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September 11, 2012
By Jay Shaw

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Sept. 11, 2012, Winnipeg – Today is the 11th anniversary of the worst fire-department tragedy in the history of the North American fire service. Here in Canada, thankfully, multiple firefighter deaths are a rare occurrence, whereas in the United States, due to many variables, they seem to occur more often. But no one can fathom 344 firefighter deaths. In fact, even with cancer rates, cardiac events and on-scene fatalities, 344 seems like an impossible number to reach.

Sept. 11, 2012, Winnipeg – Today is the 11th anniversary of the worst fire-department tragedy in the history of the North American fire service. Here in Canada, thankfully, multiple firefighter deaths are a rare occurrence, whereas in the United States, due to many variables, they seem to occur more often. But no one can fathom 344 firefighter deaths. In fact, even with cancer rates, cardiac events and on-scene fatalities, 344 seems like an impossible number to reach.

You’re probable thinking I’ve made a calculation error in attributing one more FDNY firefighter to the attacks on the World Trade Center 11 years ago, but I have not. When I went to New York for the 10-year anniversary in 2011, I met the parents of No. 344. You may remember the blogs I wrote from Manhattan, where I and two other Canadian firefighters spent five days living and breathing the FDNY, trying to understand the enormous loss. If it were financially possible, I would go every year and celebrate the lives of everyone who was murdered that morning.

The lessons learned came into perspective back home several weeks after I returned from Ground Zero. I thought long and hard about the 343 plus one, and have come to the conclusion that, while I may never truly understand the magnitude of this disaster, I can mark their sacrifice by living my life by the values they have instilled in us through the legacies that each and every one of them left behind.

So many of my non-firefighter family members and friends have called the 343 heroes, and while I understand that the idea of what we do as a career may seem heroic, as it is regularly glorified by news and movies, the truth is that firefighters are every day guys and gals who choose to live their lives guided by a set of principles. Rather than act heroic some of the time, they choose to live with the values of teamwork, compassion, dedication, hope, integrity and effort, all of the time. While you may substitute other values you feel are more fitting, the theme is the same: when tragedy strikes, we are all in this together.

The reason this is important is because you don’t need to put on a turnout coat to live your life by a set of values that guide your actions. This is evident in the many stories of civilians trapped in the Twin Towers who choose to act. None of them were firefighters but they acted and saved lives.

So when I think of the 343 plus one, I think of the values that guide my actions as a firefighter but more importantly, as a father and husband. Being a firefighter has made me a better person, and I am thankful for the lessons from fire service that I have embraced. The whole 9-11 experience has been a horrible paradox for the fire service, but I choose to believe we can grow from it and learn. For me, this means that you, your colleagues, family and friends could be that plus one as well, you just have to choose to learn and act with strong values. We are all firefighters when we choose to be. So, if you will indulge me for a moment on this anniversary, I want you to think about your values and how the fire service has shaped who you are and how you live. I bet you will find that our lifestyles and our commitment to our values, is what really makes us who we are. The coat and helmet are a nice bonus.
Watch the ESPN video, The Man In The Red Bandanna, to meet No. 344. 

Jay Shaw is a 10-year member of the Winnipeg Fire Department and is completing graduate studies in disaster and emergency management at Royal Roads University. Jay also works at the University of Manitoba as a research assistant in the Disaster Research Institute. E-mail Jay at jjrg@mymts.net.


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