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?"

I lied.

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...

Download Recommended Fire Service Funeral Practices.pdf

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.


ORIGINAL POST 10/23/07

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Comment by Tiger Schmittendorf on June 22, 2009 at 11:05pm
Comment by Tiger Schmittendorf on June 22, 2009 at 11:03pm
Chief -

Thanks for your comments.

First, if you are referring to my blog: http://www.firefighternation.com/profiles/blogs/889755:BlogPost:136383 on Fire Service Funeral Practices, it would be helpful if you had left a comment on my blog instead of starting your own as a response to mine. I understand and appreciate that you are new to FirefighterNation but I never would have found this had someone not brought it to my attention.

As for your comments, I believe you may have misunderstood the intent of my blog. You repeatedly refer back to the practice of carrying the casket on the fire engine and seem to think that I am somehow against it. If that's what you took away from my article, I strongly urge you to re-read it. You have clearly missed the point.

I have no objection to a firefighter's casket being carried on the back of the engine - or any other practice for that matter - as appropriate. I simply ask that we consider the family's wishes first, foremost and always and that we establish standards for these practices within our own departments, counties, regions and states or further - as appropriate.

I wholeheartedly disagree that the means and levels of respect demonstrated should be different depending on "what the loved one did for the agency/jurisdiction" or should be different for what you describe as "a mediocre or poor firefighter at best." Being subjective about how we treat each other in life and in death only opens the door for hurt feelings and bad blood.

Who will determine how you and your family will be treated at your passing? Will it be based on your long standing record in the fire service or will it be based on “What have you done for us lately?” Establishing baselines for these practices eliminates much of the doubt and clearly communicates expectations for how each situation can be addressed.

When a recruit raises their right hand to take the same oath that you and I have taken, I feel that they are immediately entitled to a certain level of respect, again, both in life and in death. From there on though, it does matter as to how we treat the circumstances under which they leave our service.

The "Recommended Fire Service Funeral Practices" document that I believe you're referring to is simply that - a recommendation, a suggestion. In no way am I advocating that these practices must be implemented or enforced in your department or anywhere else. It is simply a framework from which to open the discussion and yes, to standardize how we will treat our members in each situation.

To abuse or even blur the lines between a line-of-duty death and a non-line of duty death is a disservice to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their communities. There simply is no comparison. There are other fire service leaders who feel strongly about this as well: http://community.fireengineering.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1219672%3ABlogPost%3A16200

And as for your comment: "If a dept. in Louisiana or Maine, or Washington does something different, I believe no one has the right to right an article or blog and blast them. You are not in their shoes." - I am not singling out anyone and I am certainly not blasting anyone. To the contrary, my goal is to prevent any firefighter or their family from being treated unfairly in life and in death. To not have this discussion is an insult to those who have gone before us.

And Sir, please don't ever question my right to write an article or blog that opens honest and mature dialogue on a subject that will eventually affect each and every one of us. I would no sooner ask you to reserve your comments.

If you'd like to continue this conversation, please do so at the original blog page. I'll be copying these comments there for those who are interested in following these important discussions.

I too respect your opinion. Thanks for your consideration.

Stay safe. Train often
Comment by Tiger Schmittendorf on June 22, 2009 at 11:03pm
A member new to FFN posted his response as a separate blog instead of as a comment here. Cut him some slack for doing so, but in order to keep this discussion going, I'm copying and pasting his content and my reply here:

Fire Service Funeral Practices Posted by Gary E Curmode on June 21, 2009 at 1:30am

Overall, a good article, except, the following: I agree the Family is first, and the Fire family 2nd. That is the way it should be. I disagree that Tiger feels it is many depts. trying to outdo the others. I differ strongly. Each funeral is slightly different! I feel we should see what the family wants for its loved one, see what the loved one did for the agency/jurisdiction, and try to accomodate the best way to honor him/her for the families' wishes.

Many times I have been to funerals where the firefighter being honored did things too dangerous and that is probably why they were killed. So, they ride in the fire truck and are honored. But, the firefighter and fire officer that did the safe procedures, worked hard, and practiced safe strategy and tactics, dies from an illness and/or in retirement, and had every right to be in the hose bed of the fire apparatus, probably more than the firefighter in an LODD that did something foolish or was a mediocre or poor firefighter at best. I believe it should go on the person's service to their jurisdiction, but, even more try to comply with the family's wishes. We are here to alleviate or soften their mourning.

It is an opinion, Tiger, that you wrote, and I respect it, but, I do not agree with it. I do agree a pre-plan of how funerals should be conducted and how, is good to have. But, if a dept. in Ks. wants to honor them to comply with the family's wishes by carrying their casket in the hose bed, then, so be it. I do not think it is right for someone to Monday morning quarterback their wishes and how they handled the ceremony. We are a diverse community, and many depts. have different needs, families have different needs, and these should be respected. It is ok to have your book of suggested ideas for funerals, but, it is not the only way. If a dept. in Louisiana or Maine, or Washington does something different, I believe no one has the right to right an article or blog and blast them. You are not in their shoes.

There are sacred traditions, that many want to hold deeply to their hearts; that is ok. But, if someone wants to do something else, to ease the family's grief, that should be ok, and not the entire fire service reviewing it. Then, it is for the fire service, and not for the family. This is about family, and they should come first.

Thanks for allowing me to air my opinion. Let depts. do what is best for their members and families. There is not any protocol that says: only LODD must get the priviledge of riding in the hose bed. I know of fire chiefs, fire marshals, deputy fire chiefs, clear down to the ranking firefighter, that deserve this kind of respect, IF their family requests it and the department can do it without financial hardship.

