By Fire Chief Paul Bourgeois
For the Arizona Local Assistance State Team (AZ LAST) and many other teams across the country, 2016 marks the 10th Anniversary of a landmark initiative by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) aimed at providing assistance and support to fire departments following the death of a firefighter. The Foundation believed the best place for fire departments to turn for help following the loss of a firefighter was within its own state or region. Therefore the NFFF launched an effort to establish “Local Assistance State Teams” in every state.
Some of the first LAST training programs were hosted at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland in 2006. The program places considerable emphasis on developing the expertise of team members in navigating the often complicated process of applying for the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit (PSOB), administered by the U.S. Department of Justice.
While the primary mission of LAST programs is to assist fire service organizations and surviving family members with successfully filing for the PSOB, the scope and range of services offered by modern-day teams has expanded through the years. Today many teams also offer expertise in funeral planning, peer and survivor support services, honor guard support, even chaplain services. Some teams also maintain and deploy utility trailers to house the myriad equipment often necessary to affect a traditional and honorable fire service funeral.
The AZ LAST is no exception to this trend. It too has broadened the range of services it offers local fire departments and over the past 10 years it’s estimated the team has responded to over 100 requests for service from Arizona fire departments. In addition to helping Arizona fire departments, the team has also been requested by a small fire department in southern California as well as a large private air ambulance company following a horrific crash and the death of two helicopter crew members in the rugged terrain of the Superstition Wilderness.
To commemorate our 10th anniversary, the Arizona Fire Chief’s Association (AFCA) debuted the Team’s new video during opening ceremonies at their annual conference in July. The video features fire chiefs from across Arizona who have utilized and benefited from the LAST team’s services. The chiefs offer heartfelt testimony to the value and importance of the Team’s work. They also speak to the technical and logistical support they received but even more so to the tremendous emotional burden that was lifted once they made the call.
Following the screening of the video, I was offered the opportunity to speak briefly about the Team’s history. I also read off the names of every team member who has contributed to our mission over the years.
When I speak about the team I often tell the story of the first call we ever responded to. It was 2007 and at that time the team consisted of only three people; Assistant Chief Pat Abel from the Golder Ranch Fire District, Assistant Chief Stuart Bishop of the Pinetop Fire Department and myself.
That first request came from the fire chief of a small combination department in rural Arizona. The chief had just learned of the off-duty death of an 18-year old reserve firefighter whom the chief had been grooming for a fire service career since he was just a young boy.
Pat Abel and I were geographically closest to the chief so we made the drive to meet with him. When we arrived we walked into the small fire station where we found the chief sitting alone at the kitchen table. Armed with extra-large three ring binders issued by the NFFF, as well as with the incredible wealth of knowledge we had recently acquired in our initial training, we sat with the fire chief awaiting his request.
After a few awkward moments we introduced ourselves as well as the intent of the never before heard of LAST program. The chief didn’t react or respond to our introduction, he simply sat quietly and allowed us to talk. Finally after the initial formalities I asked the fire chief what we could do for him.
There was a brief pause before the chief looked up and we were surprised when, with tears streaming down his face, he simply said, “I don’t even know where to begin.” It was at that moment Pat and I knew this job was going to be much different than we had anticipated. This chief was visibly overwhelmed and paralyzed by grief and he was looking to us for help!
Shocked by the emotional response from the chief, Pat and I pushed our three ring training binders aside and simply gave the chief a shoulder to cry on. When the moment was right, we sat together and talked with him about the details of the firefighter’s death and all that had transpired since. With the chief’s input, and with consideration to the family’s wishes, we formulated a plan and got to work.
Over the course of the next several days Pat and I relied on our experience managing firefighter deaths in our own organizations and did our best to help the fire chief, his department and their small town organize a befitting service complete with honor guards and a few other ceremonial elements. The work we did over those next few days was extremely rewarding and perhaps even a bit prophetic as it offered us a glimpse into the future of what this whole LAST endeavor might truly be about.
Sitting here now and reflecting on our work the past decade, I’m extremely grateful and feel honored to have been in a position to help lead and develop this team. Together we have accomplished so much. The team that humbly began with three chief officers is now over 40 members strong; consisting of firefighters and fire service professionals from across Arizona. Over the last 10 years we have helped the biggest and smallest fire departments in the state and have never denied assistance and support to anyone who’s asked.
Easily the pinnacle of our career’s was when we were asked to respond to the town of Prescott June 30, 2013 following the loss of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who were killed battling the Yarnell Hill fire in the rugged and remote mountains of central Arizona.
The magnitude of that event and the sheer work load that confronted us overwhelmed our teams capabilities and for the first time WE were the ones asking for help. Like angels answering a prayer, the NFFF responded by sending arguably two of the best LAST. Teams in the nation from Missouri and Washington State to assist us.
From the onset our teams worked in coordination to develop an organizational structure and incident action plan capable of managing this seemingly insurmountable task. Our teams operated together for the better part of nine days but it was the last five that were truly remarkable. Over the final five days of our deployment the three teams worked in concert to facilitate 19 separate firefighter funerals – five of which were held in other states. This was truly an enormous and historic effort by all teams.
Sadly, our teams made history together. We honored 19 fallen heroes and their families to a degree no one thought possible. For nearly two weeks all of us put our intense sadness, pain and confusion aside to fulfill the mission. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
I’ll never forget the final day when the last funeral was over and everyone was packing up and leaving town I sat quietly in the dark of a historic Prescott cemetery and wept. I believe many of my LAST. Team peers did the same. It was the first time any of us had been able to stop, take a breath and contemplate the deeply penetrating circumstances we had just labored through.
A few years later in 2016 the team’s future is looking bright. We recently took delivery of two new equipment trailers, bringing our Team’s fleet to a total of three. We are adding new team members and developing some depth on our bench that is sure to sustain the team well into the future. We have worked hard to be honorable, respectful and professional in all we do and through this we’ve established a reputation as a team the Arizona fire service can trust.
I wish to thank the NFFF and the AFCA for their enduring support over our 10 year history. We have a proud past and a bright future and we could not have done it without their support. I hope you enjoy our latest video. I believe it captures the essence of LAST. Teams across the country. Our story and the impact we’ve made on our state fire service is a story that is replicated in every state that has an active LAST program. We are extremely proud to be part of this amazing organization and on behalf of every member of our team – thank you for the opportunity to serve.