Having been a Fire Chaplain for over 25 years has made me love fire service so much more than I did when I got started. Starting out at a volunteer/partially paid department and learning on the job really did a number on my initial confidence. that I kept asking myself " why do these guys spend double or triple what they make to be on call for extreme times and have to work a job with this commitment to even be here?"
It all started when I was a new mission pastor in town and was having some success starting a church. I finally got someone to commit to be a volunteer youth leader. After service the guy and wife and kids were driving home in the dark and a drunk pulled out in front of them without lights on, threw the car in reverse and smashed their car
In the shock of what happened the young volunteer kept calling our my phone number... one of the drunks from the bar heard him yell out the number and dropped a dime in the pay phone and slurred that a man was bleeding and I needed to hurry to the bar and fix him. I got there, realized who it was... and immediately started calming down my friends and being a support. It seemed to help the family a lot and the Fire Chief came to me as the event was over and asked if I had ever considered being a fire chaplain.... truthfully, I had not even HEARD of a fire chaplain....but I said if you will train me I will be glad to.
In the midst of the changes of my life I had the chance to serve as an institutional chaplain, as assistant staff chaplain for Cook County Jail for about 14 months... everything helped me learn how to serve troubled people better. I join National Chaplains Association and applied for a Lifetime Chaplain designation and committed my life to be more than "just a pastor" but to be there in crisis for those who need it.
I spent a single year in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin and served as their chaplain, too. The department was volunteer but the training was demanding. The offered training through University of Wisconsin Fire School and I gladly attended and got my Fire Fighter 1 and 2 certifications. I took specific training to drive engines and trucks and even got to do some fully involved fires ... which has given me some great fire stories to now tell my grandkids.
Over the years I had the chance to move in ministry and serve as a chaplain everywhere they needed me. I even tried to become a chaplain in one city for 6 years and was told over and 0ver again... " become a police chaplain...we don't need a chaplain for fire." Even though the door was closed officially, I had at least 15 or 20 chances to serve in the same role without a uniform in 6 years there... fires, accidents, a suicide, a couple homicides were all things where I was called in as a local pastor to do the work of a chaplain....
About 6 1/2 years ago I was moved to Bakersfield, California. In one of the first meetings I attended as the new Salvation Army officer for town, I heard one of the fire chiefs of the city fire department mention that they were short a chaplain. After the meeting, I mentioned my willingness. He asked me to explain my experiences I was immediately recruited. For the first time I was to only counsel, and give aid verbally... no turn out gear or hoses allowed. I went out on some calls and realized I needed better training if all I was going to do is talk.
I attended my first Critical Incident Stress Management class and was blown away by how simple it would be to organize all the things that I had said into a clear, reproducible model that would even work as a team effort when needed. I took every one I could get to.
The county fire department had asked me to fill in for them for a really bad rollover on the freeway on an early Sunday morning. A grandma and grandpa were driving their grandkids and best friend to Disneyland. The van flipped and rolled and in the process killed 3 kids and sent the rest to intensive care. They divided the survivors to 2 hospitals based on level of care. I was asked to go to the one hospital and explain to the grandparents that then not only lost 2 grandkids but the best friend of their grandkid who was 7 and this was his first day away from his parents ever. I did was I was trained to do... and was immediately approached by one of their chiefs If I would serve them, too. There was a rule somewhere that no chaplain could serve both departments... I agreed if both chiefs from both departments would agree to share and I could get all frequencies for both departments on one radio.
Soon after that I was drafted to serve on the Mental Health Disaster Oversight Commitee. The committee was a compilation of police, fire, mental health and all other responder agencies. It's purpose was to set the standard and keep that standard of how traumatic event patients would be treated and what would be the county wide standard. To my suprise, CISM (critical incident stress management) was the model.
Along the way my wife received her CISM training and became one of the first female chaplain for Bakersfield City Fire, ever.
When I continued to take CISM classes I got the chance to take a Trained Trainer class for Peer to Peer CISM. As I began to teach the classes more doors opened for me to teach and serve.
When children were playing with their grandpa's Vietnam souvenir mortar shell he brought back from the war, that he thought was disarmed ... police called me to put together the team to walk the neighborhood and help everyone involved walk through the deaths of 2 children and the damage from shrapnel for 5 others.
By the time we were moved in July of 2008, my wife and I were given key to the city, special awards from both fire department chiefs, from City Council and County Council and more plaques and awards than anyone could have wall space to hang... But the awards are not why I do this... I do this to be of support to those who are traumatized so they have quality care and all the support they need.
So right now... I am waiting to meet with one of the Chiefs and the senior chaplain for Escondido Fire Department. Hopefully, I will get the chance to do it again. The need is real, I have the tools, so I might as well use them and do someone some good.
The congregation I have been moved to is right in the middle of the area that was drastically impacted in the fires that burned through Southern California. They want to be ready to be better responders... they want the tools to serve and be their for their neighbors and community when it happens again. Something seems to me that we are in the right place again... and I am so thankful for all the firefighters that let us serve from the inside out... not from the outside in...