Eleven years ago, the Amarillo Fire Department was forever changed. Eleven years ago we wept, we hoped for good news, and we prayed. We prayed and hoped that the brother, who was now living on life support, would somehow return to us. The hours slowly passed, and those changes never happened. Brian Hunton fell from Amarillo Fire Department Ladder 1, on April 23, 2005, and passed away on April 25, 2005. Eleven years ago, we grieved the loss of Brian and looked for the answers to ensure this tragedy would never happen to us again.
Ladder 1 was called to a structure fire on Polk Street the evening of April 23rd; this would be Brian’s last alarm. As the truck left the station, Brian was standing up in the cab. He was getting his turnout gear and SCBA donned; preparing (like he had done numerous times before) to arrive on-scene and be ready to go to work. As Ladder 1 made a right hand turn on to 3rd Street, the rear door opened, and Brian lost his balance. Brian fell out of the truck and struck the back of his head on the roadway. He was rushed to Northwest Texas Hospital, where he died two days later.
The day of Brian’s funeral was surreal. He was laid to rest in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas. The funeral precession was truly amazing. Motorcycles, fire apparatus, and cars lined up as far as you could see down I-27. The interstate was lined for 120 miles with on-lookers, and uniformed personnel paying their respects to this 27-year-old Firefighter, who was killed in the line of duty. In Lubbock, apparatus were fitted with black mourning shrouds and staged outside of the church. Fire, EMS, and law enforcement personnel from all over the country were there to support the Hunton family and Brian’s fire service family. The funeral service was filled with stories and tears. The bagpipes played, ladders were tip-to-tip, and our fallen brother was laid to rest with as much honor, respect and dignity that any one person could ever hope. But what would be the lasting effect of Brian’s death? Could we change? Were we even willing to change?
We did change. The members of the Amarillo Fire Department did not accept the old theories of “firefighting is just dangerous sometimes” or “safety makes us slow”. Instead, the members made the commitment to change their culture. We started wearing our seatbelts – ALWAYS. We began to view safety as an integral part of our processes, rather than a hurdle that we had to jump. And we started to have real discussions about how to be better; how to operate more safely and efficiently, and how to give the absolute best customer service to those we serve; while still keeping our own safety as a priority. Seatbelts were only the starting point; as we have continually accepted the cultural change necessary to improve our department and most importantly – ourselves. We have implemented new tactics such as “coordinated PPV” and “transitional attacks”. Our incident commanders put a premium on having an available Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) and increased our standard response to a structure fire from 3 trucks to 4. Riding on the outside of an apparatus is a thing of the past. We now acknowledge the hard facts about the staggeringly high firefighter cancer rates and are working toward limiting our exposure to the substances that are believed to be its cause. Some may argue that Brian’s death had little to do with these changes. But the fire service culture can be hard to change, and we have readily accepted many changes in the way we do things since Bran’s death. Many believe this event was the catalyst.
Brian’s death has also made an everlasting mark on the whole fire service. In 2006, the National Fire Academy and Dr. Burton Clark created the National Seatbelt Pledge. The story of Brian’s death has been told to nearly every student at the National Fire Academy (NFA) over the past ten years. Every NFA student is given the opportunity to sign this pledge that states, “I am making this pledge willingly; to honor Brian Hunton, my brother firefighter, because wearing seat belts is the right thing to do.” Over 150,000 firefighters nationwide, have signed this pledge that honors our brother. The signed pledge, bearing the names of the membership of the Amarillo Fire Department, proudly hangs inside AFD’s Central Fire Station today. In the early morning hours of February 1, 2008, our department was rewarded by our new-found safety culture. Engine 6 was involved in an accident that resulted in the truck rolling onto its top. All four members of that crew were wearing their seatbelts and were thus left unharmed.
Brian’s death is a tragedy that has helped redefine the AFD. We will continue to honor Brian, and his memory, by being a safety-conscious department. We will continue to learn, continue to grow, and continue to be the absolute best fire department we can be. We will pass on the ideas of this culture to our newer, younger members. And we will never forget our fallen brother who makes us better.
Stay Sharp, Stay Safe
John 15:13 Greater love hath no man than he who will give up his life for a friend.
Firefighters, all too often, may lose their lives protecting the lives of total strangers.
Michael Siefker was first introduced to me about 10 years ago as one of the instructors in my fire & ARFF academy. In April, 2015 he will become a retiree of the Amarillo Fire Department in the panhandle of Texas.
What made you want to become a Firefighter?
Since being a little kid, I have always aspired to do something that would help or assist others. I thought about being a Pediatrician, but 8 years of college didn’t sound too appealing to me. In High School my thoughts changed towards being Fire Fighter. I even subscribed to FireHouse Magazine. The entrance examinations in El Paso and Amarillo, Texas were very competitive, so I ventured towards some other career paths. I was going to college and working on a degree in Accounting. In 1991, my dream came true and I became a firefighter with Amarillo Fire Department.
How many years did you spend as a Firefighter before attempting to promote and when did you promote?
