Recognizing Our Line of Duty Deaths Each Year

By Tim Bradley, Executive Director, North Carolina State Firefighters’ Association

The North Carolina State Firefighters’ Association (NCSFA) provides various benefits and programs for our members. We view these benefits in part as a way of protecting our members during their service, or their families in the event of their death. In addition to fighting for State and Federal benefits for our members, securing these benefits is a large part of what we do each year and a large cost to the association. Over the years these benefits have been enhanced and improved by the constant dedication of Board members who seek to improve what we provide. It’s encouraging to know that in the event of a loss, financial assistance is there.

I can remember years ago, when the annual line of duty deaths was numbered in single digits here in our State, usually below five. The addition of heart attacks increased the numbers, and now with cancer and covid, it seems that routinely we’re getting notice of another line of duty death. Even with the comfort of benefits, it still shocks you to see so many men and women in our service die providing lifesaving protection to our communities. 

It is fitting and proper that we should take the time to honor those who made this ultimate sacrifice. Each Spring in our State, the North Carolina State Firefighters Association joins the North Carolina Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NCFFF), and other Associations and individuals across the state in recognizing our fallen firefighters. This year there will be 14 firefighters recognized for their sacrifice on May 7th at the annual NCFFF Ceremony. The ceremony is conducted at the site of our North Carolina Fallen Firefighter Memorial and is coordinated in a very prestigious fashion by our North Carolina Fallen Firefighter Foundation group. It is a solemn time for those of us in the fire service, done with all the ceremony we can all foster to make it stately, and certainly the appropriate and right thing to display the sincere loss each of us feel for the families and departments who have given so much. To attend and view this ceremony should leave all with the certainty that as brothers and sisters in the fire community, we could salute no higher, as members of this community we could offer no higher praise, and as individuals who recognize what this job means, we could offer no higher honor.

It is our prayer here at NCSFA that the remembrance of this event will at least provide some comfort to the families attending that their loss was not without recognition among people, just as it was not without recognition before God. Our hope is they find comfort in the fact that there is permanent a place upon which their loved one’s name is written there at the memorial, where many people may see and remember well into the ages, to never be forgotten.

Bravery occurs daily within the fire service.

For those of us who have ridden the trucks, resisted the heat, crawled in the smoke, felt our way in the darkness, and sought out the challenges the risks present, we recognize that we should never view these losses as acceptable, that we will never accept they had to happen, yet we must accept that they will and do occur.

Fourteen similar questions of “why” come to my mind, one each for the 20 North Carolina firefighters lost in the line of duty this past year.  Perhaps an even greater question than “why” pushes itself forward through this struggle to comprehend, a question of confusion and partial recognition of our helplessness before so many things are unexplainable.

In the quiet recesses of my mind, for a moment I thought maybe I’d like to be able to speak to those who sacrificed so much, just to get their answers or thoughts on why this happened, why the necessity of this loss that gives us such grief is so unexplainable. It’s quite clear that I can’t physically do that: but perhaps I already have. I’ve talked to hundreds of firefighters about why they do their job and I believe their answers would be similar. So, I can attempt to propose some thoughts their deaths evoke from a firefighter’s perspective, some comfort for those who must be having the same struggle as I to understand.

In the past 48 years, I’ve served in the fire service the same answer comes from the conversations of those who face these perils. It’s an issue of service to our fellow man, the basic element of society or civilization where one human being reaches out to help another. That is the stuff of good men and good women. 

Dennis Smith, Author of Engine Company 82 said this in the year 2000 at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service;

“The Impulse of a firefighter to help is not a lonely impulse but is shared and agreed upon in every department, conversation, every shared meal, every training drill, and every company meeting. There is only one reason to wear the uniforms of a firefighter, and that is to be there when we are needed.”

I agree with his summary. It is the stuff of firefighters to protect their fellow citizens. It’s also an issue of recognizing the necessity of sacrifice each of us must make at times in our lives if we are to serve. 

We do not use the term “ultimate sacrifice” lightly. Chief Edward Croker of the Fire Department New York (FDNY) summed it up best when he suggested the act of heroism occurred when they joined the department when they committed themselves to a life of sacrifice for others that could at one time call for them to give it all. That’s heroism. We call them heroes not because they died, but because they committed themselves to service. They are honored here for that sacrifice. It was the ultimate one.

