Keeping in touch with the brothers from North Plainfield, NJ after I had left the neighborhood three years ago has been a blessing. While working as a chief in Union County (NJ), I lived and volunteered with the Borough's combination fire department from 1997-2008. Like most other fire departments in our great country, it was the "same circus with different clowns." For those of you who travel the country or go to national conferences like FDIC, there is no doubt you've met a double or even a triplet of the guys you run with whether career, volunteer, Military, industrial or however you respond. I still thank God that I chose this profession, although sometimes I think it chose me. Good to be one of the clowns.
So, I get an email a few weeks back from my buddy, Jeff Holtz, who doubles as the Local 2958, President for the IAFF chapter in North Plainfield. It's an invitation to the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey (PFANJ) annual Valor Awards Ceremony. He asked me to attend to help with recognizing his Chief, William Eaton, for great strides with the Department. My initial reaction was "the Union is giving what to who?" Jeff nominated his chief to the State Board of the PFANJ for outstanding leadership and relentless progress in the labor-management arena. This was the inaugural award, for the Union had never done this before. It was a great idea whose time had come. Of course, emails from me followed with; where, when, what shall I say and most important, what shall I wear? And oh yeah, what are we eating? (Very important.) With all of the details knocked out I couldn't wait to get back home, even for one night. This is by far one of my favorite fire service activities, attending a valor awards ceremony.
On Thursday, March 29, 2012 I left southeast Connecticut and headed south on I-95. What should have taken 3 hours took 4 with rush hour traffic. (If you're from the area, you know that it's rush hour all the time on I-95. I built in the extra time in order to get there on time. (When you live here, you know to do that.) The reunion started upon my arrival at the Garden State Arts Center Reception Area. As I got out of the car I ran into a Chief from the Elizabeth (NJ) Fire Department. Once inside, it kicked into high gear-- handshakes, hugs and greetings. The long drive was already worth it. As I got to my table, I saw Billy (Chief Eaton) and another dozen or so members of the NPFD who turned out for their Chief. After more greetings and some catching up, the awards presentation started while the wait staff served dinner.
Acts of Valor, Bravery and Courage:
The Union President, Dominick Marino greeted everyone along with the pipes and drums serving as an escort for the award winners. (This is one of those rare times when hearing the pipes is OK; it's those other times I've learned to hate.) After the salute to the flag and invocation by the Chaplain, Fr. Tom Ryan, the president started to read the acts of valor and called upon the recipients to come to the stage and be recognized. Firefighter after firefighter and group after group, they went to the stage to standing ovations and thunderous rounds of applause, all humble and almost looking embarrassed to be up there. The one or two that did speak said what all of them were thinking. "I was doing my job, I did was I was trained to do and/or I was in the right place at the right time." Hey, they all did something phenomenal and were being recognized whether they liked it or not. It's OK to be recognized folks. Take it, smile, say thanks and remain humble. I heard some unbelievable things. A group from Newark made multiple rescues from a 3/4-involved, multiple dwelling; an off-duty drowning rescue; multiple CPR and life-saving EMS rescues; and some outstanding administrative accomplishments. Nice job all--you make the fire service what it is!
A Firefighter's Chief:
President Marino introduced me and I headed for the podium on the stage. It was a surprise to Billy that I was not only there for the ceremonies, but that I was participating in the ceremony to honor him. After a few initial remarks, I couldn't help but to mention one of the firefighters who came to the stage earlier. FF Jason Fazio received a Special Valor and Courage Award. About 14 months prior to this night while working in Asbury Park, NJ (where Springsteen started) the room Jason was searching flashed over. All he could do was muster the strength to get up on a window sill and throw himself from the second floor to the pavement below. After suffering multiple broken bones and third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body, he looked physically strong this night, but his attitude and outlook were even stronger. He gave all the credit to the doctors and nurses of the St. Barnabas Hospital Burn Unit and also brought the doctor to the stage with him. There's that humble thinking and humility from our people again. He talked all about their work, and how they saved him, etc. (The folks at St. Barnabas are, in fact, incredible people who have created miracles over many years. The firefighters in the region know, love and respect them and the work they do.) He also talked about the brothers in the firehouse that took care of him and his family while we has incapacitated. He never mentioned the fire or his act of valor making searches under horrendous conditions. I told him from the podium that guys like him was the reason I joined this profession and stayed for the past 34 years, and that he was an inspiration to all.
Back to Chief Eaton.
The first thing I said was that there were only a handful of guys I'd drive 420 miles for in one night...and Billy Eaton was one of them. The next two pages were about our friendship and how I watched him grow from a young Lieutenant to an intelligent,
level-headed commander and leader. Moreover, I was so happy to see a younger Chief coming up and taking the reigns. Those of us who have been around longer than 15 minutes are consistently seeking the next generation of leaders. Chief Eaton is one of them. The next few pages of accolades and accomplishments were penned mostly by the Union president. Billy managed to avoid grievances since his appointment 6 years ago through his leadership style and sense of what's good for the Department. He also raised staffing 25 percent through two SAFER grants. The Department (one station for 2-½ square miles with 23,000 people) hadn't seen 28 men in many years. Billy is truly a firefighter's chief. He's a chief's chief as well, and has earned the respect of the New Jersey fire service at large.
Congratulations Chief Eaton; congratulations Local 2958 President Jeff Holtz on having a great idea; congratulations PFANJ President Marino and the members at large on going with this project. You have cut a new path and have planted seeds for labor-management relations. During these extremely difficult times, you've knocked the bar up a few notches because there will be strength in unity from the "proby" to the Chief. Nice job all on a fantastic night. I am forever grateful that you included me, and I offer you a personal "tip-of-the-helmet."
Take care, be well, be safe,