Today, May 4, is International Firefighters Day, a day marked around the world in honor of firefighters and first responders, especially those lost in the line of duty. The Arkansas community in which I have lived for many years is still mourning the recent loss of a thirty-plus-year firefighter, Captain Donald Jones, who was killed while responding to a vehicle accident. Tragically, his death was not an accident. Allegedly (the case has not yet come to trial), a man deliberately drove into a group of responders, killing Captain Jones and critically injuring another firefighter and a police officer. Today we remember Captain Jones, and the 343 firefighters who died on 9/11, and those many others who died in the line of duty around the world, often with very little public acknowledgement. According to the latest figures I could find, 90 died in the U.S. alone in 2009 and 87 in 2011. Every day firefighters (and other first responders such as hazardous materials teams, EMTs and police officers) across the U.S. and the world put their own lives at risk to protect the lives and property of others.
Firefighters are a close community. One of my husband’s best friends since boyhood is a longtime local firefighter who worked with Captain Jones. When our friend’s son died in a car accident, we saw his firefighting family rally around him. They were the ones who broke the news to him, who stayed with him and his wife and daughter, who later established a scholarship in their son’s memory. We were deeply touched by that fellowship. My husband and I live outside the city limits, and our home is protected by a volunteer fire department. Nearly every day we see the truck and/or ambulance from the nearby station speed past with lights flashing and sirens sounding, and we know that they are rushing to the aid of someone in crisis. We have met several of our volunteer firefighters and EMTs and we know that we can depend on them to respond if we need them.
Several years ago, I wrote two connected books about two firefighter heroes (IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU and VALENTINE BABY), and of course I turned to my husband’s friend for research. He patiently answered questions, then gave me a resource to call for more information in the fire department of the northwest Arkansas city where I’d set the story. I still remember my call to that helpful and humorous firefighter — especially his laughter in response to my first question to him: “Um, what are you wearing?”
Between now and Labor Day, firefighters across the country will stand at intersections and shopping centers with boots to be filled with donations for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The International Association of Firefighters is the single largest sponsor of MDA, raising more than $450 million since 1954. If you see one of those firefighters spending time off to raise funds to fight muscular dystrophy, ALS and other related diseases, please stuff a dollar or two — or a few coins, whatever you can give — into the boot.
Today, and everyday, I thank the men and women who serve as first responders, and remember the ones who gave their lives for others.