closed bay doors of your station right now? Was she standing in the park at the local picnic and watched from a distance as you and you crew sat on the bumper of your apparatus? Are they going to be in your next community event? Will anyone or anything influence the possible future tragic decisions they will make? Are they desperately looking for a simple act of compassion, understanding, or to be noticed? Who better to offer that reassurance than the most respected, revered, honored, trusted, heroic people in their community – firefighters?
We have no way for sure to know these things; just as we have no way on knowing if any level of involvement would have derailed the tragic events in Connecticut. But we don’t know and that’s why we have to try! That’s why we need to be involved in our community at every level, and when we are out in our uniforms either at an official event or simply stopping at the grocery store to buy dinner ingredients why we need to make the most of it. We need to get involved with our community action groups, and if there is none, we need to consider starting one; not just to address violence but any problem plaguing our communities.
As firefighters we have much to offer and we have the willing attention of a community that trusts us unconditionally, and this is an honor bestowed upon us that we can never take lightly or for granted, and an honor we need to earn every day. That badge is not simply a professional designation or the symbol of the government we serve. It is a shield which reflects the glimmer of protection, hope, and a people who care unconditionally and without reservation to race, economic status, gender, personal preferences, social standing or popularity. It represents people who will answer when called and help anyone in need – always and without question or personal agenda.
No we can’t prevent every fire, every accident, or every act of deliberate tragedy; but paying any attention to the odds or turning away from insurmountable threats and challenges has never been why we put on our badge or our way of life. It’s time to stop feeling helpless and do what we are all programmed to do, to take action and to protect and save. It can be as simple as one person, one simple conversation, one wave hello, or one smile. It is as simple as using that badge and trust and getting involved
Firefighters once again our communities are in fear, and they are looking for answers and are in need of heroes. And once again they desperately need see us stand up and grab their torch of fear and say "we got this."
- What do you think? Discuss in the Forums: Addressing Violence
DANIEL BYRNE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a firefighter/paramedic, with the Burton Fire District in Burton, SC. A 20-year veteran of the emergency services, he holds both an associate and bachelors degree in fire science, is a National Fire Academy Alumni, and a veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm war with the U.S. Marine Corps. Daniel is the recipient of local and state awards for public educations and relations. Daniel is moderator of the Fire Prevention and Life Safety forums on Firehouse. You can reach Daniel by e-mail at email@example.com.