Our Rituals

By: Christopher Brennan


Thousands of Firefighters from the Chicago Area and around the country participated in one of our timeless rituals, the laying to rest of a fallen Brother. FF/PM Christopher Wheatley, Chicago Fire Department, Truck Co. 2 fell from a ladder while fighting a fire August 9th. When I arrived at the funeral home yesterday to pay my respects I was humbled but not surprised that it took two hours to make way from the back of the line to his casket, salute him, and pay my respects to his family.

I didn’t know Chris, but as is so common in our trade we have mutual friends and acquaintances. From everything that I have heard he was an amazing guy who loved being a firefighter. One thing that struck me in looking at the hundreds of photos his family had put together is that he had a genuine love for life. I did not see a single photo where he did not have a huge smile on his face.

FF/PM Wheatley’s Funeral had an amazing turnout of Brother and Sister Firefighters.

Photo Copyright Tim Olk, 2010

Paying our respects to one of our fallen is a ritual that we do well. Many members volunteer countless hours to be members of Honor Guard Organizations or Pipe and Drum Bands. They train and prepare to render tribute to our honored dead. It is a noble service they provide.

While the Line of Duty Death Wake and Funeral are not the only Fire Service Rituals they are certainly the most well know. The purpose of the ritual is to give our Brothers and Sisters a chance to grieve, reflect, and honor. The ritual itself is a thing of beauty, as all things are.

Rituals are important for the human psyche, which is why we have created them for longer than history exists. Ritual provides a backdrop for our brains to set-aside the day to day thoughts, concerns, and distractions so that we can concentrate on important matters in a reverent way.

We can be speaking of a Church Service, a Symphony, or the way a chef goes about preparing a meal. A teacher and scholar I had the joy of learning from, Issac Bonewits (who also passed away this week), has said that ritual is an ordered sequence of events designed to bring about an altered state of consciousness.

Do you have rituals that you follow everyday you are at the firehouse, or when you are getting on the rig for a call, or do you have routines? There are people who use these words interchangeably. They are not synonymous however, for one is about approaching a task with reverence and the other about checking a box on a form. A ritual is “an established or prescribed procedure for a religious or other rite.” A routine is “regular, unvarying, habitual, unimaginative, or rote procedure.” There is a very different state of mind involved when you approach a task as ritual, than when you approach it as routine. Are you like the professional pitcher who always puts his left sock on first? Do you always perform your rig check in the same order? Do you report the same pieces of information for every size-up? The human mind likes order, we like sequences and patterns. This is why the pattern matching that is a critical component of Recognition Primed Decision Making works so well. It’s also why many people are challenged by a rapidly changing situation that does not match up to their expected outcomes. Most of people do things the same way every time out of routine. For the Fire Service Warrior routine, mundane acts, take on the form of Ritual, and in doing so become part of being in the Ready Position.

Firefighting should be an altered state of consciousness. Preparing for your shift should be done with the same attention to detail a minister gives in preparing to preach. The alert of the station alarm, or the pager on your belt, should mentally trigger your understanding that something outside of your normal existence is about to occur; like the swelling of an orchestra during Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. If you ever find yourself having to call a MAYDAY it should be with the same sense of calm heard in the voice of “Sully” as he guided his aircraft into the Hudson.

In religious rituals the sound of the organ music, the lighting of candles, and the invocations of the celebrant are sub-conscious triggers that tell your brain that something “special” is going on. Those triggers are imbued with sacred meanings that are supposed to cause your mind to focus and set aside the “unimportant” thoughts. That initial dispatch should be the same thing. That should be the trigger that shuts off your thoughts about the fight you had with your spouse, how your kid is doing in school, and even of your parent who is dying in a hospital bed. You can come back to those thoughts later. They are important, but they are completely irrelevant right now. To be a Fire Service Warrior, you must approach each day with a focus. Whether we are cleaning tools, presenting a public education class, treating an asthma attack, or fighting a structure fire we owe it to ourselves and to our neighbors, our “customers” if you prefer, to be 100% present in the moment. Why? We have a sacred duty to protect society. The initial dispatch should trigger your mind to focus on the task at hand. Learning to do this can be challenging though. We all get consumed in our thoughts. Learning to flip a switch to shut out those other concerns will come only with practice.

Embrace your rituals and use them to guide you. As we say farewell to FF/PM Chris Wheatley another ritual is going on in Detroit. Family members, and Brothers and Sisters are at the bedsides of six brothers who were injured in a building collapse earlier today. One of their number is in very critical condition. Keep him in your thoughts and prayers. Be Safe.

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