During the memorial service held earlier this week for the 19 firefighters killed in the Yarnell Hill Fire, one of the last speakers said that the loss would be felt “like ripples from a pebble in a pond.” While that could be taken a couple different ways, it struck me how a line-of-duty death reverberates across the country — and sometimes, around the world.
After the recent tragedy in Houston, in which four firefighters were killed when a roof collapsed, I asked my brother — a retired battalion chief — why so many firefighters from across the country felt compelled to travel to memorial services for firefighters they didn’t know.
I would think that thousands of outsiders converging on an already tragic, emotional event would put undue stress on an already-overwhelmed local fire department. Wouldn’t it be kinder to ask people not to respond, as departments do for freelancers responding to major disasters? I know they mean well, but the logistics of coordinating and accommodating huge crowds is more work on an already stressful situation. We saw it in West, Texas, and again this week in Prescott, Ariz.
But my brother gently reminded me that the fire service is a family, so when tragedy strikes, every firefighter feels the loss. Perhaps too, it’s because the dangers they face on every call become more real when a firefighter dies in the line of duty.
I spoke with Joe Holomy, chief of the Effingham (Ill.) Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation’s Local Assistance State Team (LAST) in Illinois. Holomy was helping the Beach Park Fire Department with services for Anthony Rose, one of the 19 Yarnell fallen firefighters and Beach Park native.
“We want to celebrate the individual’s life and to symbolize how much the individual meant to the fire service," Holomy said. "Sometimes saying ‘we’re sorry for your loss’ just isn’t enough. They served a very important role.”
Holomy said Rose’s fiancée is pregnant with the couple’s first child, due in October. Two U.S. Forest Service members, a member of a hotshot team and a firefighter from Arizona accompanied the fiancée and the Rose’s remains back to Illinois.
According to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, the primary objective of LAST is to provide assistance and comfort to the family and fire department after a line-of-duty death. Formed in 2006, there are more than 250 fire-service personnel and survivors in 48 states and the District of Columbia that have been trained to serve on the LAST in their state.
“We stay in the shadows, we guide the stricken community through the process, and we come in under the wire and leave the same way," Holomy said. We’re not here to take over. We don’t speak to the press it’s done through the fire department.”
A firefighter is a firefighter is a firefighter — wildland or structure, volunteer or career. There is a bond that binds beyond county and state lines.
Vice President Joe Biden said it best at the Yarnell Memorial Service: “May God bless you all and may God protect firefighters everywhere.”