It’s a Calling

Yesterday, in the city of Chicago, two men lost their lives.  That may not sound like much, considering that 458 people were murdered there last year, which averages out to 1.25478 people a day.  That’s just the murders, it doesn’t take into account accidental deaths, deaths from natural causes and all the other things that happen to mortal human beings.  But, these two particular men were doing something out of the ordinary.  They were Chicago firefighters and they lost their lives trying to save others.  Joel Hood, Anne Sweeney and Stacy St. Clair, reporters for the Chicago Tribune said it best:

“It would have been safer for Chicago firefighters Edward Stringer and Corey Ankum to battle the burning building from a distance Wednesday morning, to shrug it off as a long-abandoned South Shore laundry business where no one worked or lived.

But that’s not who they were.

Concerned that homeless people may have been taking refuge from the cold, Stringer and Ankum were among the firefighters searching the burning building around daybreak when a roof came crashing down on them.”

This story has special significance for me because I’m a firefighter.  I know, big surprise considering the address of this blog.  I’ve been one for almost 21 years and, throughout that time, “life safety” has been pounded into me.  And, the main life I should be concerned with is my own, because if I get hurt, how am I supposed to help anyone else?  There’s a reason training staffs in fire departments across the country make that point over and over.  It’s because of what happened yesterday in Chicago.  Logically, no one should have been in that building.  It was old, it was abandoned and, in 2007, had been declared unsafe by city building inspectors.  There were no positive reports of people trapped in the building, just someone saying that homeless people sometimes sheltered there in bad weather.  The smart play would’ve been to set up master streams and ladder trucks and fight this fire with big hoses and big water, dumping water in until it ran out in the street.  But, if anyone had been inside, they’d have never survived.  So, 17 men were on a roof when they probably shouldn’t have been, working to find people who may (or may not) have been inside when it collapsed, injuring 12 and killing 2.  If you’re not a firefighter, you’re probably wondering what kind of people do that?  Short answer?  People who are called to it.

When I hear the  term “calling”, I tend think of it in a religious context.  And, anyone who’s spent some time in a firehouse knows that it’s not exactly a “churchy” kind of place.  Although women are making inroads, firefighting is still a predominantly male career and anytime you get a bunch of guys together, it can get raunchy.  Yet, at the same time, some of the most deeply religious and devoted family men I know hitch up their suspenders and get on the truck when the buzzer hits.  And, in looking at what these Chicago boys did, I began to realize that being a firefighter follows the way of Christ pretty closely.  We help those who need help without regard to race, creed, color, nationality or status.  This help is without condition, fire departments don’t bill you for coming when you call (well, some do and I find that despicable), no matter how often you call.  And, believe me, some people call A LOT.  But, that’s okay, it’s what we’re here for.  We may not sell all our possessions and give the money to the poor, but sometimes it feels that way.  Believe me when I say no one ever became a firefighter to get rich and, if they did, they were very quickly disabused of that notion.  Usually with their first paycheck.  Yes, we get paid, but, it’s still a life of sacrifice.  In 21 years, I’ve spent Christmas day with family so few times I can count the number on one hand.  And, if I was off Christmas Day, I worked Christmas Eve.  When I say “worked”, I mean a 24 hour shift.  Same for most other holidays, too.  It’s also hard on marriages and families.  It seems like every crisis at home occurs while you’re at work and you’re never off when “normal” people are, so you miss a lot of your kids’ activities.  Then, there’s the part we don’t we really talk about very much.  Every shift, there’s always the lurking possibility that you won’t be going home, that you’ll be asked to give everything.  Yet, somehow, all over the world people get up, put on the uniform and do the job.  There’s not enough money in the world to make anyone do that.  You have to be called.  And, those of us that are wouldn’t have it any other way.