Does Brotherhood Really Exist?

By John S. D’Alessandro, FASNY Secretary

I love being a firefighter. Let’s get that straight from the beginning. Aside from my marriage and the birth of my children, it is my greatest accomplishment. Yet, despite the personal satisfaction it has given me, I have often been frustrated with the lack of brotherhood and respect we sometimes show towards each other.

I don’t mean the “support your brother or sister firefighter without question: right, wrong or indifferent” kind of false brotherhood. What I’m talking about is the true “we have a special connection and are part of something bigger than ourselves” brotherhood that the fire service is built upon.

Admittedly, I’m kind of old-fashioned. I believe that being a firefighter is a noble calling. I believe that it is not simply something you do, but it is a part of who you are as a person. And I also believe that it is the responsibility of experienced firefighters to impart the importance of respecting each other to every young firefighter.

That does not mean we are better people than anyone else. That does not mean that we are part of an elite group. It just means that we are ordinary men and women who have made a solemn commitment to respond when called upon because all lives matter.

Photo courtesy of Zach Lewis/Waterville Times

Almost five years ago, members of my department were deployed to the other end of our state to assist in the recovery efforts after a natural disaster. I remember when we arrived at our assignment and walked into the firehouse as if it was yesterday. Our hosts were sitting in their ready room exhausted. When they looked up and saw us they immediately had that “you must have taken a very wrong turn off the highway” look on their faces.

You see, the two groups of firefighters could not have been more culturally different than if it was planned. After a few minutes of introductions and strained small talk, the tones dropped and we were off to our first joint call. Little did we realize that stepping into our rigs was the first moment of a lifetime friendship.

For the next five days, we ate, slept, laughed and worked side by side. The people of this community were not our friends, family or neighbors, but they had become just as important to us. And even though we probably didn’t realize it at the time, as firefighters we had become connected on some deeper level. The common purpose of helping people in need made us brothers forever.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Over the years, we do not exchange holiday cards or call each other twice a month to catch up. Occasionally, we connect on social media to say hello and see what’s going on. But, for the most part, the two groups continue to protect their communities and live their lives. Until that one day when we needed to be brothers again.

You see, recently one of the members of this other department lost their spouse in a tragic way. In the midst of the chaos and extreme emotions they were going through, we received a call to tell us that they “needed their brothers” to be with them. Needless to say, several of us made the trip because that’s what you do for your brothers. That’s what you do for family. Even if it causes a temporary disruption in your own life.

When one analyzes why there might be diminished brotherhood and respect in the fire service, it’s easy to blame the other guy. Of course it’s the older, disgruntled member or the new recruits who think they know it all, or even the leadership who don’t really care about leading.

While that may be somewhat true, the real blame lies within each of us: the firefighters who feel that we are privileged to be part of an honorable profession. If we allow our frustration to render us silent, then we have conceded defeat. And that is something that dedicated firefighters just do not do. We regroup, reassess and hit the problem from another direction. It is our responsibility to set the example of respecting those that did the job before us and to teach those that will do it after we are gone.

If you are a firefighter who feels that it’s just something you do, then I’m happy that it works for you. But, I can’t help believe that you are missing out on an invaluable personal benefit that comes from being a firefighter.

I will, undoubtedly, continue to be frustrated by the way we sometimes treat each other. Yet, I refuse to abandon the belief that honor, loyalty and respect for each other are the foundation that enables us to serve our communities. And when I do get frustrated, I will fight that feeling by remembering that phone call asking their brothers to be with them in their hour of need.