I didn’t promote as fast, or as soon as others in the Fire Department. I was a hoseman for 12 years before I promoted to Driver/Operator. I truly enjoyed being a hoseman and had a blast working that position. I find that position is where most of your experience will come from. Hoseman are the ones doing most of the grunt work and are exposed to almost every situation imaginable. In my observations on the other personnel, I had seen quite a few “2 Year Wonders”, and I swore I’d never be one of them. A “2 Year Wonder’ is a firefighter that is usually very book smart and will take a promotional test the first chance they can. On Amarillo Fire Department, you are eligible for a promotion after 2 years in a given position. In my opinion, these firefighters do not always make the best Officers. A small number do, but most do not. I contribute that to the lack of experience. I also think that most of those that are “book smart” tend to rely less on common sense and want everything written down in SOGs, SOPs or in the Rules and Regulations. They are usually a “Black and White” person. Most of these people place too much importance on book knowledge. (Don’t get me wrong, I think book knowledge is important) In times of emergencies they may fail to recall what they read for a particular situation. I think common sense and rational thinking are 2 of the best attributes to being an effective Fire Leader/Officer. Another thing about these”2 Year Wonders” is they spent most of their time at the station off away from the crew studying for the next test. That leads to very little interaction with the other firefighters. They were a type of social isolationist. I felt interacting with other firefighters was important. I would rather learn by listening to others’ stories or by others’ mistakes. The social interactions among firefighters, makes the bonds stronger too.
Is there anything you would like to pass on to the younger generation?
Be prepared for the work of a firefighter. Mentally, fitness-wise, training, knowledge, and be prepared physically for each shift, but most importantly have fun with the people you work with, enjoy what you do and you won’t have to work a day in your life. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time as a firefighter and hope you will too.
What is/are a couple of things you learned from your most valued mentor?
Honesty and integrity. I find these traits to be rarer than in the past, and that’s a shame. My firefighters need to know they can trust me, by my actions and words. I need to know that I can trust my rookie or hosemen or chiefs. If I assign someone to search and rescue or ventilation, it’s imperative that they are honest when I ask them about the completion of the tasks. If you’re dishonest at the fire station you’ll probably be dishonest at the fireground. Honesty and integrity are extremely valued by me. I need to trust the guys/gals I work with, and they need to know they can trust me too.
What is your best/favorite firefighting memory.
This really isn’t a “good” memory, but it was pivotal in my thoughts of firefighting and my beliefs. I was on Engine 61 and we were working a grass fire in a rural/urban interface area. It was extremely windy and hot. We had been assigned to keep the grass from jumping across a road. This was the first time I had ever seen a grassfire jump and move over 150’ in a matter of seconds. The heat was intense. I had the hoseline and was fixing to move to the backside of the Engine. I thought a fire truck between me and the fire was good protection. Lt. Neely (at the time) thought it was more important to protect the truck so we made a stand in front of the truck and kept it from burning. I figured that if Lt. Neely was willing to risk his life for a truck, I would too. I also learned to trust in other firefighter’s experience. I was still new at the time, but I trusted Lt. Neely’s decision and the outcome was good. The fire crossed the road, but our truck was okay and we survived. Trust who you work with and trust their experience. Sometimes in life the risks are worth it. Be willing to take the risks (but always have an exit strategy just in case).
Any advice to guys looking to make it to retirement?
One of the things I think was the hardest for me working on the fire department was the bureaucracy. In my opinion, it seems like lately it just keeps growing and growing. Keep the bureaucracy as separated from the station life as much as you can. When I started our fire department’s Rules and Regulations, SOPs, and Training Manual was 75 pages and most of that was how to tie knots and ladder raises. Now we have a bunch of manuals for Rules and Regulations, SOPs, SOGs and Training Manual and it grows on a daily basis. You have to deal with the bureaucracy, but limit your exposures and try to keep it separated from the station life.
What is one of your most memorable station life stories?
We used to have a driver that loved playing Rollercoaster Tycoon on the computer until the early morning hours. When he came to bed he would walk so quietly through the bedroom and use his wristwatch as a light to find his way. Bedrooms back then had to be dark and cold. One day I thought it would be funny to put a can/air horn under his bed. I even stacked magazines under it until it hit the wood cross member on mattress’ foundation. Any weight applied to the top mattress traveled down and hit the button on the air horn. It worked perfectly. That night I couldn’t sleep, and finally got to see him make his way in the bedroom. He sat on his mattress and it went off. I couldn’t keep quiet, I had to laugh. The best part is he sat on the bed again and it sounded for the second time. It was then he realized it was under the bed and he grabbed the can and threw it at my corner.
Any final comments or questions?
If you have chosen firefighting as a career and you plan to retire from it someday, have a plan. My goal was to be debt free or close to it when that day came. I worked hard to accomplish that. I had originally wanted to work until I was 55, but an opportunity came up that was a dream for my family and I took it. Luckily, I was in a good situation and able to do that. Be prepared and ready even before that day gets here. If you retire debt free, you’ll be surprised at what you can afford.