As I was sitting on my front porch the other night, puffing on one of my favorite cigars, and enjoying a small glass of Port wine, my mind began to drift back over the years. I tend to do that quite a bit these days. However, it is not a waste of time to review and reevaluate one's approach to life. Some of my finest learning experiences have come from reviewing past joy and sorrows; past successes and failures; as well as past experiences which might have drifted to the back of our brains.
It was just one of these positive experiences that came back to me as I puffed and pondered out there in my thinking place. This particular event is not a recent experience, but it was one that had a great depth of meaning for me during my years in the Newark Fire Department. It was a wedding to which I had been invited by one of the firefighters in my battalion, Tony Hopler, who was assigned to my home quarters at Engine Company #5 on Congress Street near Ferry Street.
The wedding was held at a lovely church in downtown New Brunswick, New Jersey. It was a beautiful, sunny summer day as we entered the church. Yes my friends, it was truly a joyous day. One of my guys was about to be married, and it was an honor and a pleasure to be in the congregation to share in the joy of this special occasion. The music was appropriately beautiful, as was the bride, Sue. All-in-all, we fire guys were glad to be there with our buddy.
Many times during my career, my buddies and I gathered with our fellow travelers to celebrate, commiserate, or mourn. That is how real buddies hand the joys and sorrows of life. However, this special day marked a first for me. It was the first time that someone in my battalion had taken the plunge into the joyous pool of married life.
As is my way, I grew teary eyed as the bride moved slowly and gracefully down the aisle. I find that I am not afraid to cry when it is the appropriate response. It stems from words of advice from my father at my grandfather's funeral back in 1958. I was trying to be a brave little troop when my dad leaned over and whispered into my ear that it was sometimes OK to cry. I have taken his word as gospel and have shed my share of tears through the years.
There were some fine readings, with many analogies regarding marriage as a journey; one even likening it to climbing as mountain. Another passage spoke of the necessary teamwork and understanding that marriage requires. As one who had been married for more than 20 years at that time, I knew that the Biblical advice was built upon a solid foundation.
At one point, Tony and Sue moved from the main alter to a small shrine occupied by the Holy Mother. After placing a bouquet of flowers on the altar, they knelt for a moment of shared prayer. As we all watched from the rear of the church, a thought suddenly flew into my mind. As this man’s battalion chief, I now had a responsibility not only to him, but now to his wife. Any decision that I would make in the future about using Tony’s services at a fire could have both direct and implied ties to the lovely young woman kneeling at his side.
Now this may not seem like a terribly brilliant thought. However, I believe that it was an old thought revisited in my mind's eye. My friends, the point here is simple indeed. What you and I seek to accomplish as fire officers through our firefighters is never to be undertaken lightly. Nothing you and I do occurs in a vacuum. There are always consequences to our actions. We ignore these at our own peril (and the peril of our precious people).
A number of years ago, we were asked by a friend, the late Bill Clark, to provide a short list of thoughts for the second edition of his outstanding text, Firefighting Principles and Practices. In my discussions with Bill, we spoke of such matters as hose sizes, tactical deployment strategies, pumper pressures, and the like. In addition I shared with him my personal regard for the human element in any fire department operation. It was this last thought that he chose to employ in his text. You can never justify spending people on property.
It is my bedrock belief that there are damned few situations where it is permissible to risk the lives of our firefighters. We must teach our people that it is NEVER permissible to risk lives solely on property related operations. The cost of learning this lesson has been great through the years. As a matter of fact, the odds had better be strongly in our favor for us to take a shot at saving a life. We have not become chicken about firefighting, but just a heck of a lot more prudent than was once the case.
It is difficult for me to tell you when and where you should take a risk. Only you can know what you see in front of you at the moment when your experience and training are called into play to make that life and death decision. Let me share that It is equally difficult to look a distraught property owner in the eye and tell them that you are not going to risk the lives of your people in a vain attempt to save an obviously self-destructing building. But you must.
However, as I sat in the back of that fine old church watching a brother firefighter embark on a new journey, with his wife on his arm, the decision to come down on the side of safety became more obvious than ever before. As a Chief Fire Officer, I was my brother’s keeper.
Let me warn you not to become panic stricken, or paralyzed with fear. However, I do want you to devote yourself to becoming judicious in the use of your most important resource. I am referring to those fine fire people. You know, the ones with the helmets and turnout gear.
My friends, they are not merely numbers on a chart. No my friends, they are living breathing humans, with lives, loves, families, and futures. Let me urge you to do all that you possibly can to see that your people are ready to perform their assigned tasks. Then be sure to use them wisely. And never, ever forget to say thank you a lot. That is just the story the way I remember living it.