By Ryan Royal
Brotherhood, that term that is constantly debated at the kitchen table and across the fire service. Sometimes I read so much about the brotherhood dying it makes me wonder if it is salvageable. I have grown up around this job and learned a great deal about the brotherhood long before I was a part of it. I am thankful for this, it has helped me do my part to preserve and teach what real brotherhood is all about both on and off duty. At times I begin to get down and believe the masses when they say the brotherhood is simply trickling away and it is hard to get guys to do anything for each other. Well I am here to say I have been recharged and my outlook on the current level of brotherhood around my department has been lifted into a very positive perspective.
Its NOT dead yet…not if we have anything to say about it.
The Colorado Springs Metro Area has taken a relatively large hit when it relates to fires in the last year. Within 1 year we lost over 850 homes and 4 of our citizens in two separate fires. It has obviously been a trying time for thousands of our citizens but at the same time has really put our firefighters to the test physically and emotionally. Tremendous challenges, long work hours, close calls, unprecedented fire behavior and just the frustration of being in the middle of whole neighborhoods on fire while having to write off hundreds of homes that we would traditionally be making aggressive interior attacks on. The guys have really been tested on duty, and I think being tested in situations like this builds brotherhood.
But what about off duty?
Sometimes it can be easy for us to pack up and completely block out everything that has to do with the FD the second they walk out the back door. At times this can be healthy, as long as we remember that real brotherhood does not work 10 days a month. Real brotherhood is shown by taking care of each other both on and off duty.
“Brotherhood is a great tradition that binds us together in fellowship”
Let me tell you about two men on our job who are receiving a healthy dose of brotherhood, neither of which would have ever asked for it but both of them being over-deserving of it. I originally wanted to write an article based off my opinions on what the brotherhood really means, instead I will tell you facts based of off real stories of brotherhood that I was able to witness in the last month. The men below both lived in Black Forest when a fire destroyed 500 homes and killed two people. They were dead in the tracks of the main firestorm and lost a tremendous amount.
Photo Credit: Steven D. Smith
PJ Langmaid rides the backseat on the cities only Rescue in Colorado Springs. I went through the academy with PJ and we graduated onto the same shift together. PJ is a very dedicated fireman who has put a tremendous amount of time into studying his craft. He is an extremely talented carpenter and probably has one of the most natural gifts of problem solving that I have ever seen. When you’re in one of those situations where you just need another mind working through your problem, he is the one to have at your side. I wish we had a way to take some of his common sense, bottle it up, and sell it to the long line of people that could use a dose or two. I know most of this because we have become friends over the years and I have done a lot of work with him. Not everyone gets to see this side of him, but that is the beauty of my story. PJ might come off rough around the edges to some people, maybe it’s that “boston attitude” (where PJ grew up) that makes people get caught up in judging a book by its cover. He is frank and tells it how he sees it, but I’ll tell you what comes with that. You get a very loyal friend who always puts the brotherhood above his own needs. I cannot count how many times he has been at someones house after receiving a single phone call, for no other reason then they needed help and that’s just what you do in his mind. He is a protector of tradition, he believes in making firefighters better and teaching them the ways and important cultures of the fire service, brotherhood in particular. He spends his extra money on attending firefighters funerals and has networked a great deal around the country in an attempts to see how himself or his department can be better. He is very strong willed when it comes to protecting our mission and leads by example on the importance of being quick out the door, combat ready, well trained, and continually keeping your head in the game.
Here is what he is really bad at. Asking for help. Like most of us, he will ask for help only when he physically cannot figure out a way to get it done himself. It probably sounds familiar to most of you.
PJ and his family lost everything in the Black Forest Fire, it was completely reduced to about 4 inches of white incinerated powder. What survived the fire after sifting could probably fit into a five gallon bucket. He also lost about 350 of his trees which is 99% of his property.
I had the pleasure of being the “contact point” for the efforts to help PJ, by being in this position it really let me see the full array of brotherhood he began to receive. With a little discussion, a few emails and talking with some other guys on the job it rapidly started to take shape. In a matter of weeks the Brotherhood went into motion and money was being collected from sources as small as a single engine company putting together some cash to larger unions organizations writing very large checks. Soon enough thousands of dollars began to roll in. Cash, Home Depot gift cards and checks came from all around the state of Colorado, many of these from firefighters and their families that had never once met PJ, had only heard that he needed help. That is an incredible gesture. One donation that really impressed me was from a fellow forcible entry and training company based out of Portland Oregon. The guys from Brothers In Battle LLC heard about our efforts and took their entire profit from the last class they hosted and sent it his way. No questions asked, they just felt it was the right thing to do. That is putting your money where you mouth is.
Here is a quick look at PJs home after the fire, and the progress that him and the brothers have made in a matter of weeks.
Money was where most of the efforts were being focused on for PJ, but the grunt work was still being accomplished behind the scenes. PJ and some of our fellow firefighters had gathered on numerous days to sift his foundation, shovel it into dumpsters and then completely rip up the old slab, grade the property and prep it for building a new home. It is now ready and plans are being drawn up for his new house, (which he will build himself of course).