Gary Curmode, Kansas
gcurmode@cox.net
Comment by Tiger Schmittendorf on June 9, 2008 at 10:38pm
Thanks LT -

I feel your pain. We coordinate the training and mutual aid operations for 97 fire departments in our county. That's right: 97.

Some 94 of the 97 are volunteer and we have every garden variety of fire protection including municipal, fire district and independent contractors serving fire protection districts.

And guess what? They all have their own ideas about how a firefighter funeral, regardless of circumstances, should be conducted.

Through education and pre-planning with many departments; and by offering our resources at the appropriate time; we're making inroads towards helping everyone to realize that first: it's not about them - it's about the family; and secondly, that there's a fair, equitable and proper way of conducting these honors.

I applaud you for your efforts in supporting them through your honor guard. It's something that I've talked about in our county for some time. Unfortunately, as part of my job, I go to a lot of firefighter funerals and I feel an honor guard team could be a real asset and solution to some of our challenges.

I know it's easy for me to say, but don't be afraid to stand up to ignorance. Your will and ability to do so is a true sign of leadership.

Let me know how I can help.

PS - See Devil Doc's comments above yours and try what he did. Post this blog in your fire station and see what reaction you get. Don't worry about me, I have broad shoulders... and a fat head to match. LOL
Comment by Engine 32 Capt. on June 9, 2008 at 1:29pm
Tiger;

Thanks for sharing. I agree with you 100%.

One of the problems we face here, however, is that most of our county fire service is made up of tax protection districts. They are mostly combination departments, and there are currently 19 of them. That means there are 19 Fire Chiefs (these numbers do not include Louisville City Fire).

It is difficult, at best, to perform a standardized service. I understand that families or the fallen member might have asked for something 'extra' or 'special', and we would of course make every attempt to accomodate them. But the problem occurs when, instead of letting the Honor Guard who is educated and familiar with these practices handle it, the Chiefs get involved and decide how things are going to go.

I have actually met with (and I kid you not) a Fire Chief for a non-LODD funeral to explain a particular aspect of the service - family requested - only to be told by said Chief that "that's not how I planned this to go".

What do you do?

I can print off your suggested funeral service practices, but I will never be able to sit down and organize a fire service funeral system for our area. Once again; 19 Districts, 19 Chiefs, 19 different ways of doing things. Might be hard to believe, but it's true. They all have their own little kingdoms and they'll run them how they see fit.

How we handle this (our Honor Guard team) is by keeping our mouths closed. We don't always agree with what's being done, but it will get done to the best of our abililty and with respect, honor and dignity.

Until Jefferson county merges services and becomes a unified fire department, this is how it will have to be.

Thanks again. I can take the information you've provided and use it to make our team members more aware of the implications of the issues surrounding this matter.
Comment by Tiger Schmittendorf on April 5, 2008 at 2:08pm
Thanks Doc -

I'm glad you found it insightful and useful. I'd like to see your SOGs as they pertain to this matter.

Stay safe. Train often.
Comment by Devil Doc on April 5, 2008 at 9:13am
OOH RAH Tiger! This post describes what alot of us feel but don't know how to say. Your captivated an ENTIRE paid fire station of 25 personnel. We printed and posted your blog right next to our SOP's. We will be using this guide, and the other resources, when we come across these situations. Thank you for helping us put words behind feelings.

-"Doc"
Chief of Operations/Chaplin
Station 1 Emergency Services Unit
Comment by Jeff Sweetland on April 5, 2008 at 3:33am
Well said Tiger. I too agree that things may be getting a bit out of control with this. And as you mentioned -- it is embarrassing when at times the turnout in full dress uniform is 12 guys when at other times it is 45 guys. Also, I always felt that the truck caisson and apparatus procession should be reserved for LODD only. For none LODD a truck in the proccession is ok but it should stop there
Comment by Joe Stoltz on April 1, 2008 at 10:07pm
Another excellent post Tiger. Actually I was surprised at the matrix that you made available... there is not much difference between a LODD and non-LODD of an active member. I was expecting more of a difference; I'm not being critical, just thinking out loud.

I've been thinking about the accidental, untimely death of a neighboring FD's assistant chief last year. It was not in the line of duty, although it was traumatic and his department responded to the accident. The funeral was huge, with a motorcade that stretched for two or three miles. What would have been different if it had been LODD? There wasn't a whole lot more that could have been done.

Several years ago our Department Chaplain set about to capture the funeral wishes of each member in the event the information was needed. I'm not sure how many replies he got - I know he didn't get anything from me - but methinks the subject will get revisited in the near future.

There never seems to be a "right" time for talking about our own funerals. Perhaps by having a range of options people can choose from the matrix whatever they would like to have done, and make the process a lot less painful.
Comment by Oldman on April 1, 2008 at 3:58pm
It's refreshing to see so many of us on the same page about an issue as important as this. I know after we had our first LODD, I was asked to help form an Honor Guard and write the SOP for funerals. The Administration could not understand why I divided the manual into LODD, On Duty, Off Duty, and Retired, each with it's own procedure which could be afforded for the deceased IF the family wished. They thought that everyone got the same honor. It took some lengthy explanations as to why someone who was a member of the department, but died say from a motorcycle accident on vacation, should not be afforded the same honors as a brother or sister who died while trying to save another in an official capacity. I guess it's not something many people give much thought to. Excellent topic.

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