Today, as I sit down in front of the computer, I find myself oddly at a loss for words. As a firefighter for over a quarter of a century and a columnist for the last decade, what do I write about, on this the tenth anniversary of 9/11, that hasn’t already been written?
Long before the attacks I was a firefighter, and I was profoundly moved by the events that happened that day as one could imagine. Instantly the public now saw all firefighters as heroes – a heavy burden to carry and even heavier still to live up to.
Awash in a sea of emotions during the weeks that followed, I did something I’d never thought to do before. I wrote an article. For some reason, the editor of the local paper published it on the front page. Ten years later, I find myself still writing a weekly column for that same paper, still a firefighter for the same department, and like those true heroes of 9/11, still leaving my family to go to work not knowing if I’ll ever return.
I go to work – once every third day.
Envision a profession where you really don’t know what horrific events you will see from one moment to the next. Where you don’t know what you will be called upon to do or even if you’ll ever come home to your family again. We’re all aware it could happen, but seldom do we speak of it. It’s one of our unwritten rules. Yes, some will say that we knew the dangers when we chose to do the job. But that’s not exactly true.
What sane person would crawl into a burning building? Risk their lives to save the life of a complete stranger? Expose themselves to fire, toxins, and dangers every time they go to work? If you ask any firefighter now, or before 9/11, all will tell you the same. They didn’t really choose their profession.
They all heard the calling and continue to answer it – once every third day.
Our profession is a unique one. When Mother Nature is at her worst, we’re at our best. Any day, any time, and for any emergency we’re there. Help is just a phone call away. It’s our job to bring order to the disorder, but it’s much more than that. Children now see us as heroes wrapped up inside red and white fire trucks, but when reality comes crashing down, it couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re just as scared as everyone else, but we don’t dare show it – because you depend on us.
After the call has ended and the hoses have all been rolled and loaded back onto the trucks, we return to the station and get ready for the next call. We also do something else most are not aware of.
We pray. We pray for the will to continue to be strong and brave – once every third day.
After dinner we make our beds and pray. Pray we’re not called upon to rise in the middle of the night because that would mean someone is hurt or even worse. When the tones drop and the call goes out, we pray it’s a false call.
Driving to a medical emergency or a vehicle crash, we pray for the best possible outcome and say a word of thanks that our training makes us prepared if it’s not to be. Crawling into burning buildings, we pray all who crawl in will once again come out so the next day they can go back to their families.
Early each morning across this nation, thousands of men and women don uniforms of their departments, pack lunches and dinners, and gather their bed linens because they have heard a calling. Wives, children, and husbands are hugged and kissed goodbye.
For you see, firefighters young and old, male and female, never go to work upset at their family. It could be the last memory of them that they have. And like the events of that fateful day ten years ago, that memory may have to last a lifetime.
It’s the most important unwritten rule of all that we follow – once every third day.
[Rick Ryckeley, who lives in Senoia, has been a firefighter for more than two decades and a columnist for The Citizen since 2001. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]