BOISE — Toward the end of the Idaho Fallen Firefighter Memorial Ceremony on Friday, the cry of a siren rang out over the bagpipes and drums, accompanied by the harsh blare of a horn, as an engine sped out of the parking lot near a memorial to fallen firefighters off the Boise River.
The scene fit with some of the themes of the ceremony — especially those of duty and sacrifice — but it wasn’t scripted. A crew had to leave the formalities to respond.
“That wasn’t planned,” Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan told the crowd assembled at the memorial, in the 1700 block of West Shoreline Drive. “They’re actually going to a water rescue.”
It was a reminder of the reality of the job at the center of the ceremony.
Friday marked the 11th annual Idaho Fallen Firefighter Memorial Ceremony, and it featured appearances from firefighters from across the state. It took place at the Idaho Fallen Firefighter Memorial Park, which includes a wall engraved with the names of every Idaho firefighter who died in the line of duty since 1894.
To date, the wall bears 24 names from 17 departments. Doan, along with Dave O’Connor of the Idaho Fallen Firefighter Foundation, alternated reading the names on the wall aloud. After each name, a member of the ceremony’s honor guard — made up of firefighters from various departments — stepped forward and placed a red rose at the base of the park’s brass sculpture depicting firefighters. By the end of the reading, a small pile of roses had grown there.
“This is a sacred place for the friends, family, brothers and sisters of all those we lost,” said Tyler Roundtree of the Idaho Fallen Firefighter Foundation.
Speakers said while the park is a place to remember firefighters who died in the line of duty, ideally no more names would have to be engraved on the memorial’s stone.
The most recent firefighter death mentioned during the ceremony was that of Brandon Erickson, an Eagle firefighter who died in November 2013. Absent from the list was Boise’s Charlie Ruffing, who died by suicide in May. That wasn’t because he was overlooked. Depending on when a firefighter dies, he or she might not be included in the ceremony for that year, said Char Jackson, Boise Fire Department spokeswoman. The foundation has to organize the addition of a name to the wall, and sometimes that can take time. She said Ruffing would be included in next year’s ceremony.
Ruffing had been in treatment for post-traumatic stress injury prior to his death, and many at his funeral in June spoke about the need to end the stigma in the first responder community associated with seeking help for the condition. It was something Coeur d’Alene Fire Department Chief Kenny Gabriel mentioned Friday during his address.
Gabriel said he’s seen a change in attitude even in the course of his own career. He remembered a time when it was considered a weakness to wear a breathing apparatus in a fire, or when firefighters would ride an engine’s tailboard as it drove down the street, waving to passersby. A change in those attitudes has made firefighters safer, and that needs to continue — although he repeated the adage the fire service is “100 years of tradition unimpeded by one day of change.”
“We’re trying to build this culture of safety where we no longer have to ... put names on this wall,” Gabriel said.
Today, he said, firefighters are dying more commonly of cancer and stroke and heart attack — the cumulative effect of a life spent fighting fire and running into emergency situations. He’s also seen firefighters on roadways struck by distracted drivers, something more common today than in the past.
But there is a mental component to the job as well, he said.
“What we see is cumulative as well,” Gabriel said. “We have to treat our firefighters the way we can so they never end up here.”