Firefighter Heroes – Paying Attention with Tom Duggan


January, 2005

Even if we accept that everything Judy Brito says is true, Lawrence Mayor Mike Sullivan is absolutely right when he says that most firefighters in the city of Lawrence are honest, decent, hard-working individuals.

They are the men and women who go out and respond to the cries for help from innocent victims of crime, fires, car accidents, medical emergencies and personal tragedy. And if there are some Lawrence firefighters engaged in illegal activity, we should never cast suspicion or doubt on the rest of the dedicated men and women who willingly put themselves in harms way to protect other human beings.

Instead, we should thank them.

They are heroes in the true sense of the word. Firefighters respond in the middle of the night, in the sub-zero temperatures of winter, icicles hanging off their faces, climbing into third-floor windows to look for children who might be sleeping or crouched in a closet, praying that someone will find them.

We should thank them for giving up their Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and important family events to be on duty in case any one of us should be unfortunate enough to need their help.

We should thank them for suffering burns and other injuries during seemingly routine calls and returning to work knowing that it could happen again.

We should thank them for enduring the extreme boredom when things are slow. And when they aren’t, exposing themselves to extreme smoke inhalation, crumbling timbers, toxic fumes, exploding vehicles, falling structures, and a general public that is not always very cooperative.

Over the years, Lawrence firefighters have endured the insane stress of short staffing, closed firehouses, budget cuts, inadequate equipment and the political games that result from elected officials looking to make headlines.

And when Lawrence was deemed the arson capital of the country, Lawrence firefighters did not complain that they were over worked. They didn’t whine about lack of sleep and stressful work schedules. They put on a uniform every day and rushed through the city trying to save people’s lives and livelihoods. For that we should also thank them.

It takes great skill and courage to do what the Lawrence firefighters do every day. Most of us could never imagine the emotional pain they must suffer when they have to carry a dead baby from the burning embers of a house ravaged by fire. Or, as with the case of hero firefighter William McGuire, when they get the call that one of their own has lost his life in service of the city. But they do it. They do it because they can. They do it because they care. They do it because we asked them to.

We should also thank the families of these brave men and women who call themselves Lawrence firefighters. They suffer too. They are the ones who sit up at night listening to the scanner, hoping that when their loved one is dispatched to an emergency they will come home safe, healthy and unharmed. They are the ones who eat Christmas dinner with an empty seat at the table because the person they care about is pulling a drunk driver from a burning car on the side of the road or helping an elderly woman to safety down a third-floor fire escape.

Regular readers of this column (and this newspaper) know that I have always held firemen and police officers in the highest regard. Yes, they are human beings, they make mistakes, and on occasions they let their human faults get the best of them. But when those occasions do arise, I have always believed that we should take into account what these brave individuals must endure and cut them as much slack as we can (within reason) because they are special and they have earned our loyalty and respect.

The saddest part of the entire video-taped incident that occurred on November 17th of last year is that a Lawrence firefighter, a man who was entrusted with the lives of 70,000 people, betrayed that trust and brought a tidal wave of doubt, suspicion and controversy on to the honest, hard working heroes he served with. He disgraced every single one them and worst of all, he put their lives at risk.

Lawrence firefighters certainly do not deserve that. They deserve our support and praise. They deserve our thanks and respect. And they deserve to go to work every day knowing that the men and women they serve with are backing them up 100%. Their lives and the happiness of their families depend on it.

So, whatever the outcome of any investigation into other firefighters who may have engaged in illegal behavior, we must not forget that there are bad apples in every organization. And we must take great pains not to paint all Lawrence firefighters with the same broad bush of cynicism, sarcasm and suspicion that is natural when such revelations come to light.