A Firefighter’s Two Families

I was at home celebrating Christmas when I heard the news that two firefighters had fallen in the line of duty in Chicago. It was a cold morning; the building was apparently abandoned. And yet, those men fulfilled their duty, heading inside to where we would never go to look for the homeless who may have been taken shelter from the frigid night. They walked into a deadly situation to ensure the preservation of life even though it meant risking their own and the chance of not coming back.

Seeing the Chicago Fire Department and the City of Chicago grieve has been particularly hard for me. First, I am the son of a firefighter, so that makes me a “fire brat.” As such, I have a very different sense of firefighters and firefighting. Second, I am a resident of Chicago and there’s something about the city that ties us all together in times like these, especially when it falls on the 100th anniversary of the Chicago Union Stockyards Fire that, until Sept. 11, 2001, was the largest loss of firefighter lives in US history. Third, Engine 63 and Tower 34 often responded to calls at the University of Chicago, a place where I had worked for nearly two decades. I saw these firefighters from these companies in the line of duty and in the line for coffee. “In Memorium” by Scott Stantis, editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Tribune, poignantly captures my emotions.

Dad has been a firefighter my entire life. During my lifetime dad has responded to his fair share of house fires, car fires, and smoking trash bins. But as he is a firefighter (and now deputy chief) in a rural community, he’s also fought grain elevator fires, railroad derailments, civil emergencies, hazardous material spills, industrial accidents, commercial aircraft incidents, water rescues, and of course, potato bin and hay bale fires. So when a call goes out, I’ve always wondered — just a little bit — if he would come back. The gravity of this thought didn’t fully hit me until I saw the movie “Backdraft.” Up until then, dad raced to incidents, took fabulous fire photos, drove the best flashy (literally) vehicles, and worked with some of the coolest civilian equipment on Earth. After seeing the movie, I understood the danger he faces every time there’s a call, and recognized the existence of his second family, the fire department. For the Stringer and Ankum families in Chicago, they are experiencing this firsthand.

Firefighters, whether in Chicago or my hometown, face some of the most dangerous and unpredictable civilian situations today. One never knows what’s really behind that warm door, what’s blooming within that smoke cloud, or what’s going to happen as heat takes its toll. The only thing firefighters can be certain of are the men and women who support them: the Brotherhood.

For the children and spouses of firefighters, the Brotherhood is the second family and it breaks the common single-family mold. Here’s the thing: when a call goes out, the second family, the Brotherhood becomes the firefighters’ first; the spouses and children take a back seat. In some families, the strain may be too much and tears relationships apart (see “Rescue Me” for a sense of the strain it can cause). Many firefighters will probably take exception to this, but for some it does happen and they wouldn’t see it — we, the children and spouses do. For other families, like mine, we learn to live with it and it becomes what we do and a new definition of a “normal.” So in essence, the immediate family of a firefighter learns to “share” their firefighter parent or spouse with the Brotherhood.

The reality about the two families is that they blur into one. When things go wrong and tragedy strikes, the second family is always there. Having grown up with that, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. There’s a set of relationships, a network, and a bond that ties all firefighting families together. For the Stringer and Ankum families, we are here for you — the families and children of firefighters around the world. You have been in our thoughts in prayers.

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