Each year I have the honor and privilege of assisting with the selection for the recipient of the Ray Downy Medal of Valor. In case you didn't know how it's done, here's a little behind the scenes stuff for ya.
Pennwell/Fire Engineering advertises for nominations through various media outlets namely the magazine and the web site. The application is pretty simple. We ask for a brief history of the nominee, a description of the event or circumstances in which the nominee displayed unparalleled courage and valor and a statement of why the person doing the nomination feels the nominee went above and beyond the call of duty. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it's not only because what sometimes what appears to be "that kind of rescue or act of valor," a firefighter was simply doing what they were trained for. The decision to select one firefighter out of 1 million is not easy not is it taken lightly by any means. We look at the applications with a keen eye for a few things some being the degree of personal risk and the conditions under which the act was committed. Understand that the recipient is a) representing all firefighters everywhere and; b) must be aligned with the principles of Ray Downey's legacy. As most of you know with the exception of our newest members in their teens or so, Deputy Chief Ray Downey was killed on 9/11/01 at the World Trade Center. He had a long and storied career with FDNY and was the most decorated FDNY member in history at the time of his death. I knew Ray for many years through Fire Engineering and FDIC. Here's the thing. Ray would hang around the Fire Engineering booth at FDIC each year to meet firefighters and talk shop. You'd see him speaking with the Chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department for about an hour. That afternoon, I'd walk by he'd be sitting with a 20 something volunteer Lt. from a small farming community in the mid-west. That's what made Ray the man that he was. That's his legacy. Bravery and humility all rolled up in to one. No, we don't take this lightly at all.
This year, the dozen applications came to the house two weeks prior to the conference call. I waited for a quiet night, set my wife up in front of the TV with QVC locked on the screen and I dove in to the apps in another room. I do a cursory read to separate by type of act. Fire rescues, water rescues, technical rescues, rescues of fellow firefighters, on duty, off duty, alone, in a team, with or without PPE, equipment or additional help. Then I do another slow painstaking review of each one, making notes in the margins. Degree of personal risk, conditions, assistance, etc. More often than not, I can't help but say out loud "no s--t! This guy did that?" (I try to time those just when she's talking to the QVC operator and ordering something. It throws her off the track, but just for a moment. The UPS guy still pulls up two days later.) Each act seeming to one-up the one before and I can't help thinking how proud I am to be affiliated with the fire service. Every one of these guys did something spectacular. I then review the bio and the personal history of the candidates. Then I do one more round. As I read the applications a few times, the cream starts to rise to the top. The hope is that my teleconference partners are thinking what I'm thinking, just to make the process a little less tedious. I got my top 4. Then I read those and try to put those in order. During this process, I pause and take the opportunity to think about my past encounters with Ray. One of my favorite memories was a dinner at FDIC West in Sacramento, CA. There were about 25 of us in a private room, the Right Reverend Tom Brennan, presiding. I sat next to Ray and his lovely wife Rosalie as Tom got the ball rolling with a funny story, only has he could tell it. I had no choice. I shot back with a joke. I couldn't tell you much else other than it went on for hours right through dessert and we were all sore the next day from laughing. I got to spend an evening with Ray and the gang and laughed all the way through it. Golden memories.
We conferenced in on an afternoon in late January. Bobby Halton, Ron Siarnicki (NFFF) and myself as the Administrator of the National Fire Academy Alumni Association. After the usual greetings we got down to business. In the interest of time, like the first time the jury adjourns to their room, we do a quick poll. It turns out that three of us have three in common. No surprise there. We spend time laboring over who number 4 will be because we don't actually pick the winner (That's the "I'm glad it ain't me" part from the title of this blog.) Each of us makes their case for their number 4. We pull the applications apart and put them back together and then the axe falls. The discussion further turns to the final 4 and what order we'll put them in. Another long discussion, name calling, kicking, biting, screaming and that's all just in my mind! The conversation moves along and we come to consensus. Job well done! Job not done!
Bobby ships our work off to Joe and Chuck Downey, Ray's sons who both are FDNY Battalion Chiefs and Mr. Bob Biolchini, the CEO of Pennwell. They make the final selection. (Again, I'm glad it ain't me.) All of us will be on the stage this year at FDIC on April 18 to present the winner with his medal and a check. We also get to present him, to you all of you and the nation. It will be as awesome as it always is. Ray will be proud once again.
See you at FDIC to see how the story ends.
Be well and stay safe,