As of February 24, 2014 there were nineteen (19) Firefighter Line-of-Duty Deaths in the United States. At this pace, that number will well exceed 100 related deaths this year.
Despite this alarming rate of on-duty deaths, I’ve heard little more than a peep from the collective fire service. Why is that? Is it because most are cardiac related (12 out of 19)? I’d like to hope that’s not the case.
In the past 10-15 years, catch phrases like “Combat Ready” are spewed on a daily basis with frequency of a salt spreader on this winter’s New Jersey roads. This term gives the connotation: “to be ready to do battle with the fiery beast in a brave and noble manner, and defeat the beast, (maybe with a few cool battle scars)” but most importantly, come home to your family after the battle is won.
In 19-households across America this year already; nineteen fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins aren’t coming home. In 19-households families are learning to live with a huge void.
I was honored to be able to hear the wife of 2014′s first line-of-duty death: Cosmo Paris, talk about this wonderful and dedicated family man, community advocate and neighbor helping the less fortunate. This man was loved deeply by his family, who will miss him terribly for the rest of their lives – from his wonderful wife to his two year old granddaughter who just got to celebrate her birthday with him two days earlier.
Like Cosmo, these other 18-souls are not just some off-the-shelf commodity that we can easily replace. Each has left the forever-embedded mark on their fire department, community and family; that now leaves a void, never be filled again.
Of these twelve (12) cardiac-related deaths, eight (8) of the heroes were over the age of 50 (my age group). This is an age range that needs to have comprehensive medical physicals yearly, working on cardiovascular fitness and they need to be measured for what level of service the truly can perform – not what they want to perform.
I, like them, need to be cognizant of little warning signs and reflections in the mirror that tells us to either do what you need to be physically capable of doing the job, or it just might be time to coach the “young-ins” from the sidelines. When we’re too hard headed to do it on our own, where are the rest of you chastising us for not being “combat ready?”
What? You only thought combat ready was for actual firefighting activities and skills, not physical and mental fitness? When we learn about the qualities of a firefighter who died while-on-duty, the words courage and hero get tossed around like grass seed on a sod farm. But did you have the courage to tell Fred, Sue or Louie that maybe they weren’t combat ready, that maybe you and they needed to spend a little more time in the gym, get together and develop some healthy cooking habits? What’s the issue, you can’t fit that on a t-shirt and it doesn’t sound cool?
So… fire service battle heroes – what are you going to do today to stop this insane pace of our brothers and sisters dying from easily preventable causes? Yes, I said easily preventable.
When you throw around the words “Combat Ready” – are you ready to start at the most basic and fundamental step? To be physically and mentally fit to do the job before you step foot in the engine bays, let alone hop on the apparatus?
Me, I’m going to go to breakfast with my class of ’72 classmates this morning as I do every Tuesday. I’m going to tell one of them that I love him and that I want to see him stop smoking so we can enjoy these weekly meetings for years to come. Then I’m going to the gym for the fourth day in a row. Not because it mattered as much to me, but because it mattered to my 21-year old son who finally motivated me to go, so I might be around to celebrate a few milestones with him.
So, I ask you: What are you going to do? Are you going to have the courage to be a real hero and tell someone they are not “combat ready” because they’re not physically fit for the battle? Or are you just going to keep shopping for the coolest t-shirt on the market at the next fire “training” conference you attend? And, will that t-shirt be in the next larger size, or a size down from what you were wearing before you set out to be truly “Combat Ready?”
Thanks Tiger Schmittendorf for the grammar and editing.