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"Braithre Thar Gach Ni" Brotherhood Above All

I was asked to speak on Brotherhood at a local department's awards dinner. This is my pre-speech draft:

When I was young, I remember visiting the firehouse my Uncle worked in. The house in Pikesville Maryland, across the street from the Old Confederate Soldiers Home, housed Engine 2. It was a place of massive red trucks, squeezed together between brick walls and dark lighting, and tall men. I was too young to really understand what was going on around me, but there was a sense of community and belonging that I felt, not that I was a part of, but that they were..and so was my Uncle. I was brushing up against something centuries old, known as the "Brotherhood". Those men in the old house would not have called it such, that is our term for it, for them, it was life in the fire service.

Many many years later I found myself walking in similar shoes, a part of a local firehouse, filled with the most aggressive young men in the neighborhood. It was a tough place to fit in and proving yourself worthy consumed everyone involved. It set the pace for my career in firefighting. More than once, individuals came to blows or nearly so, mostly over reputation and perceived lack of commitment. It was the busiest house in the area and to run with the pack you had to sacrifice all else. It was not uncommon there for a probie to be thrown to the ground from the jumpseat by a more senior man who felt it was his place to ride there. But that sense of community and belonging to something greater was always distant, never really very strong. Its rightful place had been usurped by the dog eat dog mentality of "I'm gettin' mine, good luck gettin' yours!". I learned my trade there, but I didn't learn Brotherhood. The things I have come to love about the fire service were loosely held and not passed on. As if they belonged to another time and no longer applied, they were forgotten. Replaced by the all consuming mantra of SELF.

"I AM THE MOST IMPORTANT, my Company is second, the Public is last, ....because they were stupid enough to get into trouble and my life is more valuable than theirs anyway." I'm not saying that everyone felt that way, just that it had become a rare thing for firemen to focus on anything but money, time off and glorifying themselves.

The Brotherhood, as I now understand it and experience it was something I first felt with an entirely different company, all paid guys. They were the paid crew from our house, and as a paid on call firefighter, I was picked from the crowd to go with them into L.A. during the riots of '92. My place on that crew was immediately accepted, a mentoring hand was provided and strong leadership kept me calm through several hairy moments. And that relationship continued long after the riots were over and I was once again just another paid call guy in the house. But I had once again brushed up against this thing called Brotherhood and I realized it was something different and something I could believe in. But at that time, especially in that area, there really wasn't a word for it. It was part of the old religion, gone with that past.

In my mind, all of these early experiences contrast sharply with one I had a few years ago when I had arrived in my home town to move my aging parents from their home of 50 years. To add to my stress, my father was struggling with seizures at the time and not one of his many doctors really new what to think of it. The seizures would hit and last a few minutes during which he would suffer weakness and aphasia. Extremely embarrassing for a proud and proper gentleman like my father.

It was just before my flight down that I spoke with a relatively new acquaintance, Chad Berg, of Snohomish County District 7's Ladder 72. We had never met, but had already developed a great deal of respect for each other. He was at that time the newly appointed president of the Puget Sound FOOLS and I was hoping to meet him, so I had let him know that I was coming into the Seattle area. His first question to me was "Were you going to ask for help?" and to this, I really didn't know how to respond. Who would impose on people they didn't know, for help in moving a household? But he was insistent "What do'ya mean? You don't want to impose?"

So later that week, my father and brother stood staring in amazement as a dual axle trailer with the Puget Sound FOOLS logo and two firefighters pulled up to our house, two hours south of their own territory, just to help my father move his life to a new stage. As we met, Berg embraced me with a brotherly hug like we had known each other all our lives and his sidekick shook my hand and stated how honored he was to meet me, and I almost fell over in shock. All that week, as introductions were made, my father continued to receive respect from firemen he hadn't ever met, because he was my father. Do you see the contrast here? My father wanted to know how long we had known each other, he was floored by the immediate friendship and community involved. The respect given and that he himself received merely by being my father.

