Editorial: We mourn as one

The Patriot Ledger

It was a classy and caring act by the New York Yankees Thursday to have a moment of silence before the game against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium for fallen Boston firefighters Paul Cahill and Warren Payne along with two New York firefighters who died last month.

What it showed is the universal reverence and respect as well as the personal grief we share for firefighters who go to their jobs everyday despite the knowledge they may not return home at the end of the shift.

Cahill, a father of three who lived in Scituate, and Payne, a former Canton resident who had two teenage sons, did what they were paid to do, what they were asked to do and, by all accounts, what they wanted to do and what everyone said they were very good at ñ their jobs.

We all can say when we leave our houses, there is no guarantee any of us will make it home. But that is a matter of randomness that has little relation to the jobs we perform. Whether it’s sitting at a desk typing editorials, pouring drinks behind a bar, checking the pulse of a patient or teaching children to read and write, few day-to-day jobs present the type of risks faced by public safety workers.

According to the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, more than 3,400 firefighters have died on-duty between 1976 and 2006. The injuries are countless. In 2005 alone, some 80,000 firefighters were injured on the job, roughly half of them during fireground operations.

Firefighting as an occupation is consistently among the top 10 for risk of fatality, averaging roughly 19 deaths per 100,000 firefighters.

And yet 1.1 million firefighters around the country, including roughly 23,000 here in Massachusetts, go to work every day knowing that when they are called to perform their jobs, their lives are on the line.

When someone joins the military and goes off to war, there is an understanding their lives are at risk but it is because they battle an enemy who wants to kill them.

Police officers who die in the line of duty are often in the midst of dealing with criminals who will do almost anything to avoid being arrested.

But firefighters lives are in the hands of fate. It is imbedded in their DNA, it seems, to rush into a burning wooden structure because a child might be trapped, their own safety be damned. It is the fickle nature of flames and the forces that feed it that determines who lives and who dies.

And, as in the case of Cahill and Payne, no one can predict when a three-ton rooftop air conditioner will come crashing through the ceiling and trap them.

Unlike when a police officer or a soldier dies in the line of duty, there is often not a bad guy to point the finger at or demand retribution. There is anger, there may be some violations that were uncorrected, but it is the blaze, not a person, that causes the death and part of the anger stems from the fact we don’t know who to be angry with because there is often nobody to blame.

Perhaps it is because of our connection to the local firefighter that we feel their pain when one of their ranks dies. Few of us do not know a firefighter, that friendly face who waves as they sit around the station house waiting for the next alarm to ring.

They are our neighbors, they open their trucks and firehouses to our children for tours, they freely give directions to lost travelers. And they save our properties and our lives far, far more often than not.

Year in and year out, cities and towns battle with budget cuts and unfortunately, public safety takes hits the same as other municipal departments, leaving their ranks a little thinner and more at risk.

We debate such issues as the cancer presumption bill and full disability when a firefighter is injured on the job.

These are reasonable and rational debates to have but at a time like this, let’s remember it’s only money.

For the families of Paul Cahill and Warren Payne and all firefighters who have died protecting us, we mourn as one.