Some of them came from a family of firefighters who said they loved their jobs and died doing something they loved. Others had families who didn’t understand as well why we do our jobs but saw the love and admiration come from the community and appreciated more greatly the sacrifice. 

 All of them had family and friends who still to this day in their quiet hours imagine what they would be doing, where they would have taken them, and how much in life they would have accomplished.

Each of the 14 being honored is a hero. Yet those of us who know this profession know they gave their lives for other years ago when they agreed to take the risks. Why didn’t everyone in the world know them then? Why wasn’t their name listed in the news as a hero then?  It should have been. 

They were people, heroes, and public figures worthy of accolades and loving testimonies long before people put their names in the paper, long before they flew the flags at half-staff and played taps at each funeral. I wanted to stand up and shake my fist at the world and say those very words when I helped carry my friend’s body to rest, when I visited families of lost brothers at the funeral home, and when I saw every news report. 

They joined as a hero, served as a hero, and gave it all in a hero’s death.

To some, the news of each death brought them into the picture. For others of us, they were always in the picture. God bless the families and departments of those lost. 

Other NCSFA Updates.

In a note to all Chiefs, it’s an important task to assuring all departmental benefits are available to your membership, and that with all departmental or job-related functions a Scope of Duty is established for your membership. When determining benefits such as Workers’ Compensation, departmental Accident and Health, etc., and even at times Line of Duty Related Death benefits, the fire department members/employees must be acting within the scope of their duties for the department. This is normally an easy decision for those providing benefits to determine, since injuries on the job while responding, and at departmental calls or functions, etc., are all clear the firefighter or employee is performing duties of the department. Where it becomes confusing, and can occasionally create issues of coverage, is when a member is performing in a function where it’s unclear if the duty is a departmental one. The department carries the coverage, so the duty must be a departmental one unless the associated group also carries coverage.

For example, members often join associated groups such as dive teams, honor guards, forestry strike forces/smoke jumpers, collecting cans for burned children, or even regional teams that carry out functions that we normally consider associated groups, but may not be viewed as clearly representing the department that provides them coverage such as Workers Compensation. If these groups do not provide these benefits, the only coverage they have is departmental. As such, a clear connection to the departments’ Scope of Duty is necessary.

Here is a specific example. Tim is a member of your department and joins a “county dive team.” This is a very worthwhile endeavor and supports the mission of the fire service. However, there is no clear evidence that Tim has been acknowledged by the Chief as a representative of the department, or if the Chief is even aware of the participation. Tim is injured while training with the dive team and files for Workers’ Compensation. When contacted, the Chief is unaware of the participation, and the workers’ compensation claim is denied. While participation in these groups is worthwhile and should be encouraged, they must be within the duty of the department that is providing coverage.

There is an easy fix for this potential problem. Explain to your members and employees that if they wish to participate in associated groups of this nature, they first notify the Chief. The Chief should then write a brief letter to the group that this is viewed as a necessary function of the department, and that they are assigning a said individual to participate as a representative of the department. This letter should be dated, filed, and available if an incident occurs.

While an official Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is preferable between the department and the associated group, this letter lets those providing coverage know the individual is participating as a member of the department, and this is an assigned duty.

When an accident occurs, it’s too late to make the connection, and an individual, while participating in a worthwhile function that supports the fire service, is denied coverage because they were participating within the scope of their reasonability to the department. 

Tim Bradley has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire and Safety Engineering Technology, an Associate Degree in Electronic Engineering Technology, and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program. Tim has been in the fire service for 47 years. He served as Chief for seven years, Executive Director of the North Carolina Fire and Rescue Commission, and Senior Deputy Commissioner of Insurance in charge of the Office of State Fire Marshal (OSFM), among many other positions. He was awarded North Carolina’s Firefighter of the Year Award in 2003, and in 2007 he was awarded Firehouse Magazines Heroism Award for the rescue of a five-year-old boy from a house fire. He is the author of “The Fire Marshals Handbook,” a book published to match the requirements for the NFPA Standard for Fire Marshals.

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