Here's a hot topic that might set off some fireworks. It might even incite a reader to leave a comment.
This is something very near and dear to me and something I feel very strongly about. I've wanted to write about this for a long time and a recent conversation with a friend prompted me to pick tonight to write it. And, now that I have the forum to do so, here goes.
I'll be involved in at least two fire service funerals this week, and hopefully not a third but it's quite possible.
In my role as Deputy Fire Coordinator, I've honestly probably attended perhaps hundreds of such funerals in my fire service career. We have more than 5,000 firefighters in our county, so that number isn't probably too far off.
Let me start by saying that I mean absolutely no disrespect to any fire department for doing everything they can to honor their fallen brothers or sisters, regardless of the circumstances of their death, nor do I mean any disrespect to any brother firefighter who has gone before us, nor their family.
This is a topic that I have struggled with for quite some time and I'm frankly torn as to the right way to approach it.
The crux of my concerns is the fire service funeral practices that are employed for non-line-of-duty deaths. My friend referred to some funerals as dog-and-pony shows. Perhaps a little harsh. Perhaps a little accurate.
Now let me start by saying that there is no greater honor that we can give a brother (used gender generically) firefighter than a proper send-off. The key word there is 'proper.'
Anything you read and ask anyone who knows about this stuff, and this is the first thing they'll tell you: First and last, a funeral, fire service or otherwise, should be planned to respect the individual's wishes, or the wishes of the family if there was no 'pre-plan' of sorts.
However, I think that many times we're guilty of violating this trusted relationship. If we're not careful, we can inadvertently push our fire service traditions on the family and the needs of the family now becomes a side show to the pomp and circumstance of the fire service rituals.
We need to be ever mindful that a fire service funeral is never about us. It needs to be about the firefighter's first family, not his second.
I think sometimes we sacrifice quality for quantity, simplicity for extravagance. Maybe I'm all washed up on this but I've seen plenty of what I consider to be "violations" and I've been to lots of funerals in and outside of our county and across the state. I'm sure I've even violated my own principles towards the subject matter.
I believe that every firefighter, whether they served a day or a hundred years in the fire service, is entitled to a firefighter's funeral if that's what they and/or the family wanted. They earned the title the day they joined and they deserve to be honored with it the day they die.
We can't pick and choose when we're going to show up, whether or not we liked the guy, or whether or not we agree with the practices being practiced. We can't pick and choose when we're going to wear our fire department uniform or when we're going to attend dressed like a civilian. We can't pick or choose because we only have Class-B BDU uniforms instead of Class-A. I've been to plenty of funerals where the fire department was there en masse, all wearing the same uniform, fire company T-shirts, because that's all they had.
Those who don't get it think it's about them. They're wrong. Guess what? The family doesn't care that you're all there in a sea of blue $400 full dress uniforms. All they care about is that you're all there. All they care about is that their husband, wife, father, mother, sister, brother was honored by all of their fire service friends being there, for them, and for him or her.
Remember what Ronald the arsonist (Donald Sutherland) said in Backdraft? "The funny thing about firemen, day or night, they're always firemen." We're always on. We can't say "I don't want to be a fireman today" because I don't feel like attending a particular wake or funeral.
In his book, Leadership, even Rudy Guiliani said that "Weddings are optional. Funerals are not."
My next peeve is the mega-funerals for non-LODDs. I know that's not the right term to use but I can't think of a better one at the moment. You know what I'm talking about. It's the funeral where they picked every possible tradition and practice out of the catalog and applied it in, frankly, an inappropriate way. If you think back to all of the fire service funerals you've attended, I'm sure you can find an example.
It's the exaggerated equivalent of putting the body in the ground before the family gets the chance to arrive at the graveside behind the never-ending parade of fire department vehicles.
Don't think for a second that I don't believe every firefighter should have every firefighter friend at their side. Don't think for a second that every firefighter shouldn't respect the position if not the man, and be in attendance despite not knowing the deceased, or knowing them a little too well.
Have you ever heard a fellow firefighter say, "I want my funeral to be just like that... ?" What I'm getting at is that it seems we're trying to out-do each other in the rituals and traditions to make the next fire service funeral better than the last, over-the-top. It's no different than what too many of us do when considering our next apparatus design. Consciously or sub-consciously, I think this is a trend we're seeing. At least I'm seeing it and like I said, I attend a lot of fire service funerals.
The problem I have with all of this is what is left to make a true Line-of Duty Death truly special? If there truly is no greater sacrifice than to lay one's life down for their fellow man, (the Bible said that first,) shouldn't there be certain practices that are reserved for a LODD?
