A Tribute to our Fallen Firefighter
Speech delivered by Dennis Smith at the National Fallen Firefighters memorial service, The National Fire Academy, Emmitsburg, Md. Sunday, October 8, 2000. In attendance were the families and more than 2000 friends of the 108 firefighters who made the supreme sacrifice in 1999.

Families of our fallen firefighters, friends, Hal Bruno and the board of the Fallen Firefighters Monument: Here we are, shoulder to shoulder on this beautiful, slightly chilled day, gathered in this beautiful memorial park - a day, certainly, to remember. Indeed, to remember this day will be to remember all days in our past that are framed with love. It is the past that we rightly celebrate. And, I hope that when you remember this day, it will remind you also of a time when you - who have been through so much - could see more clearly, perhaps for the first time, your own future rising on the horizon of daybreak.

It would be a great honor for any person to be asked to come to the national fire academy to address this particular gathering of people on this particular day, but for me it is an especially distinctive honor, for although I have had some publishing success, and although my department made me an honorary deputy chief when I retired, I still feel that my greatest success is as a backstep firefighter, someone no different from all the firefighters you know, someone who is more proud to be part of a large group of line firefighters rather than a smaller group of distinguished leaders. And what is particularly wonderful about the American fire service is that our small group of distinguished leaders, many of them whom you have met this weekend, happen to share in our pride of being firefighters first. We are truly a group, and togetherness is our byword. We are communal in our living, and we are communal in our shared risks. We share everything in the fire service, which is why we are together today.

We are here to focus our thoughts, in a collective way, on the loss of our loved ones. We are here to celebrate our memories, to convey this understanding of honor that we share. It is a regal time for us, stately, certainly appropriate to the profound loss we feel for the families of our fallen firefighters and the high honor we convey their loved ones. But, today, we are also going to try to find room in our lives for joy - for happiness.

Just look around - we are with people who care about us, we are together with one another. We are human. We share our love and our grief and so we will share our happiness.

How do we get from being sad to being happy? It is a question we ask of ourselves many times, from when a mother comforts a crying child with a scraped knee to when we are passed over for a promotion at work to when lovers argue about who will be invited to the wedding. And then, there is the seriously deep sadness that comes with what you have all been through. And I wonder, what has carried you through from there to here?

I am sure it is courage. It is courage that carries us all through. The courage that we all know you have searched for.

If we have been caught in a sea of grief, we will, because we know it is the right thing to do, find that wave of courage that will carry us on to the solid earth once again, and stabilize our footing.

Itruly believe that if someone finds it within himself to lend kindness in another person's trouble, that kind person will always find courage. And not only that, he will sense that courage is perhaps god's greatest gift, for it is unequalled when it happens, and it sustains, and comforts, and warms when it is remembered.

I worked for many years in a fire company in the South Bronx, Engine Co. 82, where we responded to more than forty alarms every day. About a third of those alarms were false alarms, about a third for emergencies like a drug overdose or a shooting, and a third for actual fires. We were a busy fire company, that is for sure. In fact, I heard one person say we were busier than the bartender at a firemen's dance. But I saw firefighters do remarkable things during those years, acts of heroism and caring that can never be forgotten. Yes, we had our romantic attachments to firefighting. There was a time in my life when I thought it was a good thing to dance around the edge of life. We accepted injury the way a boxer accepts a bruised eye - it comes with the territory. We responded to those alarms, and the objective of each alarm was to be there fast, to be out front, not only to accept the challenges found in a burning building, but to seek them out, even to bathe and exalt in them. Firefighting was like a continuous battle that roared on as we thought we were fearless, as we believed that we had more bravado than a division of United States marines. We loved the sirens and the waving flags and the company logos, and we yearned for the challenges of the job

And, yet, yet, we had a deep and serious side to what we thought about ourselves - that what we did was vitally important to our neighbors, that what we did had to be trained for, that what we did was dangerous, but that inherent danger was the price that we paid for being in service to others - and that there was no real difference between the dangers posed to an inner city firefighter fighting a slum fire and a rural firefighter fighting the flames in a barn on the plains of America.

But then danger is a fickle thing. I've been in hundreds of fires, and yet it was not in a fire when I felt most unsafe in my life. Someone asked me not long ago what was the most dangerous situation I've ever been in, and my answer went over with a surprise that was something like a beer can in a collection plate. But, the only time I felt truly endangered was one day riding in a canoe in the middle of the whitewater rapids on the Delaware River. My canoe went over in very high rapids and I was dragged down beneath the water for a long time, and I thought the current would never relinquish me.

