First Due: Requiem for a Firefighter I Never Met

July 9, 2024
Ed Rush shares his story of attending the funeral of a fallen member as a way to remind everyone of important this tradition is.

As dawn breaks, I stare at my Class A uniform and get ready to put it on once again to head to a funeral for a firefighter who I never met. How many times have I done this? Way too many to remember, although once is way too many.

The sunrise signals the start of a new day, with all of the hopes and dreams that most people have and trying to figure out what’s ahead. For that firefighter who lies there waiting to be honored, there are no more new days, no new hopes and dreams.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of firefighters will gather to pay their last respects to a member who made the ultimate sacrifice who they didn’t know. Not many professions do this. That’s why we say the fire service is a brotherhood and sisterhood like no other. Never met the firefighter, don’t know the firefighter, doesn’t matter.

Maintain the tradition
There always is discussion among the keyboard warriors about the negative aspects of the fire department culture. Is the way that we “welcome” rookies hazing or harassment? Is the way that we operate considered aggressive tactics or unsafe acts? The debate goes on. However, paying last respects to a fallen fellow firefighter is the one part of the culture and tradition that we absolutely must maintain. The younger generation must understand the significance of honoring our fallen brothers and sisters and must keep the tradition alive. It doesn’t matter that a fallen member was from a different department,  town or state or was a different race or religion, or whatever might not be the same. They wear the blue and, therefore, they are your brother and sister. Show up and honor them.

A sea of blue many rows deep lines up outside of the church. Nothing ever will leave a more lasting impression on me than that silence as the procession approaches, punctuated only by the echo of the marching feet and the sound of bagpipes.

The entire detail stands at attention and salutes as the casket is carried into the church, followed by the family and friends. The detail is dismissed, and many file in to attend the service. Invariably, the church can’t hold nearly enough of the members who are in attendance. The overflow mingles around outside, listening to the service as it’s broadcast over large speakers that are set up in front of the church. Maybe they find the local “rehab” establishment to ensure that they remain “properly hydrated.”

On this day, whether linked by blood or uniform, we are all part of one family. A wife, child, cousin, uncle, someone gives a eulogy, and the brothers and sisters in blue learn a little. A fellow firefighter, officer or union official gives another eulogy, and the blood family learns a little. We all laugh a little and realize that the fallen firefighter displayed the same beloved qualities whether at home or at work.

We “flip the line” and pay tribute again as the procession leaves the church and heads to the cemetery. We repeat the silence, the salute, the bagpipes. We then head to the union hall, restaurant or fire hall for the collation, where we all raise a glass to toast the memory of our fallen fellow member. This is the part that many who are outside of the fire service might not understand. How do you have a party to “celebrate” a death? Isn’t it inappropriate to “drown your sorrows” when something bad happens? However, that isn’t what we do. We celebrate their life, their accomplishments, their spirit. We can’t lose this tradition.

As days pass, life goes back to normal for most of us who attended the funeral. For the family, it never will be the same. There is a new normal, a void that never can be filled.

The members of the deceased firefighter’s department will do whatever must be done to help to fill that void, whether it’s raising money, building a deck, escorting a child to the first day of school or “vetting” a new boyfriend before a first date.

One of my favorite sayings is “The best thing an old firefighter can teach a young firefighter is how to become an old firefighter.” We must learn from every line of duty death. The ultimate memorial for our lost brothers and sisters is to learn from their tragedy, so it never happens again.

About the Author

Ed Rush

Ed Rush has more than 48 years in the fire service, both career and volunteer. He retired as career chief of the Hartsdale, NY, Fire Department and previously served as chief of the Elmsford, NY, Volunteer Fire Department. Rush currently volunteers with the Lewes, DE, Fire Department and Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue, where he also is a Peer Support team member. He served seven years on the board of the Volunteer & Combination Officers Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Rush serves on the Government Affairs Committee of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs.

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