I don't particularly care which practices those are, just that we don't pull out every single last bell and whistle we've ever seen, heard of, or read about - for a non-LODD. More importantly, be consistent in the manner you present the honors and don't discriminate based on age, rank, likeability or years of service.
I simply care that we as individual departments, and maybe we as a larger fire service community, standardize on how we're going to treat each case according to its circumstances.
One way to accomplish this is to "pre-plan" your fire department's participation in your member's funeral. While that may be an uneasy conversation, it will be appreciated by everyone at the appropriate time.
As part of our roles in the fire coordinator's office, we assist in the logistics and coordination, event planning if you will, of a lot of firefighter funerals, some LODD, most not. We've compiled a comprehensive resource guide of sample documents for funerals: prayers, eulogies, bell services, SOGs, resource guides, flag folding instructions, procession planning - you name it.
I carry a jump drive full of funeral management resources with me at all times just in the event we need to respond to help a fire department plan a funeral. I've written death notices, eulogies, press releases, thank you ads, family statements and last alarm messages. We're proud to provide this service that unfortunately, we've become all too well practiced at.
We consider it a gift and an honor that people entrust us with planning and carrying out the funeral service of their loved ones. It is both an exhausting and rewarding experience.
Thus, I've developed a matrix of recommended funeral service practices. It's fairly comprehensive but I'm sure you can think of a practice that you've witnessed or employed that you could add to the list. It addresses a variety of practices according to the nature of the death: active line-of-duty, active non-line-of-duty, inactive, etc. It works as a good check list when meeting with the family during the time of need.
My whole goal for creating the document was not to dictate what should or shouldn't be done, but simply to suggest possibilities. Most importantly, my goal was to implore any fire department, every fire department, to plan and standardize how they are going to address each level of service.
Too many times I've seen a relatively new member get the bargain basement funeral service and a life member get the super-duper "As seen on TV" level of service, and vice-versa.
Many times there is no rhyme or reason as to how it plays out. Does the just-off-probation firefighter deserve anything less than the crusty old jake that's been around forever? When the rank on the uniform is the same, shouldn't we approach their funerals - uniformly?
Conversely, I've seen concert-like funeral attendance numbers for a young active firefighter who died unexpectedly but not in the line of duty, yet there's barely a showing for a still semi-active 30-year veteran. Does the fact that the seasoned veteran's kids are grown and he's already lived a full life have any less bearing than a young man taken down in the prime of his life with a wife and young children left behind? It shouldn't but it appears to in some cases.
We can't necessarily pick and choose who our fellow firefighters are - but we certainly can't pick and choose when it's their time to go either.
Maybe I'm way off base on this and making much ado about nothing, but I think we need to address equality and standardization when we carry out the solemn honor for a fallen comrade.
I don't know, maybe we should take the same attitude the military does: once a firefighter - always a firefighter - regardless of how they die - and all entitled to the same honors as the next guy.
Preparing for and carrying out all of the particulars and logistics of a firefighter funeral is a large undertaking, requiring meticulous attention to every last little detail in ensuring that it's done right - for the family and the fire service family. Thus, it's something we should plan for and regard as an unfortunate honor, giving it the same level of commitment we give to everything else we dedicate ourselves to in the fire service.
So, before I get down off of my soap box at this late hour, let me leave you with this: Remember earlier in the conversation when I said "...that there is no greater honor that we can give a brother firefighter than a proper send-off?"
If we want to really honor them, honor them now while they're still with us. Honor them by respecting them for their years of service, whether you can count them on one hand or you need to borrow someone else's fingers and toes to do it.
Honor them by showing up for every "opportunity" our customers present us. Honor them by training right along side them or dragging them to training if you have to. Honor them by listening to their stories, no matter how many times you've heard them. Honor them by telling your stories, because they don't have many of their own, yet.
Honor their family for being the ones who are making the real sacrifices every day. Honor their family and your family by wearing your seat belt every time you get in any vehicle and by doing everything else necessary to keep you and your fellow firefighters safe.
Take every opportunity to recognize your people for both their struggles and their accomplishments. Recognize, reward and publicly honor them. Don't wait. Do it now.
Trust me; they'll enjoy it a lot more now - than later...
For a list of other fire service funeral management resources, visit the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation at: www.firehero.org.
PS - If you're looking for ideas on how to honor your firefighters more now than later, I strongly suggest you read Pride & Ownership by Chief Rick Lasky of the Lewisville Fire Department. He gets it.
Check out the funeral service matrix and leave me a comment. I'd like to know your thoughts on this. And as always,
Stay safe. Train often.
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