A Facebook video of a funeral procession involving fire apparatus is making the rounds this morning, and aside from the obvious (which has been covered in the comments of the original post), this presents yet another good example of some of the battles that fire departments (and other safety agencies) have to fight that involve no flames. Who would expect a funeral procession for one of our brothers or sisters to be something that someone in the public would balk at? And yet it happens.
As Patrick McNally of the The Daily Undertaker explains,
The word funeral actually comes from the latin word for torchlight procession, the traditional ancient rite, the main event, the respectful and ceremonious transport of a person to their place of rest. This is the final journey, the last walk a family takes with their loved one, the ‘second line’ of the Jazz funeral, and it is both symbolic and healing. The procession is a public expression and enactment of the love, respect, loss of a loved one that allows both family and friends to participate. It is an opportunity for the residents of a town to witness this expression of love and respect.
Funeral processions involving fire apparatus are a department’s way of showing respect as an organization — as the entity, not as individuals. With our proverbial torches lit from the rooftops, grills, and fenders of our chariots, we respectfully and ceremoniously transport a loved one to their place of rest. However, some apparently do not understand why an organization would honor and pay respects, as the entity, to those individuals who have shared a passion for their community — and for the community’s well-being. On the converse of funerals and the showing of respect for those who have passed, we also have those who do not condone the use of community resources in a celebratory manner.
We have recently seen people at odds with firefighters participating in various community activities,Â as well as running errands and doing daily operations within the community — activities that most people would consider benign in nature. Who knows what the real motivation is for some of these opinions? We may not agree, but nonetheless, they are opinions we need to at least be aware of when we choose how we conduct non-emergency functions within our areas.
While some public relations challenges are to be expected, do you ever expect a good will or public service activity to be criticized? The person who posted this video comments critically not only about the use of emergency vehicles for funeral processions, but also the use of public resources in the celebration of community events and achievements. I have read and heard varying opinions on these activities, and my biggest question is this: If your department is criticized for a similar activity, are you prepared to react to it in a professional manner?
In my own community, our department regularly utilizes apparatus in public service activities and good will celebrations. This has been the practice for many, many years. It is not something any of our current personnel just recently instituted. Do most people in the community appreciate it? Without a doubt. Is there a financial expenditure to conduct these activities? Yes. But it also costs money to drive these vehicles on regular maintenance runs, to go to our day-care centers for fire prevention week activities, to direct traffic or park vehicles for non-fire community events, and to clear trees from roadways after a storm passes. What about participation in community parades that are a part of local festivals or holiday commemorations? Are these activities an intelligent use of community resources? The best way to combat criticisms is to be prepared to explain the viable return on investment for these community activities. We are not just out joyriding or using a piece of community property in an irresponsible manner.
So, are you prepared to explain the positives to those who may not readily see why this benefits the community? Here are a number of benefits that we can point to…
- Public safety — One particular impromptu parade in our community occurred after our local high school won a state sports championship in Indianapolis. As the entourage returned to our community (an hour drive) for a celebration at our high school, the parade itself grew in length to eventually be over 7 miles long. Even for those who think this shouldn’t warrant having a fire truck in the parade, purely from the public safety aspect, emergency vehicles participating in this event assisted with maintaining the speed and control of a sudden influx of traffic. There were no injuries or mishaps, and participants adhered to the directions of authorities. As for local funerals, as a department in a smalltown / rural area, we have a working relationship with our local funeral directors, and they contact us to assist with traffic control and escort for anyone they feel will benefit from additional lighting and personnel. This reduces the risk for traffic accidents and provides additional safety for the family and friends of the decedent. This is not limited only to fire departments, but also to our local law enforcement agencies.
- Recruitment and retention — This is one of the biggest benefits for any small or rural community, especially when the residents depend on volunteers. Most volunteer departments do not have people lined up at the door waiting to join, so recruitment activities are critical to maintaining adequate staffing levels. What better PR activity than for the community members to see their resources in action in a professional, respectful manner? Not only that, but they see their firefighters involved in an activity that makes them proud as individuals. And that in turn encourages them to be a part of that organization. It’s a win-win for the community and the department. Don’t think for once that having fire trucks escort school bus loads of local kids is a waste of time when it comes to stirring their interest in eventually joining the fire department.
- Training — Any time spent behind the wheel of a vehicle, especially when operating in unique conditions, challenges the driver to become more familiar with that piece of equipment and learn more about the behavior of other drivers.
- Maintenance and operation of equipment — While there are likely some individuals who think the equipment should never leave the building unless there’s a fire, we all know that our equipment needs to be operated to ensure proper maintenance and reliability. By operating emergency equipment in a non-emergency activity, we have the opportunity to better observe for any deficiencies or needed repairs.
Beyond the obvious respect and gratitude being displayed through these activities, what’s the point? Sure, the department may gain any or all of the bullet points above, which arguably benefits the community, but what does this cost the community financially? Staffing typically costs nothing more than a community would already be paying for on-duty personnel — and in a volunteer situation, there would be no personnel costs. As for vehicle costs, if you consider one department with 5 pieces of apparatus, driving a 10 mile round-trip, at the IRS mileage rate of 57.5 cents per mile, the community’s total expenses for this effort are less than $30. Even increasing that to $1 per mile, the total investment is $50.
What would it cost someone in the community who has an accident during a parade or funeral detail where traffic control was not provided? And where can you buy a 30-second radio commercial or a newspaper advertisement for recruitment or fire education purposes — and spend less than $50? Add in the fact that my local department relies heavily on donations made by those in the community, most of whom would be very disappointed if the fire department discontinued these community activities.
In fact, I would go so far as saying that many in our particular community expect these activities as services — almost as much as they expect us to come put out the fires.
On a final note, our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and brothers/sisters of Chief Mark Farren, of the Colo, Iowa fire department, whose procession is referenced above.