As most of you know, we have a rich American fire service history. Each and every fire department (about 35,000 of them) have their own story to tell whether they’ve been organized for 50 years or 150 years. I came upon one recently where they had documented their history over the past 100 years very well. The Raleigh (NC) Fire Department celebrated their 100th anniversary on Saturday November 17, 2012 in spectacular fashion. Members were in their Class A uniforms, others in black tie and tux and women in gowns. I was honored and humbled to be invited to this affair by virtue of the work I do for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF).
It was a small affair. Only 600 people showed up! This certainly was one of the largest fire service dinners I had ever attended. I think it was second to the retirement party of an old friend and college classmate of mine, John J. O’Rourke who upon retiring as Chief of Department of the FDNY, there were over 800 at the party. Back to Raleigh. The cocktail hour was in the pre-function outer lobby of the main ballroom of the North Carolina Convention Center. A great time to mingle and catch up with folks while absorbing adult beverages and munchies and adjusting attitudes. The NFFF had a two-fold secret mission here. The RFD Chief John T. McGrath was going to be personally recognized for the work he’d been doing for the NFFF for over 10 years, with the Taking Care of Our Own program as well as working as the Incident Commander at the last 10 Memorial Weekends in Emmitsburg. (I’ve had the honor to work side by side with John each year as his Chief of Operations for those 10 weekends.) Secondly, the RFD truly tightened their safety programs on the heels of an apparatus accident two years ago, so the Foundation felt it prudent to give them a Departmental Award revolving around the 16 Life Safety Initiatives and the Everyone Goes Home program. (Haven’t heard of the EGH program? 1-Tell the GEICO man you need to get out from under the rock and then; 2) go to www.Everyongoeshome.com.) The first thing we did was to approach, rush (almost tackle) Chief McGrath as a group. He was overwhelmed with surprise that we were there but still hadn’t known why, other than the fact that the RFD was 100 years old. So, after the hugging, handshaking, adult beverage absorbing and all that good brotherhood stuff, we headed in to the main ballroom. Alas, a horse-drawn steam engine on one side of the stage and a hand-drawn hose cart on the other. Large oversized photos of the RFD from 1912 through 2012 on easels and a continuous power point show on a large screen with photos of the department and its members for the past 100 years. Speeches were kept to a minimum, the committee took a bow and the fire department historian and museum curator gave us a quick thumbnail of the Raleigh Fire Department’s 100 years. Then it was our turn. Chief Ron Siarnicki, Executive Director of the NFFF was called to the stage to present John with a Departmental EGH award. Then the rest of us then rushed the stage as they handed him a replica of the Fallen Firefighter’s Monument to honor him for his service to the Foundation and the fire service at large, particularly the families and departments of the fallen. It was a great moment for all. John was a bit emotional and humbled at the same time. (John is one of those guys who gives until it hurts and then gives more all without taking a bow, credit or photo opportunities. He’s a credit to his fire department, his family and the fire service. Hey, there are not many folks I’d fly down south for one day and back for, but he’s certainly one of them! Well deserved honors Chief!)
As the main ceremonies wound down, things were topped off by an outstanding dinner followed by a delectable dessert bar. The DJ kicked it up and the RFD guys and gals with their partners got busy on the dance floor. All in all, a great night.
OK Ron, why are you telling us all of this? I tell you this because if someone in your department is already doing this, keep it going and support them. If no one is doing it, start doing it. Collect photos, take new ones and preserve the past. A couple of million firefighters have gone before us and set the stage for our current successes. Whether they served as volunteers 200 years ago or retired as a career guy last week, they have all contributed to where we are today.
Benjamin Franklin was proud of what he saw on Saturday night in Raleigh, North Carolina. In fact I may have spotted him sitting atop the steamer in the ballroom. Too many adult beverages? Perhaps. But I think his spirit mingled within the ballroom that night and he was proud that one fire department remembered to embrace our history and not erase our history. Congrats Raleigh FD on a job well done.