Mills: A Talk With His Battalion Chief: Words I've Never Heard Before

March 26, 2014
Firefighter wife Cynthina Mills talked with her husband's battalion chief, who shared that her goal is to get the crews home safely to their families.

Last shift, my firefighter was acting battalion chief because his BC, along with much of the rest of the department, was out of town at a week-long training. I was at the station that Sunday evening cooking dinner for the crew, when his BC returned from the training. She stopped in at the station to say, "Hi," to her guys and see how shift had been going. After talking to my husband though, she came upstairs looking for me. I was surprised! There I was, just doing what I do: being a firefighter's wife, hanging out in an unfamiliar station's kitchen, shuffling through cabinets and drawers getting frustrated looking for the right supplies, and forming massive meatballs for the meatball parmigiana I was fixing for the guys. Yet my husband's BC was seeking me out.  Uh-oh…

When she found me though, it was incredible to listen to all that she had to say. She uttered words I'd never heard before. Words that comforted me in ways I never knew I had questioned. It all started because of a speaker she listened to at the training.  We live only an hour and a half from Charleston, so many of us knew some of the Charleston 9.  Most of us attended the funeral. Throughout the years, my heart has ached time and time again as I've thought about those parents, wives and children (and in the case of the one my firefighter knew, brother) who lost a fireman.  But what most of us never thought about are the firefighters who did not die. The speaker that the BC listened to, Dr. David Griffin, was one of them. He was at the fire that day and lived. Since his 9 friends and brothers died that sweltering June day, seven years ago, his life has taken him on a journey to hell and thankfully back again. His presentation told some of this story. The book he wrote is his scientific study and compilation of the research behind the fire, the tragedy, and the organizational process lessons the firefighting world can take and learn from it all.  

I stood in the firehouse kitchen, absently forming meatballs, covering them with foil and placing them in the oven while listening, enraptured by the story and the passion behind the BC's thoughts. I've known this woman for eight years now. When my husband first started at this department, she was his lieutenant. Since the first day I met her, I've considered her a friend.  She, a retired Marine, Gulf War Veteran, and former drill instructor, prayed over us all before station dinners together. She regularly gave me a rest by taking my third child, our baby at the time, and rocking and humming her to sleep with the Marine Corps hymn and the Michigan fight song. She has laughed at the girls growing up, encouraged them in all that they do, attended birthday parties for them, and even mourned losses with them that weren't her burden to bear. (When my daughter's best friend died less than two months after the Charleston 9, she pulled the shift together and bought, instead of flowers, a gardenia bush to plant in honor of this sweet girl. This gardenia started what is still a beautiful garden at Marissa's parent's house. I'm not sure if she remembers this, but it is something we will never forget.)

While she talked on about this amazing journey the former Charleston firefighter has taken in his life, her message to me was about his wife. She said as soon as she finished listening to his story (which was completely amazing and inspirational) she made a beeline for his wife. She had to shake her hand and tell her how much she admires her for being the kind of woman who would stand by his side, guide him, love him, help him, and heal him even through the depths of depression that he soaked in for so long.  She said she could tell that, like my husband and me, they were a strong couple together.  They face things as a team, not leaving the other to tough it out alone.

What she said next literally stopped me in my tracks. She said, "My goal, each time we go on scene, is to get your fireman home safely to you, at the end of shift again." Really? I selfishly admit that's the most important thing to me, but I had no idea that this is what is most sacred to her each shift, too. I mean, I trust her to do her job as leader of his shift and as BC for her firefighters.  I trust she'll do it well too because I happen to think she's a damn good leader.  Coupled with this intuitive trust I have in both her and in my husband, I am simply not a worrier by nature.  My father was in law enforcement my whole life.  My mother never sat around the house, brooding over whether or not he was safe at work and if he would come home to us.  Thanks to her example, I learned never to play victim to fear and unharnessed worry.  

Even still, hearing his battalion chief speak these words did something to boost my spirit and trust in her even more.  From listening to her that night, I heard way more than just what she said.  I now know that she goes to these trainings and classes and actually listens intently, engages fully in the learning, and gleans all the knowledge she can, with the intention of keeping her guys safe on scene at all times.  This is her goal.  It is the force that drives her thirst for more and more wisdom.  I'm no fool, so I know accidents happen.  Mistakes can be made.  But to understand that she actively works to gain knowledge and train well to prevent mistakes in her own department, makes all the difference in the world to the heart of a fireman's wife.

"In 15 years of living this life, this is the first time I've ever heard any chief say that their goal is to send my husband home safely to me at the end of each shift," I told her. "Really?" she said.  "Maybe this is something we need to address with all the wives and families.  If it helps even you to hear this, maybe it's something that will really help the wives who are newer, younger, and struggling in this lifestyle."

I have to agree. We talked some more and tried to figure out how wives at our department would feel about having a get together where the battalion chiefs, and even the chiefs if they'd like, let us know exactly what their hope and goal is each shift. Is her sentiment the same for most chiefs?  Do other chiefs think of the families at home: the spouses, children, parents, and siblings of their firefighters? Do they seek education for themselves and their guys and train hard, with a safe return home being the force that drives them?

 When they hear the tones drop for a structure fire, do they operate in a business-as-usual style, without a second thought of the lives their firefighters have stepped away from for 48 hours? Or do they focus intently on the task at hand, so that they can achieve their underlying goal of returning them safely to these lives?  

These are all good questions. Ones that I suspect many, many firefighter families would love to hear the answers to. So in your department, do you already do something like this?  Is it something you would consider starting, as a service to the biggest supporters who your firefighters need the most?  I know for a fact that it's worth considering, even if it helps just one wife or family.  That's one family that can continue on with their daily routine, with more faith and trust in you than they ever had before.  

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