EMBREE, NL – Over the years Reverend Arthur Elliott has been the guest speaker at countless firefighter banquets throughout the region.
He continued that tradition for the Embree Fire Department on Jan. 20 as he spoke about the cost and the benefits of wearing a firefighter helmet.
Elliott noted that since 1886 there have been 66 different designs for a firefighter helmet. They range from a battle helmet shape, to a top hat, to something that resembles a chamber pot.
Today’s helmets are referred to as modern structural helmets and are designed to protect the firefighter wearing it from falling timbers, exploding glass, flying flankers and pretty much anything a firefighter might encounter on the scene.
Elliott noted the helmet he was holding was made of thermal plastic and other composite materials, made to withstand, to be useable, protective and endurable. The cost – about $225-$250.
But Elliott wasn’t there to talk about the dollars and cents related to a firefighter helmet.
“I am here tonight rather to speak to you about the human cost of this hat and the benefits that come from the privilege of wearing it. . . every fireman in this building will wear their helmet with commitment and with pride.”
Elliott noted that underneath each helmet is a volunteer.
“No one twisted your arm to say you have to be a fireman,” he said. “No one laid a guilt trip on you, saying, ‘It would be a shame if you didn’t accept this responsibility.’
“This is a responsibility and a helmet you wear because you wanted to do it for yourself, for your neighbours, for your friends, for your community.”
Elliott’s definition of volunteerism is, “something that a person does – makes a sacrifice – in order to do some good to other people.”
He noted this province has a long line of people who give of themselves in sacrificial service.
“This helmet stands as a symbol for all the people in all volunteer organizations throughout our respective communities who give of their time and services in volunteer work,” Elliott said. “You are a volunteer. Among all the volunteers and the all the sacrificial acts that people give, standing tall among them all is the volunteer fire department.”
Elliott noted that in Newfoundland and Labrador there are 6,000 firefighters. Of those 6,000 only 200 firefighters are paid. He added that 90 per cent of all fires on the North American continent are fought by volunteer firefighters.
“You are among that group,” he told those gathered, “and when you consider Embree – your fire department in a small town on the northeast coast of Newfoundland – you are a part of an international organization, and I wouldn’t argue for one moment that you are at the center of the firefighting universe.”
Elliott spoke of the helmet and the commitment firefighters make to wear it, whether it be meetings, planning, training (physical and courses), political representation and more.
The commitment also comes from the families of firefighters.
“The time you spend away from them, the time you are off at the fire hall, the time you are out on exercises and all the other things that you do, their worry when you attend to a fire – all this is part of the cost of wearing this helmet,” he said.
The cost also comes through what firefighters may see and have to deal with when responding to fire scenes and emergencies.
Elliott recalled being at a local fire hall where the department had experienced the loss of a woman and three children in a house fire.
“I saw their frustration,” he said. “I saw their pain that night. I saw them struggle for words to really assess and comprehend what they had seen. I saw their tears – I really did.
“It was in part, not because of what they saw, but because of the fact that in spite of everything they could do, they basically could do nothing. I shared in their pain, I shared in their frustration and that was part of the cost.”
During the local response to Sept. 11, 2001, one of the guests staying with Elliott had received word that her son-in-law, a reporter for Newsweek magazine, went into the towers of the World Trade Center with the firemen and neither they nor he came back.
“I hope and pray to God that you never have to experience anything closely resembling that, but from time to time, even on a more minor scale, you do experience it, and that is part of the cost – the emotional cost that you pay,” he said.
Elliott spoke about the fire chief in Baie Verte who described the conditions while responding to a recent fire at the Transportation depot there. He talked about the freezing cold, frostbite, wild winds, struggling with equipment in those conditions and going door-to-door telling people they had to leave to escape the poisonous smoke incurred by burning plastic.
“He was speaking for every firefighter in that department and he was registering the cost it takes to wear this particular helmet,” he said. “The cost sometimes can be very, very heavy – very demanding.
“But you do it – why do you do it? Because the community is counting on your loyalty, the community is counting on your presence, the community in counting on your expertise, the community is counting on your training, the community is counting on you to be there for them.”
While the cost of wearing the helmet are great, there are also considerable benefits.
“You have the burden of a great responsibility but more than anything else you have the privilege of saying to yourself, ‘I went out, not just on behalf of myself – but I went out on behalf of the community that I serve, and I did my best and I am proud of what I did,” Elliott said. “This helmet represents the deep internal satisfaction that you must have when you go out to serve, as only firemen can serve in your community.”
In closing Elliott referenced a line from a poem, “Mark me as one who loves his fellow man.”
As he touched a firefighters’ helmet he said, “This my friends is a great symbol of real people who love their fellow man.”