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CONROE-Scores of people gathered at the Lone Star Convention Center near the Fallen Firefighters Monument on Saturday for the sixth annual Fallen Emergency Services Memorial Service.
The event, started in 2004 by Congressman Kevin Brady, was formerly known as the Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service and is held on the second Saturday of March. The ceremony and its name were recently changed to include EMS and law enforcement personnel.
Montgomery County Fire Marshal Jimmy Williams emceed the 2009 event, with former Fire Marshal Dan Welsh and Montgomery County Fire Chiefs Association President / Lake Conroe Fire Chief Leonard Mikeska as speakers.
Fallen firefighters and emergency services personnel from across the nation were remembered in the ceremony, but special reverence was paid to those from Montgomery County.
In 2008, Montgomery County lost four people.
Three perished together in the line of duty on June 8, 2008, when PHI’s Med 12 crashed into the Sam Houston National Forest, killing pilot Charles Wayne Kirby, flight nurse Jana Bishop and flight paramedic Stephanie Waters.
One active duty death occurred on Sept. 9, 2008 when Assistant Conroe Fire Chief and former Fire Marshal Will Wilkinson succumbed to cancer after a lengthy battle.
Montgomery County’s line of duty deaths from previous years were also remembered, including Gary Staley, Porter VFD, 2003;Charlie Flowers, New Caney VFD, 2003; Curtis Davidson, Montgomery County EMS, 2000; Joe Novosad, Porter VFD, 1995; Paul Skains, Lake Conroe VFD, 1976.
After each name was read by Mikeska, the traditional fire bell was rung. When the list was complete, Firecom broadcast a 7-1 radio call for the deceased.
The 7-1 tradition began before the advent of radio systems when a bell was rung seven long tones and one short tone to signal that firefighters had gone home.
The Lake Conroe Fire Department ladder truck, which is red with white and the North Montgomery County Fire Department’s ladder truck, which is blue with white, were on each side of the stage with ladders extended toward one another holding a large American flag. Williams said the colors of the two trucks were significant because together they were red white and blue.
“We look at (the ceremony) as part of a national effort to recognize fallen firefighters and EMS,” Williams said.
The Fire Marshal, who has been part of the county’s firefighting community since 1980 when he was only 18, later said the purpose of the ceremony was not only to remember lives lost, but to consider ways to reduce the number of in the line of duty deaths.
Williams began his comments with that theme.
“Our goal each day at the station is to make sure we all go home,” he said, “And that’s part of why we’re here, because not all of use each year are able to go home.”
“It is a dangerous profession,” Williams said. “Law enforcement, EMS, and the fire service are the most dangerous professions on the face of the earth.”
In the United States, over 100 firefighters are lost every year consistently. Last year, 114 firefighters died in the line of duty, which was down from 118 in 2007. The lowest number of lives lost was in 1992, when 77 firefighters died nationwide.
Williams not only presented numbers, but seized the opportunity to tell firefighters that some of the deaths were related to lifestyle, with medical conditions such as heart attack and stroke among the major causes.
“The vast majority of line of duty deaths are preventable,” he said.
Deaths due to heart attacks and motor vehicle accidents where seatbelts were not in use have reached “epidemic proportions,” Williams said. “Every department should have a policy mandating seatbelts on all responses and returning to the station.”
“Forty-four percent of line of duty deaths in 2008 were from heart attack or stroke, he said. “Trauma accounted for 47 percent of the deaths of firefighters and EMS personnel.”
Williams said the fire service has a goal of reducing the number of line of duty deaths by 25 percent in the next 5 years and by 50 percent in the next 10 years, which he believes is attainable.
Former Montgomery County Fire Marshal Dan Welsh spoke second.
“There’s no greater cost to the fire service than losing one of our own,” Welsh said. “It’s only right that we take time to remember those that we’ve lost, who volunteer for a job that most wouldn’t consider, who run toward a situation that everybody else runs from.”
Welsh spoke of bygone days when the county’s fire apparatus were nothing more than trucks with tanks welded onto the backs of them and pumps that “sometimes” worked.
“You could follow the line of water leaking from the tanker to the scene,” he said.
Uniforms in those days consisted of blue jeans, a coat for the very lucky, no boots or gloves and sometimes a helmet.
The only funding was from donations, he said, and firefighters often took money from their own pockets to fuel the trucks.
“We’ve come a long way in 47 years,” Welsh said. “Today we have first class equipment, highly trained men, and the proper gear.”
“We should not forget those who came before us.”
Chief Mikeska then stepped onto the stage and listed the number of deaths from each state, then the names of each fatality from Texas, ending with those from Montgomery County.
The ceremony ended as it began, with the mournful sound of bagpipes.
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