By Aaron Dixon, MBA, NRP
For the friends and immediate co-workers of a fallen hero, there are engrained memories. They will never forget because they can’t. But what about the others, the organization, the leaders? Never forgetting should be an action – not just a phrase that we repeat on the anniversary of a loss or tragedy. Why do we say “Never Forget?” Because we want their death to change us for the better. We don’t want to go back to doing the same things we were doing before we lost them. We want to show that we have learned something and have made changes. Their existence and their loss mean something to our future.
On February 24th, 2021, Tyler Warfield, a 23-year-old member of Clear Spring Fire Rescue, left the station on his motorcycle headed to another shift at a different fire department. He did not make it. He was struck by a vehicle and killed.
At my office in Downtown Greenville, I received a phone call from a fellow commissioner informing me of his death. I quickly canceled my meetings for the day and headed to the station. I figured, at a minimum, I could cover one of the trucks and let the on-duty personnel grieve. As I pulled into the station, staffed trucks from other departments were already there providing coverage. All the command staff had responded to the incident and the station was empty and eerily quiet. Within an hour of my arrival, a nondescript white trailer arrived that was filled with all the necessities to facilitate a firefighter’s funeral. Black bunting was placed on the outside of the station and a small shrine with Tyler’s turnout gear was set up by the flagpole. Planning for the funeral, coverage for the next three days, and family support were provided by State Fire in a very methodical manner. They had even established an incident command structure. The day of the funeral was awe-inspiring: a miles-long procession of emergency vehicles, bridges, and overpasses filled with firefighters at attention, a massive church filled to capacity with members of the public and fellow emergency services members. It was an enormous and impressive showing of support, love, and respect for our fallen member.
Tyler’s path in the fire service was nearly identical to mine. We started as young kids — explorers — filled with obnoxiously high energy. Like Tyler, I had incredible mentors who calmed me, focused my attention, and made me successful. Tyler benefited from an incredible group of mentors, and in turn, they benefited from him. I failed to experience what Tyler had to offer, and his sudden departure saddens me. He had so much more to do in this world. So much more to give.
I don’t have a wonderful story to share about Tyler, and that’s what saddens me. I ran into Tyler frequently on calls and at the station. He was always energetic and so incredibly respectful. He would go out of his way to say hi, but I was always so busy — putting my gear back together, getting information for my report, heading on to the next thing. I didn’t greet him with the same enthusiasm. I could tell that he wanted more engagement — more training, more involvement — and I was someone who could have easily provided it. But I didn’t. I was too busy.
Tyler’s funeral service was one of nearly a hundred that I have attended over the past 26 years of service — some for close personal friends of mine. Each service is profound, inspirational, and very similar. We come to these funerals in miles-long processions, embodying a unified brotherhood and sisterhood of strength, cohesion, and mutual support. At the beginning of these ceremonies, we act as a single professional entity. But at the end of these services, we scatter. We go back to our individual departments, neatly defined by geographical boundaries, and the normalcy of working and running a department. Until another tragedy unites us again.
We shouldn’t allow ourselves to return to normal. If we are to truly never forget, then we must learn from the past and make changes. In the past year since Tyler’s death, I am unsure if I have made enough progress. As an Executive Director of an EMS service, my overarching intent is to foster an environment where the team is happy, safe, and proud. I want to give the same attention and the same emotion to my team when they are alive and in the moment as I will expand if they die. But the practical challenges of the job, managing a team of nearly 400, seems to inhibit those very core values that are so essential to me. This haunts me as an Executive Director.
What can we do as leaders and members of individual organizations to celebrate our people when they are still with us? Why is it that a member of our service must die before we unleash the full power of our brotherhood and sisterhood? We must support our members with the same vigor when they are very much alive.
I am fully aware that I do not have the answers, but Tyler’s memory inspires me to do better, to pay attention more fully, and to appreciate those coming behind us. Maybe because of his loss, I can be a better leader, a better person. Rest peacefully Tyler, we’ve got it from here.
A huge thank you to my wife, Penny Couillard, who has attended numerous funerals over our two decades of marriage. She was a major contributor to the writing of this article.
Aaron Dixon, MBA, NRP, is the Executive Director of EMS for Prisma Health, Commissioner for Clear Spring Fire Rescue, and an Executive Board Member of the SC EMS Association. Prisma Health operates a large EMS department providing 911, ALS, Mobile Integrated Health, Emergency Medical Dispatch, and Critical Care services throughout the Upstate and Midlands of South Carolina. Dixon is a national speaker and has authored multiple articles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.