When the Unthinkable Happens: Moving Forward After a Line of Duty Death

By Kevin D. Quinn, NVFC Chairman

I recently attended two funerals for firefighters who died in the line of duty.  As with every tragedy when we lose a brother or sister, my heart went out to the family, department and community that now must deal with the loss and figure out how to carry on under this blanket of grief.

As a member of the Rhode Island Local Assistance State Team, I am well aware of the long and difficult process a department faces after experiencing a Line of Duty Death. While we know logically that firefighting is a dangerous job, we typically don’t expect tragedy to happen in our department, to our fellow firefighters, to our friends or to our family.  When it does, the impact is devastating and far-reaching.

One of the most important things to remember following a tragedy is that we have to be there for each other. People will grieve in different ways, and not everyone will ask for help when they need it.

Watch out for signs that someone is struggling, know what resources your department or your community has to help with grief, and be there to support each other through this difficult time.

If you need help dealing with your grief, reach out to a trusted friend, the department chaplain, a counselor, or call the Fire/EMS Helpline at (888) 731-FIRE (3473). Remember that recovering after a tragic loss will take time, and it is OK to seek support to help with this process.

While asking for help can be difficult, remember that this important step is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength and personal fortitude.

We also need to look at ways we can prevent future tragedies.  I can’t emphasize this enough: safety is of paramount importance. Many line-of-duty tragic losses are preventable.  Take the opportunity to look at your department and determine what can be done to increase the safety of your personnel. I ask our fire service leaders to remind our emergency responders to always wear their seatbelts, use spotters when backing apparatus and always act according to standard operating policies or guidelines.

Health and wellness are key components as well. Heart attacks are the number one cause of Line of Duty Deaths, and cancer is one of the biggest threats facing firefighters.  Support and encourage firefighters to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Make sure your personnel are getting annual physicals and using PPE properly from initial attack through overhaul.

Create a culture where health, wellness and safety are priorities that can be discussed freely.  Don’t forget about behavioral health. We lose dozens of firefighters and EMTs to suicide each year. Many first responders struggle with behavioral health issues such as addiction, PTSD and depression. A Line of Duty Death can trigger many emotions and not all coping mechanisms are healthy. Make sure your personnel know what resources are available to seek help and that it is our collective duty to support our brothers and sisters in need.

We will always remember those we have lost, but we will also learn, support each other and find strength in the knowledge that our calling has not diminished. We will honor the memory of those we have lost by serving with dignity, pride, courage and integrity. We will practice safety and focus on how to prevent tragedy so that no one else has to feel the pain we have felt. We will be there for the families that have lost a father, mother, brother, sister, son or daughter.  We will celebrate the lives of the fallen by being the best we can be as a firefighter, a friend and a person. And we shall never forget.

Kevin D. Quinn serves as Chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council.  A member of the fire service since 1976, he has served as Deputy Chief of the Union Fire District in Rhode Island, is a past President of the Rhode Island State Firefighters’ League, is the Rhode Island State Advocate of the Everyone Goes Home-Courage to Be Safe Program, member of the Rhode Island Local Assistance State Team, member of the Hope Valley HazMat team, and member of numerous federal, state and local exercise design management teams. He holds a master’s of science in counseling and educational psychology and a master’s of science in education.