A Personal Reflection: Lessons in service from those who fight fires

By Deacon Rob Embry
Guest Columnist

The alarm screams. The lights rend the darkness. The voice of the dispatcher is insistent: “Engine 14, Rescue 14. Traffic injury. Pinned occupant in Firebox 1401 at …” The voice is lost to you as you jump into your shoes and race for the truck bay. A quick glance at your watch shows 3:13 a.m. You jump in the back of the rescue truck and are off in a roar of lights and sirens.
For nearly three years now I have served as a volunteer chaplain with the Austin Fire Department. In stations in all parts of the city I have talked with firefighters, joked with firefighters, prayed with firefighters, spent the night with firefighters, and ridden with firefighters. The initial awe and respect I felt for these men and women has only deepened as I have spent time with them. 
As I have watched them work and listened to their stories, I have had my eyes opened not only to the work they do but how it sheds light on what I do as a deacon, an ordained minister of the church, and on what the church as a whole does as it engages with the lost, the poor, the hopeless, the marginalized and the ornery. The fire service is above all service, and we who serve Our Lord “who came not be served but to serve” can learn from their experience.
Serving is a calling
Most of the firefighters I know could be something else. Many have advanced degrees, some in more than one field. Others, in their off time run successful businesses. Many do double duty as trainers both for the fire department and other safety related business. They volunteer in their kids’ schools, at their churches, and on their neighborhood sports teams. Not one of the many firefighters I have talked to would consider not being a firefighter. Their desire to help people is too strong.
St. Paul describes his own vocation: “If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!” (1 Cor 9:16). I am by calling and ordination a deacon, one who serves Christ and his church. I can do no other, for the call is ever present and insistent. Each of us who is baptized and confirmed has received our own calling. The task God sets before us as the path of discipleship we are to walk is a task no one else can fulfill. May each of us find our calling, and begin to walk in it!
People deserve respect
Firefighters serve their fellow citizens. Sometimes these citizens are in life-threatening danger. Sometimes they are in compromising and embarrassing situations. From an older man undergoing cardiac arrest to a drunk sleeping peacefully in a planter on Sixth Street, the firefighters I have ridden with have been unfailingly courteous, respectful, gentle and sensitive in approaching anyone who needs help.
Jesus said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners,” (Mk 2:17). Jesus did not stop to ask if those he came to save deserved his effort. As we minister to those in jail or in the hospital, or as we ride with Mobile Loaves and Fishes or do a St. Vincent de Paul visit, each person, we minister to is a child of God made in his image and is deserving of the same dignity and respect we want for ourselves and our own family.
Be creative and flexible
I am continually amazed at the creativity and sheer invention fire fighters display in approaching the challenges they face. I have watched them experiment with over the counter tools to find a more effective way to free a pinky trapped in a piece of equipment. I have listened to them replay the specifics of a fire or accident to figure out how they need to change procedures to make it better the next time. Some have even invented their own “from scratch” tools that earned a spot in the arsenal of firefighting.
St. Paul admonishes us, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good,” (1 Th 5:19-21). The life breath of the church is the Holy Spirit who moves us and guides us and inspires us and challenges us to find new ways, new means to proclaim the Gospel in word and action. May we call on the Holy Spirit to make us more creative and flexible in building the kingdom.
Teamwork is required
As firefighters work and as they train, it is evident that what makes them effective is teamwork. Everyone has a specific job and responsibility. And each firefighter is responsible for covering their buddy’s back. More often than not, when someone forgets that and strikes out alone, that is when something bad happens.
If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Cor 12:15-17).
Ministry in the church is always collaborative. No one of us has all the gifts necessary to bring God’s kingdom in power, even to our own little corner. We require the gifts, the talents, the discernment, the wisdom of those linked to us in the Body of Christ so that it may build itself up in love. (Eph 4:16)
The ultimate sacrifice
Jesus said “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:28) The ultimate act of his service was to die on the cross for our salvation. Every firefighter knows that there is the possibility that going into a burning house to search for victims could be the last thing he or she does. Yet they do it because it is the only way to accomplish the mission.  
Just so with each of us. Any parent knows that taking care of a family means sacrifice and putting aside for a time our own personal needs and wants. Taking care of those who come to the church hurting, in need and in trouble also requires that same willingness to lose one’s life for Christ’s sake and that of the Gospel to save it. 
I am awed and humbled to be allowed to ride with these men and women. They inspire me to strive to serve more as a deacon. May God’s blessing be upon them and his angels ride with them as they put themselves at risk for those they are called to serve. 
Deacon Rob Embry was ordained in 1987. He currently serves St. Louis, King of France Parish in Austin.