Carter: Each of Us Is Truly Our Brothers' Keeper

As is my way, I was out on the front porch the other day puffing and pondering the fate of the world.  It was a beautiful Fall day and the temperature was up into the low 60's.  It was truly a beautiful day to be witnessing the glory of a beautiful day here on God's Green earth.  As I looked out at the American Flag waving in the gentle breeze, my mind began to drift back to an earlier time and place in my life. 

My thoughts turned to the great days when it was my privilege to serve as Chief of the 5th Battalion District in the good, old Newark Fire Department.  It was truly a most rewarding time in my life.  John Griggs was my deputy chief and he allowed me the singular privilege of running my own show.  He was there if needed, but he allowed me the freedom to do those things which I felt to be appropriate for the fine men with whom I was allowed to serve.

Let me share a story about one of the great guys in our battalion.  I can recall the time that one of my guys was going to get married.  Tony Hopler was one of the good guys and his future wife Sue was the perfect fit for him. They decided to invite a number of us to their wedding at a lovely Catholic church in New Brunswick, N.J..  I was honored to be invited to this pivotal moment in their lives. 

As I recalled the event, I remember that it was a beautiful, sunny day as we entered the church.  It was truly a joyous day. One of our firefighters was about to be married, and his company buddies and I were pleased to be in the congregation to share in the joy of this special occasion.  Deputy Chief Griggs and his wife were also in attendance.  The music was appropriately beautiful, as was the bride.  All-in-all, it was a distinct honor for us all to be there.

Many times during my career, I gathered together with my fellow fire department travelers to celebrate, commiserate, or mourn.  However, this special day marked a first for me.  It was the first time that someone in our battalion had taken the plunge into married life.  Oh, there were a number of married guys, but this was truly different. 

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 is an action which I have found it hard to counter.  If I am going to cry, I will cry.  Tough guys have that privilege too. And I ain't all that tough.

During the course of the service, there were some fine Biblical readings, with many analogies regarding marriage as a journey.  One reader even likened it to climbing as mountain.  Another person spoke of the necessary teamwork and understanding that marriage requires.  As an old married guy myself I was well aware of the wisdom of each of these selected verses.  My marriage would have perished a long time ago were it not for the charming and ultimately lost understanding Mrs. Carter.

At one point in the service, Tony and Sue moved from the main altar 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 I watched them from the rear of the church, a thought suddenly flew into my mind.  As this man’s battalion chief, I now had a responsibility to not only him, but his wife.  Any decision that we would make in the future about using Tony’s skills and services at a fire would have both direct and implied ties to the lovely woman kneeling at his side.

Now for some of you this may not seem like a terribly brilliant thought.  Maybe it was just an old thought abruptly thrust into my minds eye.  However, the point is simple.  What you and I do as fire officers in seeking to accomplish dangerous tasks though the efforts of our firefighters is never to be undertaken in a vacuum.  There are many ramifications which must be understood and introduced into our thought processes. 

Ladies and gentlemen, let me now state, for the record, that we in the fire service are not now nor have we ever been like the Kamikaze pilots which flew against our Pacific fleets during World War Two.  Our job is not to crash into the innards of a burning building and sacrifice our lives for the glory of our fire department.  No, it is our job as 21st Century fire service leaders to take all of the necessary steps to insure that everyone goes home safely at the close of business each day.

A number of years ago, I was 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 our discussions Bill and I spoke of such matters as hose sizes, tactical deployment strategies, pumper pressures, and the like.  We also spoke of our regard for the human element in any fire department operation.  It was this last thought that he chose to employ in his text.  He quoted me as stating that you can never justify spending people on property.  I still fervently believe in that notion.

It is my belief that there are damned few situations where it is permissible to risk the lives of your firefighters.  We must always 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. Many have been the funerals for needless death in the fire service.

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 are not chicken, but just prudent.  More than that, the latest research tells us all that our old ways of firefighting will not stand up to the challenges of firefighting in modern structures.

It is difficult for me to tell you when and where to take a risk.  You are the ones who will be eyeball to eyeball with the fire which threatens the life and safety of your troops. 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. 

However, I have fought a fire where our troops here in Adelphia did a fabulous job of halting the fire in its track.  You can imagine how angered we were when we discovered that the person who was buying the McMansion home refused to complete the sale because of the damage.  Imagine how we felt when we saw the building we had saved razed to the ground and replaced by a freshly-built structure.  It is tough to ask the troops to do battle after a situation like that. 

Anyway as I sat back in my chair on the front porch puffing on my cigar, my mind once again drifted back to the time in the back of that fine old church in New Brunswick 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 fire officers we are truly our brother’s keeper.

Please do not take my message in the wrong way.  I do not want you to suddenly become panic stricken with concern and stop fighting fires.  However, I do want you to become thoughtful and judicious in using your most important resource.  Those people with the helmets and turnout gear are not numbers on a chart.  Rather, they are living breathing humans, with lives, loves and futures.  You must do all you can to insure that your people are ready to do their jobs.  Then be sure to use them wisely.  And remember to say thank you a lot.

These are just a few thoughts from one man's front porch in Adelphia, N.J.  However, these are thoughts which come from an exciting career filled with fabulous people and great experiences. Take care and stay safe.