Gator just retired out of Engine 19 and Truck 19 on July 5th 2013. Gator completed a career where he can officially walk away and say he had his head in the game for over 30 years. He spent time on busy companys and worked on the citys Rescue for quite a while. Gator is a well known legend on the job and I have no doubt each and every person could tell their own story about him. I worked on Truck 19 as my first assignment after completing probation, I was up there with two other firefighters and all three of us were very green, young and full of energy. When we showed up, Gator was our driver and we were intimidated to say the least. Gator is one of those guys that would fit perfectly into the stereotype of the “old driver”. He had the intimidation factor, he was quick to speak up if it was something he didn’t agree with and was very protective of his crew. It took him a while to figure you out, and you had to prove yourself to really get the full benefit of working around Gator.
Here’s the side of Gator that I got to know. He was one of my first mentors that really taught me what it meant to be good at this job. That included all aspects that encompass being a good fireman. He embraced the young new guy that I was and decided to truly push and challenge me. The low standards that are set as a minimum in most of our fire departments is not what he would let me settle for, he constantly made me think about how and why I was doing a certain skill or tactic. He developed me to think for myself and to fully understand the difference between realistic training and checkbox skills. Gator taught us that there was always time to train, that it should happen daily, that you should be in your gear and that training fell second in line only to running alarms.
This is a senior guy at a slower house that could have just as easily decided to check out and let us young guys figure it out on our own. Instead he took complete ownership of us and passed on the dying art of basic firemanship. I attribute a large portion of my love for the basics of this job to Gator, primarly because of the way he guided my mindset and priorities early on in my career.
The other side of the job that Gator taught us about is what it means to be part of the brotherhood. He reminded us that it was a privilege and that just showing up in the same uniform didn’t give us automatic rights or entitlement to this tradition. He taught us to take care of one another and to always step up for a brother in need. Comaradery is something that he built between the whole crew, and I know few men like him that can bring the same type of energy to a fire company. He showed us what it meant to be the senior man, and it became very clear that your seniority number is not what made you a good senior man.
When Gators property was overun by the Black Forest fire, I knew it was time to step up and organize something that would return the favor. Gators house did survive, no one will ever no exactly how it made it. He lost a good portion of his property, his garage and horse barn, including two horses. Every single house on his entire street was completely reduced to a foundation. Gators house sits on a small portion of unburned land completely surrounded by the land that was devastated during this fire. To complicate things, this fire happened when Gator was 5 shifts away from retiring. He was beat down, discouraged, and very pessimistic about ever returning to live at his current property. He canceled the massive retirement party we had planned and was content with moving on to retirement, just like that.
This is where we knew it could not end that way. A guy like this needs a sendoff worthy of a local fire service legend.
Gator payed it forward his whole career, now it was time for him to collect. With a few emails and phone calls I witnessed a work day begin to form. The day we were going to do his retirement party had now started to develop into an all day land and tree clearing party. I began to receive so many texts and calls of people trying to RSVP that I knew it was going to be a big deal.
Brotherhood had truly arrived. WIth only a week or two notice, July 10th turned into one massive display of brotherhood and camradery that sent Gator off in the proper fashion. Over 70 of our guys showed up and from 9am until 4pm over 150 trees had been cut down, limbed, hauled, bucked and split into enough firewood to last a decade. Guys continued working until every last log had been split and stacked. We then had a BBQ and sat around telling stories and lies until late into the night, sending Gator off in proper fire service fashion.
We all know how hard it is to get this many firefighters in one spot, it is almost impossible. I can honestly tell you that I did not have to remind one single person about this day. Guys poured in one after another, dozens of chainsaws, a skid steer, 3 hydraulic splitters and an unbelievable energy among every single person that showed up. It was overwhelming to see the amount of extremly hard labor that went on all in the name of helping a brother out. I want to thank each and every person that showed up, you have done your part in keeping such a sacred tradition alive. Gator should be able to look at that group photo and recognize the type of impact he has made on our Fire Department. His legacy will carry on because of the way he has taught each one of us.
The next photo is a perfect example of how Gators impact will live on through guys he never even worked with. That is the face of brotherhood (a dirty one at that). He was one of our newest guys on the job, himself and some of his fellow new guys worked harder than I could have ever imagined, in return they were able to experience the fire service brotherhood at its finest and will remember examples like this for the rest of their careers. These new guys are what will carry on everything that guys like Gator and PJ are currently standing up for. It is how we keep this long standing characteristic of our job alive, but it only continues if you take the time to pass it on, and show brotherhood through your actions, not just by words.
This was a long winded article but I thought it was a story worth taking a few minutes to read. I am honored to have been a part of this day and very humbled and thankful to everyone in the picture below. Thank you all for repaying our brothers in a time of need and setting a fine example to the rest of the fire service during a time where the integrity of the Brotherhood seems to be questioned. Well done.
(Click on the photo for a full size picture)