A Message From the ISFSI President: Pete Van Dorpe

Greetings sisters and brothers:

Summer came and went in a flash. I am sure many of you have been extra-busy getting kids back to school, or set up for home schooling, and making the other transitions that go with the change of the season. The approach of fall has been a somber time for me for many years both personally and professionally. I am very fortunate that most of my immediate family is still with us, but those that we have lost we lost in the fall. Of course, since 2001 we have the added grief of what happened on September 11th.

I sat down to put together my contribution to this month’s newsletter on September 11, 2020, the 19th anniversary of those events. What follows is not newly written, but it is in my own words and it helps me process the grief that comes with the anniversary of 9-11 to revisit them on each anniversary and update my thoughts and feelings. If you chose to continue reading, please accept my thanks for indulging me.

Personally, I have always struggled with our country’s tendency to lump together important dates like Veteran’s Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day, etc. and now Patriot’s Day, with the more traditional “holidays”. Holidays are built around celebration. While there are things to celebrate about the others I mentioned, (i.e. we may choose to say we are “celebrating” our veterans’ service, or the way we came together on September 11, 2001) I often think we “doth protest too much” (sorry Will). The circumstances and events that led to our marking these days upon our calendars were the result of a profound and often protracted failure of the civilized affairs of mankind. We make a pact with our fellowman by giving up (willingly in a republic) a portion of our freedoms as sentient men and women in order to maintain a measure of security, so that our most fundamental rights are preserved. Events such as September 11th are a breakdown of that pact and represent the most fundamental miscarriage of justice conceivable. Surely such an event should forevermore be remembered for what it was, and I should very much hope it never comes and goes without at least a moment’s reflection on how easily all we take for granted can simply be taken away.

It was just a few weeks after the events of that day that the phrase, “We will never forget”, began appearing on T-shirts, buttons, emblems, etc. In the years following, it has become the watchword for that day, especially within the fire service. It is emblazoned on our apparatus and hangs on our walls. We pass by these words several times each day that we come to work. Do we see them anymore? If so, do they mean anything to us anymore? Every September 11th I try to set aside a few moments to recall that day and how it impacted me both at the moment and in the days, weeks and months that followed. I spent a short time at the WTC site and many days attending wakes and funerals. In the years that followed I have made many friends on the FDNY. For them, a part of every day is September 12th, the day that the magnitude of their loss set in. They truly cannot ever forget.

This year I ask that you join me in taking some time to ask yourself what it means to “never forget”. Is it enough to have an annual ceremony? Is one moment of silence out of the millions of moments that make up a year a sufficient remembrance? What is the purpose of that sticker on the apparatus or that plaque on the wall? Did we put it there for others to see, or for ourselves? I must admit that I often look at them without a second thought. However; I do make an effort, especially at this time of year, to use them as a signpost planted in the middle of my daily path that is asking me to pause and think a moment about my chosen vocation and whether or not I am living up to the oath I took when I started. Not just the literal oath, but the symbolic one as well. We pledge to put others before ourselves. Each of the 343 brethren we lost that day had an opportunity to leave those buildings before they came down. All chose to stay. What would those we lost have to say to us if they could have one moment to teach us a lesson? What would they ask us to do differently, better, safer?

The impact that day has on me has evolved over time. These days whenever I see the words, “We will never forget”, I am reminded of the obligation we have to live up to legacy of all those that came before us and sacrificed in order to build this thing we call the fire service. What we do is special, different, important, worthy. It is the greatest job in the world, but only because our predecessors made it that way. It didn’t arise of itself and it won’t preserve or maintain itself. It is up to us to preserve and maintain it and we will fail miserably unless we dedicate some part of each and every day to making certain that both our thoughts and our actions are consistent with the mission of the fire service as a whole as well as that of the ISFSI. It is the most solemn of obligations and that, above all things, is what we must never forget.

In our roles as firefighters and paramedics I would wager that we seldom see ourselves as providing the ‘security’ part of homeland security. We speak of the fire service and talk about service levels, safety, assistance, help, and the like. Those services are, however, every bit as much a part of our community’s security as the thin blue line provided by our police, and the guard kept upon “the wall” by our armed forces. The services you provide and the sacrifices you make are part of the most essential aspect of that “pact of civilization” our free society is so wholly dependent upon. Communities are free to go about the socialization and achievement and accomplishment of modern society only when they are assured of their safety and security. Perhaps that community seldom takes the time to seek you out and say, “thank you”, but there can be no doubt that they know and understand and appreciate the service you provide them.

How can I speak so assuredly? What insight do I enjoy that you are denied? None. Not a wit. BUT, I did have the privilege of being able to stand around and watch (in NIMS it’s called “command and control” – but in plain English it’s called watching) while others did the work during much of my career. What I watched was a group of dedicated men and women who “showed up” in the best possible sense of the phrase, wherever and whenever their community needed them. We are currently experiencing the most troubling of troubling times our generation has ever experienced. People desperately need to know that someone is looking out for them, taking care of them, and interested in their well-being. When they see you, the world’s fire service, they know that they are safe and that they can go on with their lives, that they can and will get through this. Like it or not, you are your community’s heroes. Once again you are there when they need you. Once again you are meeting and exceeding their expectations. Thank you!

Keep safe and keep well!

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