This, my friends is the beauty of this thing we call the Brotherhood. It dwells deeper and stronger than any patch or t-shirt, stronger than the uniform we where, stronger than the laws that govern. It goes beyond the firehouse, and stretches into the fabric of our lives and becomes our creed, our core value. But it is a fragile thing, and it must be maintained and nurtured. Young probies must be taught it and old, bitter senior men that have lost all sense of pride and honor must be guided to embrace it again. It seems foreign at first and illogical to place yourself second, but it quickly becomes habit as you witness the growth of the brotherhood among you.

You might ask of me, what is the difference between this brotherhood and that of other organizations and groups. And at first glance, it does not appear particularly different. I could answer with the usual romantic, heroic things and say, "We live and die together", "we fight what you fear", "we fight where the devil dances", but in this modern era, the post 9/11 era, we need something more than a lot of arrogant bumper stickers and t-shirts to give us meaning. How do we to find brotherhood among these firehouses when you are worried more about your own economy, your own rank or place in the hierarchy than you are about the man next to you? This mantra of SELF is not conducive to Brotherhood and is like caustic acid among the brethren. Take your own ego out of Maslo's pyramid and tip the whole thing upside down, with you at the bottom.

My answer for you is that this Brotherhood is not based on the usual things, like self preservation, or bravery or the needs of individual men or any of those usual themes. It is not the relationship men in combat share, although it is very similar. Brotherhood is formed by common suffering and fortitude. Our Brotherhood, our suffering and fortitude is based on service to the public. We are a shadow of a lost time, when service to the nation and public were honorable things. We are the only ones who do not take, do not require a fee, do not kill or lock up and whose integrity and honor are still valued. Our goal is to be prepared for them in their time of need and our community is therefore most easily fostered when we turn this focus to each other as well. Our mission in life as firemen is to be a servant to the public, that is why we exist and why we are funded and it is our purpose, so therefore it is natural that when we turn this devotion to each other the affect is magnetic and deep.

I therefore urge you, as a Brotherhood of Firemen, make every action, every motivation with these values as a guide. Our focus should be our service to the fallen, the lost, the suffering and the downtrodden, as many times as we are called. In your position within the community surrounding you, you are the one thing that is believed in whole heartedly, without reservation. You must live up to that, you must focus your attention on that and your own Brotherhood and welfare will be fostered along with it.

And in regards to each other, your mindset and hearts must be truly devoted. Our society and therefore our nation is spinning wildly out of control with no immediate end in sight. As it does so, as ethics and morals continue to decay, as jobs are lost and fortunes fall, the people will begin to turn on each other if it gets bad enough and we must steel ourselves to be the guardians and protectors that we have sworn to be.

As you do so, in your department, your company, among your brethren, in your homes you will find that this life of service will affect everything you do and are. You will be a part of preserving the fire service as something greater than yourself. Understand, I am not asking for a distorted sense of loyalty, the kind that blindly overlooks wrongs and preferential treatment, but quite the contrary. Whatever is good, whatever is right, whatever is uplifting to each other and brings value and honor to your company, your department and your profession. Do these things.

And as you do, you will define the very reason 343 New York Firemen went to their deaths. Not because it was glorious, not because it was heroic or because it was expected, but because it was their duty to the public, and to each other. Chief Croker pointed out that we are blessed in that we are granted the privileged of doing God's own work, that of saving lives, and sometimes, laying our own down. I urge you to throw away the mantra of SELF and replace it with the following one:


Good night, Brothers and Thank you for this opportunity to speak.

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Comment by Jodie Denike on April 8, 2009 at 1:08am
Very impressive...and heartfelt! I heard your speech went well. I only wish I could have heard it in person and been on my feet applauding with the rest of the crowd.
Comment by Shawn Tibbitts on April 6, 2009 at 11:20pm
Fantastic speech! You defined it...
Comment by Jeff Schwering on April 5, 2009 at 7:06am
Outstanding BROTHER!!
Comment by Larry Glover on April 4, 2009 at 3:20pm
AWESOME! I'll pass this along at my house.

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