A s 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 TV – helplessness. As firefighters, we are action oriented with one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to protect and save. That drives us from an internal computer program that was programmed long before we drew our first breath; we few, we the chosen guardians.
As the news of the Newtown, CT, school shootings flooded the airwaves, we all no doubt felt a familiar helplessness. That internal computer program was firing up and sending action signals to the brain even though the tragedy was occurring miles away.
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.
All firefighters feel invincible to some degree and confident in their skills to the highest degree. That is why we can run into burning buildings and other disasters without hesitation. While the emergency responders in Newtown without a doubt did everything humanly possible and saved every life that could be saved, they felt that if they were there, maybe “just one more” life could have been saved. Not because our skills are any better or we would have done anything different, 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. 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?
A numbed society?
We are entering a whole new world driven by an increasingly numb society that turns to violence more and more to settle differences. No longer are the victims only mobsters and gangsters killing themselves (which was bad enough); now, among the victims are women and children. And they are no longer just innocent victims caught in the crossfire or hit by an errant bullet. They are now 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 terrorism 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 thing to do. We just simply said what firefighters have said throughout history when threats presented themselves: “We got this.”
What’s the answer?
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? Simple – our badge. As a profession we need to stop thinking one dimensionally about our role in our communities. We need to realize the awesome power we wield within our communities simply because of who we are and what we do. Think about the awesome trust and faith our communities have in us just because of the badge we wear and what we can accomplish with that type of power.
When was the last time a parent restrained a child from hugging you when you are in uniform or letting you – a complete stranger – lift that child 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 we 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 local problems, and those agencies 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 our young 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? Of course not. We can’t completely solve the fire problem either, but we still attack it, 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 everything to rush into a completely unstable situation to 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?
A leader’s impact
As a senior military non-commissioned officer with more than 24 years of service, I have sat through many leadership classes. I recently attended a class on the impact a leader can have on the troops and a story was told. I have no idea whether this is a true story, a parable or an old wives’ tale; but it struck home to all of us in the audience and is 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. The younger boy graduated from high school with honors and was surely destined for great things. During the graduation, the older boy sat in the audience and watched his younger friend give a speech as his class valedictorian. The younger boy began his speech by talking about his friend and how much their friendship had meant to him over the years. In fact, he said, 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 had cleared out his locker so his mother wouldn’t have to. By just getting involved, his friend unknowingly saved his life.
You can make a difference
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 at some time 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 watching from a distance as you and you crew sat on the bumper of your apparatus? Will they be at 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 of knowing whether 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 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; if there is none, consider starting one, not just to address violence, but any problem plaguing our community.
As firefighters, we have much to offer and we have the willing attention of a community that trusts us unconditionally. This is an honor bestowed on us that we can never take lightly or for granted. It’s an honor we must earn every day. That badge is not simply a professional designation or the symbol of the government we serve. It is a shield that reflects the glimmer of protection, hope and a people who care unconditionally and without reservation about 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 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 to see us stand up, grab their torch of fear and say “We got this.”
Burton Fire District
The writer, a 20-year veteran of the emergency services, is an engineer/paramedic and community support officer for the Burton, SC, Fire District and a paramedic with Beaufort County EMS. He served as a U.S. Marine during Desert Shield/Storm and presently is a member of the Georgia Air National Guard Fire Protection Division as an assistant fire chief of training. Currently, Byrne is deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. A version of this commentary appeared on Firehouse.com.