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Our Extended Family- America’s Fire Service
By Fire Chief Rick Talbert
Titusville (FL) FIre and Rescue Department

On September 11, 2001 I had just settled in to the second day of the Executive Development course at our National Fire Academy.  The Academy, known as our fire service “temple” brings firefighters and officers from around our country together and we exchange ideas, learn new and improved ways of protecting our firefighters, communities and how to think strategically in our rapidly changing world. 

As many know, day two of any class at NFA is still a “get to know your classmates” time as diverse backgrounds converge and team build so groups of us can work together to achieve meaningful results during each two week course.  As an attendee since 1982, I remember fondly the words of my first instructor, the late Jim Covington telling us, “Never take this profession for granted, you were chosen to be the change agents and leaders of tomorrow.” 

Each time I attend I remember those words and reflect on the meaning of why we seek to better ourselves for our communities.  My reflections were turned upside down that fateful morning when our instructors told us that they were instructed to turn the TVs on as a “significant event” was unfolding before us. 

The shock and amazement overcame most of us as we watched planes hurtling into the World Trade Centers.  The news of the Pentagon came next in and the initial report of a fourth plane crashing in Pennsylvania brought a new twist to these tragic events.  Numbness and shock turned to fear and uncertainty as many of us began to realize we were many miles from our homes and communities.  Many of us attempted to make calls home to reassure our loved ones but found the phone lines overwhelmed and were unable to so.

Our team building time went to another level as many of us absorbed the harsh reality of what occurred and the fate of our brothers and sisters that responded in earnest, ascending inside the massive buildings to rescue people and fight the fire.  Our emotions overcame us as we watched in horror as each of the building cascaded downward into heaps, consoling one another as we questioned why this would happen and how many of our responders would be lost.

We were assembled into the auditorium and listened intently as Chief Operating Officer Ken Burris and Superintendent Dr. Denis Onieal gave us a chilling appraisal of what occurred and that our classes were to be cancelled immediately.  This action made sense as most of realized that it would be impossible to create a learning environment that would allow any of us to concentrate on anything else than what occurred that morning.  Those that were fortunate enough to come to the campus by automobile were asked to process out and depart for their homes.  That left over two hundred of us that flew from all areas of the country to look for other transportation modes back to our communities. 

It occurred to most of us that there was a complete stoppage of most means of public transportation and we would have to wait a couple of days to secure transportation home.  We tried to make the best of it by gathering in groups to watch the non-stop coverage and sort through the emotions of what occurred. 

The Academy staff was more than accommodating by assisting us with contact numbers for rental car agencies and leaving the computer labs open for extended periods to allow us to search the web for planes trains and automobiles home.  My classmates, only together for two short days bonded as if we had known each other for two weeks or longer.  We each felt pain for those lost and with our proximity to New York and the Pentagon, many of us felt the urge to go help and be there for our brothers and sisters.  Every member remaining on campus experienced feelings of sadness and despair and as faith-not fate, has it, we were able to funnel our energies and focus on something meaningful. 

Several members of each class met with Chief Ron Siarnicki, Executive Director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.  In less than one day, Chief Siarnicki and the coordinated efforts of these students put together a candlelight vigil for those remaining on campus to attend on the evening of September 12th.  Those remaining on campus attended as Superintendent Denis Onieal, Chief Siarnicki and a representative of each class spoke and shared their feelings that evening at the Fallen Firefighter Memorial.  This vigil helped many of us show our respect for our fallen comrades as well as further deal with our grief many miles from home. 

It is with profound respect that I say thank you to all of my brothers and sisters.  Thank you for demonstrating that our unique bond is far-reaching and universal.  Thank you for being there for one another, standing firm and supporting each other at a time when we were so many miles from home and needed the embrace of our families.  Thanks to our firefighters at home that in the midst of this tragedy continued to protect our respective communities and called our families offering their support in our absence. 

Many I thank will say, “it’s no problem that’s our job.” These acts of compassion and kindness would appear to be so minimal in comparison to the magnitude of events on September 11, 2001.  Over three hundred of our brothers and sisters did their job without question that day and would say, “that’s our job.”  No hesitation and without question.  Never take this profession for granted and the impact we have on one another and the communities we serve. 

About the author:Chief Richard Talbert was appointed as Fire Chief in October of 1999 of the Titusville Fire and Emergency Services. He has been with the City of Titusville for five years and served as a Battalion Commander, Training Commander, and Operations Chief.
Read Chief Talbert's previous article: Safety Officer Considerations for Rapid Intervention Teams