Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Firefighting Family

If you spend any time with firefighters, you’re bound to hear about the firefighter “family” – brother and sister firefighters bonded by a job they love, by the work they do, and by the highs and lows that come with the territory. This family often extends beyond immediate crew to fire department support staff, members of neighboring departments, and even to firefighters who have never met. When firefighters die in the line of duty, it’s common for other firefighters from across the U.S., or even from other countries, to attend the services. They provide comfort and support to the family of the fallen as well as that person’s crew and department. “Firefighters take care of their own” is the mantra, and over the past few weeks I experienced firsthand just what that means.

On April 7, my stepfather of 42 years, retired Ft. Carson F.D. captain Roy Conopask, passed away unexpectedly. Firefighter/EMTs from my own department, along with AMR paramedics, responded to the call. Despite their tremendous efforts and the exhaustion of all advanced life-saving protocols, Roy didn’t survive. (Here I must point out that none of the responders knew initially that their patient and I were related. Their efforts to save him were no less than they’d give to any other member of our community, and demonstrated a high level of professionalism.)

Roy Conopask in 2010. (Photo by R. Widmar © 2010-2015)
Through every step of the following days (which are kind of a blur at this point), firefighters and retired firefighters – both known to us and complete strangers – offered assistance with anything we needed. It was truly humbling and comforting.

Right away, the fire officer on the scene of my stepdad’s call notified our deputy chief, who stayed with my mom and me until the coroner arrived (and would have stayed longer if we’d asked, even though he had to work that day). The next afternoon, a friend Roy had worked with at FCFD came to advise us where to begin on filing notices and claims, and started to spread the word among mutual friends, retired firefighters, and active duty firefighters. A notice he posted to a Ft. Carson firefighters Facebook page garnered a number of condolence messages from firefighters Roy had worked with and mentored.

Our funeral director also happened to be a firefighter. He went above and beyond to arrange an amazing memorial service and tribute to Roy: Honor Guards from Ft. Carson F.D. and AMR. Ladder trucks from Ft. Carson F.D. and Security F.D. (with whom Roy served for several years) flying a large American flag from their extended ladders. A 1942 Seagrave parade engine from Ft. Carson. Two more fire engines and crews from Security F.D. (yes, they were on call and would have responded to any alarms that came in during the service). A bagpiper (who happened to be a paramedic I used to run calls with during my time at CSFD) to play Amazing Grace and Going Home. The traditional ringing of the bell and the last alarm roll call.

It was all pretty stunning.

Ft. Carson's 1942 Seagrave. (Photo by R. Widmar © 2015)
Prior to the services, I was trying to track down a CSFD firefighter who had previously worked with Roy. When I told the firefighter who answered the station phone why I was trying to reach that person, he immediately offered condolences and the assistance of IAFF Local 5 should we need anything. He remembered me from my time on the job years ago, but never know my stepdad, and yet he stepped up with an offer to help us because we were part of the “family.”

Like all families, the firefighting family can be dysfunctional at times. Sometimes that sense of family can be lost within larger organizations where, unlike on the TV show Cheers, everybody doesn’t know your name. But large or small, career or volunteer, the fire service is still a family that will be there whenever one of their own needs them.