9/11: “Devoted To Duty Above Personal Risk”

A little something about me you may not have known: I used to design fire department patches (NOTE: I did not design this one; it is from The Fire Store, but it was exactly the image I was looking for).  In fact, when I first got involved in the fire service, I designed quite a few of them and one of them, the patch I designed for the Bluffton Township Fire District, our neighbors here in South Carolina, is still being used.  The Chief and the Assistant Chief at the time (who is now the Chief) wanted a motto on the patch.  The motto we came up with is still being used: "Devoted to duty above personal risk."  It still sounds good and to be quite honest, with most of us, it is the truth.

Given some of my posts, some of you, I think believe I'm a safety nazi.  That's pretty far from the truth actually.  I'm a true believer; when I got into the business, I did so because I wanted to be involved in it and because my family tradition led me there.  But I'm the kind of guy that if I didn't believe in it, I wouldn't have stuck around.  And the danger and the thrill, personally, did it for me.  What's more, it wasn't enough.

Over the years, however, I matured.  I grew up, which unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you speak to) changes things. I had the good fortune to meet movers and shakers in the emergency service world and each of them had a story to tell.  Mostly their story was that while it was fun being at the edge of sanity with some of the heroics we pulled off and the chest full of medals we earned, we never really appreciated the impact that one stupid move could make that would change the world forever.

The events of September 11 really put my priorities into focus.  On that beautiful September day and on into the night, I stood in front of the TV in my living room, oftentimes holding my then-baby daughter, with tears in my eyes when I realized that 343 of my brothers perished in the line of duty.  The effect that this loss has had on our nation is questionable, as today it seems like the public has forgotten that day.  But the scar it left on our job, on our family, is impenetrable.  There are children growing up whose fathers will never hold them or see them graduate or walk them down the aisle.  Or even look on with pride as they too choose to join our brotherhood.  Who won't be there to pin on Lieutenant's bugles at that first promotion.  Each of these 343 individuals had a profound impact on a number of others, and that ripple effect continues outward and outward until millions, even billions in this case, are impacted.

But the tragedy that happened that day is an anomaly, a blip in the statistics of firefighter mortality.  In fact, we can't ever factor in the loss of 343 individuals on that one day in any of the data we analyze because it throws wild swings into the results.  That certainly doesn't decrease their contribution any more.  In fact, it immortalizes it.  Forever that will be a group of people who stand alone.  But the 100 or so firefighters who die in the line of duty each year are considered, in a figure that has decreased over time, but not nearly in proportion to the fires we now fight. Looking at the situation after that day and understanding the effect the loss of those 343 people had on so many, it is obvious that any casual approach to safety results not just in a loss to the immediate individuals involved, but to many others.  Any poor decision causes a ripple that can become a tsunami.  

So on a grand scale, the loss of even ONE firefighter is an unacceptable one and extrapolated out into an average loss of 100 brothers a year affects not just you or your crew, but families and community, and everything else, multiplied 100 times.  And when a significant number of these injuries and deaths occur not from heroic deeds, but from failing to use common sense, I struggle with the argument that our "safety culture is ruining the fire service".  Let's just take the injuries and deaths that HAVE occurred from people putting themselves in harm's way out of the equation, and in looking at casualties that are related to cardiac events and failure to wear seatbelts, we could make a significant impact on sending more brothers home every day than ever before.  

But we CONTINUE to resist changes in our industry that would make that difference.  Why?  Because you safety nazis are sucking the fun out of our job.  Because you are unreasonable in expecting me to maintain appropriate cardiac health to do the job.  Because we resist the notion that there should be a standard for doing the job.  Because it is inconvenient for me to wear my seatbelt.

There is absolutely no argument you can make to me that can reasonably suggest that increasing our safety is a bad idea.  I am a chief officer now.  I joke that my white helmet will likely remain white until I die, because my job is to send you guys in and to make sure that all I sent in comes back out in the same condition.  It's not the fun part of the job, but at some point, I had to grow up and accept my role.  I am no longer the "go to" guy on the scene for a really hairy rescue and even though I understand that, it's never going to escape me.  

A few years ago, I jumped into the water with Capt. Tom from the EMS12Lead blog and we made a rescue.  While he was a Lieutenant at the time, I was a chief.  My chief, when handing me the Meritorious Service Medal (I missed the actual ceremony, Capt. Tom got one too), reminded me that my job was no longer in the water, but on the shore.  He also indicated it would probably be my last medal.  I indicated that if I got another medal it would probably be my last medal because I'd be looking for another job.  He laughed at that.  But it was an awakening.  I realized how right he was.  My job is to keep you guys safe.  You job is to be safe about doing it and to only take risk when the risk is worth it.  Not only will I keep from throwing your body into an unwinnable battle, I ask that you keep from making decisions that require the same.

We lost 343 brother firefighters in one day in New York City.  They, as well as many more firefighters and other public safety professionals who survived, considered their duty to save others from that infernal hell and did so for thousands and thousands of others, and to their credit, we should be thanking them all for their courageous actions.  But this tradition was an act that isn't replicated in all of these line of duty deaths, because in the majority of line of duty deaths, preventable actions or shall I say, more mature and considerate actions, could have saved firefighter lives.  

To put it plainly, the lives we lost were not traded for a single save.  Our "duty above personal risk", while meant to signify that willingness to sacrifice, can also be read that we are devoted to "duty" above "personal risk".  We have a duty, not only to save the lives of endangered victims, but to be there to lead our families, to be there to teach our rookie firefighters, to be there to be a Cub Scout leader or to work in the PTA.  We have a duty to live our lives to the fullest, not to casually throw our lives away without a sane reason.

If the time comes, God forgive me, to throw my life in front of another so that someone may live a full and productive life, I know in my heart what my action will be.  But until then, I refuse to commit my body, or yours, to a decision based on a misguided view of heroism, or because it is what we always believed to be the duty of our calling.

Be safe and if anything, in the name of those who have gone before us, honor their memory by being there for everyone who remains.  And I ask that God bless the civilian departed and their families on this 10th anniversary of their death.  And most of all, God bless and keep our 343 brothers, their families, and the other firefighters who still suffer the effects of the horrible day, both mentally and physically.  We love you and miss you all terribly. 

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