One of the time-honored traditions of the fire service is the local fire department chaplain. Often it is the local priest, and FDNY is a great example of this type of chaplaincy. However, what I’ve come to realize is that there are many types of chaplain programs out there in our fire service. There are full-time paid chaplains who care for the spiritual and emotional needs of the fire department personnel 24/7. There are volunteer clergy (pastors, rabbis, priests, etc), who give their time when needed to serve the local department personnel. There are also firefighters who either have ministry experience or who get trained to do chaplain work, and they volunteer their time when off-duty to serve their co-workers and brothers and sisters. All of these types of programs have merit, and they each have their positive and negative aspects. We will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of these types of programs in a later article, but for the sake of this article, we will focus on the need for a chaplain program and how you can start your own departmental program if you currently don’t have one.
After being hired by Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, I was overwhelmed with all of the opportunities and benefits, but there was one thing I noticed we were missing: We had no chaplain program. I thought that maybe only large, older departments had a chaplain program, and the younger departments didn’t have a need for chaplains. Soon I began attending firefighter funerals and firefighter weddings, but there was no department representative leading the spiritual portion of these programs. I felt like we needed one, so I decided to look into what it would take to start a chaplain program. I didn’t find much in the way of instructions, so I just decided to make the chaplain program the way I envisioned it. Thankfully I didn’t know that a guy with three years experience had no business asking the department chief for permission to do something big, so I approached Chief Brice and asked if he was interested in starting a chaplain program. He was excited about the possibility, so we started meeting regularly and created a comprehensive plan that involved local clergy with a wide-range of beliefs systems and denominations, and Chief gave his stamp of approval. However, you may have heard the phrase, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans”. Things changed quickly when one of our own, Ray Vasquez, was shot and killed by a random gunman while eating with his wife and son during a lunch break from a department class. (I will share more about Ray and his family in a later article, because it is a significant story that must be told on its own and not simply a footnote in the middle of another article.) Within days, I was being referred to as “Chaplain” Hurd, and I was leading a LODD funeral service in front of thousands of mourners. I had no idea what to do, and I had no idea how to help Ray’s family. I realized very quickly that I needed to seek out some training, so I attended the annual Federation of Fire Chaplains Conference in Rhode Island to find out what I was getting myself into. I have continued as a member of this great organization and attend their annual conferences. I am continuing to learn more about how to be effective in this important ministry.
Our chaplain program has grown and changed dramatically since that day over 6 years ago. Our program is run completely by full-time firefighters who volunteer their time when we are needed to help spiritually or emotionally in some way. We are a part of wedding ceremonies, funeral services, medical emergencies, Critical Incident Stress Debriefing sessions, and more.
The program has grown from one individual helping out when possible, to our current group of 12 assistant chaplains and a great working relationship with our area fire departments. We communicate with departments all throughout South Florida, and we are working on developing a network of local chaplains that can help in a systematic fashion when needed.
I am going to take the next few blogs to explain the process of starting a chaplain program for those who are interested in beginning such an endeavor. In the meantime, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I will do my best to answer any questions you have.