My point in telling you this is that we all know how dangerous firefighting is, but there are many other dangerous things in life, and somehow we get asked to play a part in god's master plan. It is not until we are there that we realize it is His plan, and not our plan. Of course, we are all in this plan all of the time, and for you, I am sure there is a long and seemingly endless road of adjusting before you.

But, we are given free will, and we always have choices, and we want you to know that we in the fire service seek to support you always in your choices whatever you want to do, we want to be here for you, and we will travel with you.

The hearts gathered around you are pulsing with their concern for you, our honored guests. And, as we pass through these beautiful ceremonies, as these flags which have flown in the wind above the capitol building, symbolic of our whole nation, art presented to you, we will be celebrating all the good times of the life we are remembering, all those little contributions made within your families and your departments, all of the wonderful things that your firefighter represented when he or she went to the firehouse each day and changed into the uniform of service.

As the poets Yeats said, "no law nor duty bade me fight, nor public men, nor cheering crowds." No, firefighters are at the center of need, simply because they have courage, and they have courage because they have faith. Faith is fundamental to the elevation of men and women, and every man and woman is worthy of our care, worthy of our courage, because every man and every woman and child is sacred - as Walt Whitman said, if anything is sacred the human body is sacred. And just as he said that every leaf of grass is the journey work of the stars, every human body is the journey work of the creator, and so merits our full attention and our full commitment. The impulse of a firefighter to help is not a lonely impulse, but it is shared and agreed upon in every department conversation, every shared meal, every training drill, and every company meeting. There is only one reason to wear the uniforms of our departments, and that is to be there when we are needed.

There is no greater calling, and as we today remember our dear ones, we remember also how dearly paid was this price of service to our fellow human beings.

I have been told by firefighting families that in losing a loved one new friendships have grown, and while people naturally come together in adversity, we in the firefighting family come together with a swelling of the heart, for who knows better than our family what it is like to share those dangers that exist when the alarm bell rings?

We know that we did not have the right to ask you to give up so much, but we do know that we can thank you from the heart. For, we have the love and respect that comes from history, to thank you on behalf of all the families that preceded you, the many hundreds, to tell you how we appreciate that you came here for this time, for lending your own suffering and triumphs, so that we may better understand our own commitment, to better feel the courage, and the faith that it takes to keep caring about those men and women and children who may need us when the alarm bell is rung.

And we have been left a legacy, for we each have been given another star in the night sky. And we have been given the best possible illustration of the most basic element of what we call civilization - one human being reaching out to help another.

As St. Augustine said, "Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee."

But it has been a terrible travel for you, I know, and the only solace I can think of is that we might need to know, perhaps, the terror and the cold bleakness of utter darkness to better appreciate the light of the day and the warmth of the sun.

The American Irish Historical Society has as its standard these words: "So that we will not forget."

Jews the world over in acknowledging the holocaust have adopted the phrase: "never forget."

And, now, here, I can say to you on behalf of all firefighters:

"We will always remember."

The passing of our firefighters, and we think now of the name of each, is not only etched in stone, but this humanity, this courage, this loving dedication to family, to community, to life itself, is etched in our collective memory. A day does not pass that we do not think of brave deeds and the significance of death, for we know that our firefighters in every alarm can, and too often do, walk to the chasm that separates us from eternity, and with head held high, determined in the belief that another person's life is held in reverence, there at the precipice, take that one additional step forward to give his life in the name of all that God has made good.

This is what decency is. This is the basis of civilization. This is the stuff of a good man, and a good woman. We are all so proud today. And, we can feel your own loving pride, you the wives, the sons, the daughters, the parents, the brothers and sisters, the friends.

Like you, we will always remember.

Harold Shaitberger, the new president general of the International Association of Fire Fighters recently quoted Mother Theresa at a memorial service, and I want to repeat Mother Theresa's words now so that you can lodge them in your hearts and bring them to the warmth of your homes.
"A life not lived for others," she said, "is not a life."

And now, we can all look about us, and see the vitality in the lives around us, here and at home, and we can say that life is still with us, that fundamental to life is the gift of time. There is much yet to do. We'll be with you. We can cherish our memories, preserve them, but we can at the same time, realize that we have a responsibility to ourselves and to those who love us, to make the most of our gift, to mould true happiness out of the great mound of time that providence has placed before us. God bless you and protect the men and women of our fire service.

Return to Home Page