What is in the heart of a firefighter?

26 May 2024

What is in the heart of a firefighter? 

What is at the heart of a firefighter? What sets the firefighter apart from all others? And what brings us together this evening?

A firefighter's heart is the heart of compassion. It is a heart of giving. But Peace Corps workers are compassionate and giving.

It is a heart that wants to save lives. But surgeons do, too.

It is a heart with a yearning to produce meaningful acts on behalf of society. And yet, social workers want this, too.

The firefighter's heart fills itself with raw courage at the very moment when courage is most needed, a heart that will make the ultimate sacrifice to do the right thing. But so, too, is it with our bravest soldiers.

It is a heart that accepts the burden of an entire community in its worst moments, a heart that says, Yes, I will take your burden on my shoulders-I will, in all humility, be your hero. But heroes come from the unlikeliest of places, sometimes from outside the fire service.

The firefighter's heart is willing to place on the body incredible physical demands, but surely no more so than an Olympic athlete.

So what is it? What makes the firefighter heart different?

It's hard to crystallize a metaphor that approximates true "firefighter-ness" in the barest terms, but I think maybe we know what it is deep down, and that is why we share these moments this evening, not just to congratulate the new crop of leaders in the fire service - you - but to share, in a show of solidarity, what really binds us together, what links the souls of firefighters gone before us with the firefighters present and firefighters yet to come.

This is not some editor's exercise in words. This is not Fire Philosophy 101. This is about the center.

We must find the center, all of us. In this self-discovery, we find the energy for future actions of greatness. And it is in our future actions, true to the center of this business, that we do the greatest honor to the brave people of the fire service who sacrificed their lives doing what you are about to do. We must honor them through our own daily actions. To do otherwise would be to diminish the greatest of traditions, gained from the blood, sweat, and tears of your predecessors.

You respond to all types of emergencies. You are Joe Citizen's 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week emergency store. Your sirens will wail in the day and in the night. You are the ever-present community security blanket.

But even beyond this, what sets you at the highest level of giving and self-sacrifice and courage and duty and lifesaving is the fact that you perform your duty in the most uncontrolled environments known to man, where lives, including your own, are in the balance and time is of the essence. What sets you beyond law enforcement and the military and the social worker in this regard is the simple fact that you can't talk down, or negotiate with, or smother with kindness, a fire. You are dealing with an enemy that cannot reason and has no conscience. You are dealing with an enemy that only you and no other group-no other group-can deal with.

And the public expects it of you. The citizens expect you to control the uncontrollable, this terrible thing that has no reason, no soul, no conscience. They are counting on you--and no one else--in their darkest hours. This is the sacred trust. This is from where your essence springs.

We are all just passing through this life. We are hearts and minds on a huge and unfathomable continuum. How will you leave this for future generations? In this life, as you graduate today, you become caretakers of the sacred trust. And that is immensely important to the world.

By becoming a firefighter, you have assumed your place as a caretaker of the noblest of traditions. You are the new caretakers.

This unspoken understanding transcends all geographic and natural boundaries. It transcends all personal differences. It is our uniting force. It is what makes a firefighter call another "brother" or "sister" and why those words mean something different-something more-when spoken from firefighter to firefighter than is the case with anybody else in society.

It is what makes duty, honor, and self-sacrifice not the esoteric concepts of an idealized yesterday but, rather, an unchangeable way of life, today.

And so we honor you, the graduates, this evening, not just because you passed a curriculum but because it is now your honor and privilege and responsibility to live out the sacred trust and, in doing so, do your part to preserve and move forward the great fire service.

But it is not easy. Nothing good ever is. To be a caretaker is a great responsibility. You can't take a break from it. You can't go on vacation from it. Tonight, you enter the ranks of a service that will define you, and you it. Now it is part of you-forever. How will you accept the challenge that lies ahead? How will you fulfill your role as caretaker of the sacred trust?

Yes, tonight formalizes your acceptance of the responsibilities that come with being a caretaker. Now you are responsible for doing everything humanly possible to see to it that, while exercising your sworn duty, not only you come home after shift but so, too, your brothers and sisters come home with you.

You have accepted the responsibility to be the best firefighter you can be. Anything less is a betrayal of yourself and, more importantly, this service. This is not a job. It is a calling. Act like it.

You have accepted the responsibility of making your new organization better because you're in it. That requires character. Character matters. Virtue matters. Vows matter. Honor and integrity matter. It comes with the territory, comes with being a caretaker of the trust.

But your responsibility is also a great gift. You have the future in your hands. You have in your hands the ability to strengthen the future of the greatest and noblest profession in the world. A great gift.

So I ask you, as you are here to celebrate your new beginning, never be deterred in your commitment to the sacred trust. There will be forces outside and even inside the fire service working against you. Be guided by what is right. Be guided by what it means to live the sacred trust.

Be a leader. Leadership is not a function of gold horns or silver bars. It is not won by promotion, but by development of character. Lead, but when you follow, follow in the footsteps of those who carry the torch of the sacred trust.

Train as if your life depends on it, because it does. Train for fire, your greatest enemy. Talk fire. Think fire. Live fire. Never become complacent, because there is not such thing as a routine incident until you're back in the firehouse, safe.

Become a thinking firefighter, remembering that safety is not a word, not a board or a tag or an OSHA regulation or an NFPA standard or a good intention-safety is a learned behavior, an action that springs from thinking firefighters who hold "the basics" close to them at all times.

Let us learn the lessons of those who have gone before us. They speak to us from beyond. And after we bow our heads for the 100 firefighters who die each year in the line of duty, after our prayers, let us come up swinging, aggressive in our pursuit of avenues that will support must be the first order of business in this fire service: to increase response effectiveness and make us operationally safer on the fireground. It is incumbent upon us to do so, as caretakers of the trust.

Having assumed the responsibility of caretaker, make it count. You can do no more, but you must do no less.

As an adopted son of the fire service, as a journalist fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to study this business from the inside, I must tell you how proud and privileged I am to be associated with you, and how much I admire you. The heart of a true firefighter is the heart of greatness. A heart of greatness pumps within you, else you would not be here tonight, accepting your role as caretakers.

Welcome to the greatest service on earth. I welcome you, the new caretakers of the sacred trust. I wish you great success and happiness. God bless, stay low, and be safe.