A Letter in the File


Heroism. What does it mean to you? Webster’s lists many definitions, most notably, “showing extreme courage; especially of actions courageously undertaken in desperation as a last resort.”

At my department there are occasions when certain persons meet this definition and they are recognized with an award for heroism.
These are often the result of a rescue at the scene of the fire.

But what about when you are not the hero, but just happened to be at the top of the stairs at the right time?

A few years back an engine company made a fantastic lead down a narrow hallway on the second floor encountering heavy smoke and immense heat. They found the seat of the fire and began attacking it when they came across a woman and a young child, alive, in an adjacent room, both unconscious. Many companies may have withdrawn and made the rescue, leaving the fire to expand, but these heroes chose to remove the victims one at a time.

The last man on the line pulled the child back along the hose line to the stairs where he encountered another team making their way to the fire floor. There were no words to exchange in the heavy smoke as one firefighter handed the limp body to the next who quickly turned back down the stairs and carried the boy out. By the time the confusion in the stairwell had become clear, that there was an active rescue in progress, the original company, still eating heat at the seat of the fire had now removed an elderly woman to the stairwell to be removed by another member of that team in the hallway. Both victims survived.

You may be saying to yourself, “Happy, sounds like a great story of true heroism, what’s the problem?”

The guys fighting the fire, the ones who effected the removal of the victims from a life threatening hazard, all the while still fighting the fire and as a result saving the other floors from involvement, weren’t recognized by the award.

The team on the stairs not only was nominated for the award, but accepted it. It sits on the wall at their station. I know the real story because I relieved the company that fought that fire the next day and you could see the light in their eyes when they talked about how good it felt to drag the victims out to a safer area, then get back to work. I knew these men well and trust what they say.

When what really happened came to light the engine company was given a certificate of bravery from the Mayor’s office…by mail.

The reason I’m putting this letter in their files now is because last week, at the dinner table, someone from the stairway team at that fire told a yarn about how he had been the one to remove the victims, not the engine. When pressed for details on what room they were in he changed the subject.

It’s not about awards in this business. If you need a shiny plaque to replace your own feelings of inadequacy or feel the need to lie in order to sound “cool,” quit now before you get someone killed actually trying these things on your own.

That is all.

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One thought on “A Letter in the File”

  1. We go through the same crap around here. Every year on medals day somebody gets their panties in a bunch because somebody else wasn’t as deserving, or was overlooked, or whatever.

    I’ve got a row of earned medals I wear proudly on my uniform, and another pile of them sitting in some file somewhere that I never claimed. Nothing tarnishes a set of crisp dress blues more than some shiny unearned medals.

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