Over ten years have passed since I came to my first meeting. At the time I knew precious little about real firefighting or the culture of a volunteer fire department. Wading into unfamiliar waters was compounded by the need to create a non-existent position without experience. We started slowly. None of us knew quite what we needed, although my reason for pursuing this course was grounded in previous traumas. Even volunteers will face unspeakable horrors at times. Young people laying bloody and lifeless on the pavement, dead from a stunt gone tragically wrong. A small child pinned under a rolled over pickup that careened into a ditch when the driver dozed off. An EMT stabbed by an intruder with her colleague attempting to revive her while her husband keeps watch with a loaded shotgun. An elderly couple hit head-on by a teen racing down a country road, body parts littering the asphalt. Such incidents may occur only once every decade or more, but they occur, and the odds in such a community that the victim is a family or friend is high.
I decided early on that these men and women needed more than a ceremonial chaplain. So from the beginning they had me in turnout gear, carrying a pager, treating me always like one of the rest. I've worked beside them holding hoses in subzero nights, mopping up a charred field after a wild land blaze, riding with an elderly couple in a Hummer out of a flooded city, driving an engine or a van or a tanker as need arises, in and out of burning buildings. I train beside them as much as time allows. At 52 years of age I am not the first for interior attack, but I train in search and rescue for the day it may be needed. It's sweaty, backbreaking work that favors the physical conditioning of a younger man. Yet many an older, seasoned volunteer keeps these departments going, manning the pumps, serving as backup support, driving vehicles to scenes.
By now the men and women I serve with know that their chaplain is no further away than the line of attack, experiencing the same risks, laboring at the same mundane tasks. Every now and then we have to gather at the station for debriefing and it is then that this earned credibility serves well. I am one of them. I know what they see, what they experience, the stresses that weigh them down.
If I had to sum up my office it could be done with two words: presence and support. The blue helmet I wear with a reflective rocker panel printed with "Chaplain" keeps my profile visible on any fire scene, even when I am only working as a regular fire fighter. However, even without this symbol, they know I am there. And I think sometimes that is enough. Words do not always have to be spoken. Sermons can be saved for another time. I was reminded of the symbolic nature of this presence early on when I went to my first viewing at a funeral home as chaplain. Ready to process in and greet the widow my captain was looking for the chaplain. I held back, remembering that it is never right to assume first place, especially when you are the newbie. All of a sudden I heard his voice calling for me to come up front. "God goes first," he said firmly.
These men and women may not always be the typical every-Sunday attender. Some of them may only come at funerals and weddings. Others are very active. It's a mixed group. Yet I sense a high respect for the things of God among these people. Perhaps when you stand on the edge of death and destruction long enough you begin to appreciate the need for God's presence and some assurance of what comes after our departure from this veil of tears.
As a rural department our calls are often less frequent than the big cities. Chaplains there certainly have more demand. Like my other fellow firefighters we train and prepare for incidents that may not occur for months or years. Always ready. Perhaps that's another unofficial motto of my work. I only hope I am not needed too much, for that always means more trauma and tragedy.