In over 35 years in the fire service I have had the pleasure of travelling around the world and visiting my brother and sister fire-service members. During each trip I have been reminded of what a tight-knit family we have. When you join the fire service you basically join another family; you don’t just go to work, you are living with a group of family members for hours on end. The officers are the parental figures and the other firefighters are your brothers and sisters. As with all families there are good and bad times but as a group we come together and deal with them as a family.
In my case my father was in a wheelchair since I was five years old. The firefighters in the firehouse a block from where I lived became my firehouse fathers. Some of them would take me fishing and camping when they took their own families. As I grew older I would still go by the firehouse and visit them, and they would always be looking out for me. When I was 14 my dad passed away, and many of them were there at the wake and funeral for me and my mom. It was this kind of love and caring of your fellow man that I wanted someday to become a part of. In 1977 I started as an auxiliary firefighter, and in 1986 I was hired by my hometown fire department in Everett, Massachusetts.
As a firefighter I started to travel to conferences around the United States to improve my training and education. I would also respond to major fires around the Boston area to watch and learn from some of the best chief officers around. They were not the best because they read a bunch of books but because during this time they were responding to so many fires that they were forced to learn during every shift. I would talk with people like Chief Stapleton from Boston Fire and ask why he had crews use a certain tactic during the fire, and he would always take the time to explain his thought process. He shared what he had learned from his years of service so that I would later become a good fire officer and be able to protect my crews from getting into situations that could injure or kill them.
I made the annual trip to Baltimore, Maryland to the Firehouse Expo and got to hear speakers like Frank Brannigan, Alan Brunacini, Tom Brennan and Vincent Dunn to name a few. In 1995 I travelled to New York City to hear about how the Big City fire department handled fires in high-rise buildings. On the day I left Boston there was a terrorist attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City and by the time I reached New York City I was informed that a number of the speakers for the conference where being deployed to Oklahoma City as a part of the USAR Team. During the first day of the conference we were watching the live feed from the scene and one of the instructors called Chief Ray Downey on his cell phone and he was able to give us a report from the rubble pile and tell us what tactical plans they were implementing at that time; now that is powerful learning.
In 1992 I was asked to be part of a delegation of fire officers that was going to visit Russia. The day before the delegation was due to leave the lady running the programme became ill and could not travel and so she asked me to take over. It was the beginning of an incredible experience for me personally and professionally. We were welcomed to Moscow as family; there were hugs and smiles everywhere. The Russian people welcomed us everywhere we went and our brother and sister firefighters went out of their way to show us a good time. We took the time to visit the graves of the fallen firefighters from Chernobyl, which resulted in front-page newspaper coverage and a picture of a wreath with the words ‘To our fallen brothers’. At every fire station I have visited I have found the same level of camaraderie that I saw in my own fire station. We are all facing the same dangers and are looking for ways to do the job as professionals and do it safer, and all we ask is the respect of our government officials. We visited their technical college for fire studies and they showed us research they were working on to deal with hazardous-materials incidents which included a liquid that could be sprayed on a flammable-liquid spill that would stop vapour production and prevent ignition.
The world of the fire service does come with the unfortunate and untimely injuries and deaths of brother and sister firefighters, like those at Chernobyl and the World Trade Center and many other small events on an almost daily basis. Death and injury to our firefighters is something that we come to expect, but as a group we are now looking for ways to reduce these numbers. I have looked many times at the empty shoes on the apparatus floor of the fire station and realized that when the alarm sounds they HAVE to respond, but nowhere is it written that they HAVE to return.
The Boston Fire Department is now spearheading an effort to educate firefighters about the dangers of cancer in the fire service. There are other groups that are reaching out to our community members and educating them on ways to be safer around their homes with regard to fires, burns, guns, pools and all, under the heading of Community Risk Reduction. The fire service is no longer just about going out and putting out fires; we are responding to more emergency medical calls than ever before, to hazardous-materials calls and the everyday calls for help. People know that if you call +911 or +112, or any of the international numbers, for help then within minutes someone should be there to help make things right again. There are many places in the world, though, that do not have this luxury and response times can be 20–30 minutes or never. Many communities rely on volunteers to respond to these calls but finding volunteers today is getting harder and harder. The demands on time, family, bills and training have caused a number of volunteer departments to sound the ‘mayday’. We need to find more ways to get our young citizens interested in careers in public safety.
One of the new projects that I am looking to launch in the near future is called ‘Two the Rescue Again’. This project is looking to give a second life to fire trucks and ambulances that have finished their job with their present department but still have enough life in them to serve a smaller department that cannot afford to purchase a new vehicle. I will be asking the fire chiefs of larger departments to take a good look around their facilities and see what vehicles are there and which ones they could find the heart to surplus out to a department in need. One World For Life has been in conversations with a number of other NGOs, which work with fire departments in other countries that are looking for assistance, and is partnering with them to help organize this project. I have spoken with the Department of Defense’s Logistical Command unit about providing transportation of vehicles to other countries and they can provide transport on a ‘space-available basis’. I would like the fire chiefs in all major cities around the world to give this project the assistance it needs to help ensure our brother and sister first responders are able to provide our much-needed service. Once the project gets some traction we will also be looking to tackle providing used turnout gear, tools and other equipment that is sitting and waiting for a new home.
As the founding President/CEO of One World For Life I will be working with Congressman Curt Weldon on helping members of the fire service around the world to find their voice so that they can find the assistance, the training, the support and the money they need to get the tools and equipment they need to do their job safely and professionally. One World For Life is modelled after the Congressional Fire Service Institute and Caucus that Congressman Weldon started 30 years ago, and now we are going to take it to the international level. We aim to assist departments, agencies and governments to develop plans to address the needs of the first responders. We will be working with many of the large financial institutions to find money to fund projects and programmes to help our brothers and sisters in areas of the world where they lack the support because they lack the voice to get heard. One World For Life is presently working on projects in Haiti and West Africa and we plan to add more projects as our organization grows. We plan on showing first responders how to use their voice to highlight the work that they do and how to talk with their government officials to get their support on projects that directly affect them. During one project in Africa I was able to show a city government how to get the support of local contractors to build a fire station while they were in the process of building over 1,000 houses in a development.
If you would like to know more about One World For Life, or would like to become involved with our mission, please visit our website or you can contact me directly at [email protected]
For more information, go to www.oneworldforlife.org
Top image: Capitol Hill meeting, July 2017, announcing the launch of One World For Life.