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A s a third-generation firefighter, and as Father’s Day approaches, my thoughts are with my late father, Lieutenant John “Jack” Byrne, decorated, of the Boston, MA, Fire Department. He entered the profession in 1962, following in the footsteps of my grandfather, who started us off in 1929. Three of my uncles also served the City of Boston from the 1940s to the 1980s, with one of them earning a medal for heroism and another dying in the line of duty.
My father never saw me become a career firefighter. But I often think about what it would be like if he were still with me today. What would we talk about? There are so many dramatic differences between the fire service he served and the one I serve today, and I can’t help but wonder what he would think about what his generation passed on to us. Would he be proud or would he be disappointed? I think both.
An idolized generation
My grandfather, father and uncles were firefighters of a generation we idolize to this day. They fought more fires in a shift than many of us today will do in a year. America was burning and they were on the front line. But they were also a generation who had had enough. Firefighter line-of-duty deaths peaked at 173 in 1978, during their time of service. I never knew my grandfather or my Uncle Fred, and my Uncle Bobby is but a faint memory. They all died young men and missed so much.
They were all heroes who fought a war without the weapons and protection we enjoy today. But even if they survived the battleground, many later succumbed to heart disease, cancer, emphysema and countless other diseases. That generation of firefighters, and those who went before them, deserve our honor and idolization. We must honor them, and not just with plaques and dinner-table tales of heroics, but by taking the lessons they paid for so dearly to teach us and using that information to take our profession into the future and continue the pursuit of saving lives.
Operationally, we have done just that and so much more. If my father were alive today on this Father’s Day, he would be amazed by all the advances we bring to the fireground – self-contained breathing apparatus for every firefighter, thermal imagers, five-inch supply lines, full bunker gear, the Incident Command System, personnel accountability, integrated PASS devices and 2,000-plus-gpm pumps, to name just a few.
Many of our fellow firefighters are alive today, and will be alive long into retirement to watch their grandchildren achieve their dreams because of our operational advances. I am sure my father would be proud to see that the pounding he and those he served with took all those years paid off and that today’s firefighters don’t have to pay such a high price. What father doesn’t want better for his children? There is no doubt that our fire service forefathers would rejoice at what we’ve accomplished operationally.
But the fact remains we are missing one of the biggest lessons our forefathers taught us, and on this Father’s Day we should take stock and make the changes that still need to be made. There were other changes ushered into our profession by this generation that are less known and celebrated because they lack bravado and obvious heroics, yet they played a big role, albeit not enough, in many of the positive changes that have saved countless lives. They are not recounted in the stories of legend like a major fire, but are nevertheless annotated in the bible of today’s fire service – the 1973 America Burning report.
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) was born during their reign, as was the National Fire Academy. Fire was no longer just fought, but studied, and these studies led to improvements in areas such as the fabric of furniture and children’s nightclothes, drastic changes to fire codes and enforcement and regulations pertaining to building materials. They not only took fire prevention into public buildings, but into private homes with the creation of fire and life safety educators and public education and fire safety messages.