What does a fire chaplain do? So glad you asked. It’s a role I’ve had for the last seven years in our small city. In an odd way, the most important thing I do is hang around. I try to hang around with each shift in each station at least a couple of times a month, just to listen to what anyone might want to talk about. It’s a participation in some small portion of the care and keeping of their emotional and spiritual well being along with much more important people such as spouses, pastors, and the family that is the fire service itself. Just hanging around has led to pre-marriage counseling for some, post-marriage counseling for others, a few referrals to other care givers, conversation about job changes, promotions and the like, and sometimes just a chance to blow off steam with someone they know will keep it private. I have joyfully celebrated at weddings, and presided over the funerals of retired firefighters. Last week I spoke to the graduating class of recruit firefighters for the rural volunteer departments that serve the vast ranch and farmlands of our huge county. And only because I once taught it, I’ve been asked to offer several classes on an introduction to management and leadership for the officers academy that serves the paid departments in our region.
A second part of the job is to respond, as called, to scenes where families, witnesses and others have been traumatized. Most often those are scenes of violent or unexpected deaths. Our paramedics are finishing up their brief sad chores, the police are present to investigate, the coroner will be showing up soon, their home is no longer their own and they are not in control of what is going on. Who will be there for them and with them? That’s where I come in. I offer what few words of comfort make any sense at all, help them understand what is happening, what will happen, why it is happening, how long it will take, what decisions have to be made, whether they have a pastor or religious tradition that would be helpful, would they like prayers to be said with them and over the body of the deceased. All the while I will be keeping them in a safe place, monitoring their emotional and physical conditions for any signs of critical need, and assisting with the hard but necessary questions the police and coroner will ask. Usually it will be the only time I will ever see these people. I will be their pastor for a few hours only, but they will be an important few hours.
We do not have many structure fires in our community, and that’s a good thing. I try to respond to residential fires to care for those affected while the department is on scene. I respond to serious commercial property fires where I send up a constant stream of prayer for the safety of my firefighters and to offer whatever unskilled help may be needed. I just got back from one. A friend’s manufacturing plant was partially destroyed this morning. I suppose it sounds a bit silly, but I spent my time praying God’s blessing on every piece of equipment and every firefighter there. Needless to say I also looked a bit ridiculous in my helmet, turnout coat, khakis and soaking wet moccasins.
Finally, I serve on a debriefing team that provides psychological first aide for first responders who have been brought to the edge of what even the most experienced hand is able to endure.
It’s a volunteer job. It takes a few hours a week plus the occasional call. I wouldn’t trade it for any other.