Photo courtesy of SCCFD.org
Most civilians would have never known what is involved in a fire or police funeral when a public servant is killed in the line of duty until 9/11 happened. Once the funerals and memorials started for those FDNY and NYPD fallen members, images of flag draped caskets, long processions of fire trucks and police cars, and crisply dressed uniformed personnel were flashed up on TV screens across the country and around the world. The awe of seeing such a tribute stays with a person for a long, long time. Now, seven years later, most people have probably forgotten those images but for those who work in the fire or police industry they are not so easily forgotten.
The pomp and circumstance of a fire service funeral and all of it's traditions are deeply rooted in militaristic symbolism. Most of our traditions come from the military but we have managed to come up with our own symbolisms that are unique to the fire service. One of the traditions that transcends all militaristic organizations is the honor guard and most people would recognize a member of the honor guard no matter what organization they serve or what uniform they wore.
When I respond to a firefighter fatality, the first person I call to assist me is my honor guard commander. Even though I grew up in a military family, have worked in the fire service for many years, and have worked along side of honor guard members I still do not know the inner workings of their job and all that it entails. Hours of training and education and practice go into making a guard member. Experience, candor, and integrity make them elite. I leave the finer details in their capable hands knowing that the firefighter will be given farewells with the highest of honors.
What is truly amazing to watch is honor guard members standing and protecting the bodies of the broken or the fallen. Standing stoically, in complete silence they take their position seriously. God help whoever might want to disturb the reverence of the space that occupies their fallen brother. Their job is to make sure that nothing further happens to that person, that full honor is given, and that their brother or sister is never left alone. Left alone... a trauma room is a lonely place even with all of the action. The cold, hard, glaring room of the medical examiner's office is terribly lonely. The front of a funeral chapel between visitation and the funeral is lonely. Even in death we can't leave our brother alone. And so for as long as we can, we stay and guard. Until we are told no more, we wait, we escort, and we stand by. It's the only thing left we can give. I think if there were some way we could stay with our fallen long term, we would, just like the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers.
If I were to imagine a guardian angel in the flesh, it would be that of an honor guard member. Even though the angel cannot always stop death from taking grip, they can still guard and escort the spirit home. In a sense, that is what the honor guard is doing as they sit with the casket on top of the fire truck or stand at attention at the doorway of the chapel.
Photo Courtesy of Jennifer
Firefighter Ryan Hummert was tragically killed over the weekend when he was shot and killed in an ambush on the scene of a car fire. From the moment he was struck by the gunman's bullet, he was never left alone by his brothers. The St. Louise Today wrote a beautiful piece about firefighters never leaving his side and how honor guards from across the state stood watch over him, 24 hours a day until he was laid to rest. It describes our dedication to each other. It weaves a story about heritage, culture and tradition in the fire service. Ryan was never alone. Should we go down, it brings us great hope and strength, as we respond to another call, to know that we too will not be alone. Our honor guards will guard us with honor.