Fire, Tragedy, and Transparency


Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

                                                                                                 – Philippians 4:6-8 (NIV)

A little less than a year ago, I took the above photo of a shirt in my collection after the Boston Marathon bombings. The Boston firehouse that this shirt comes from was the closest to the bombing site, and as I wrote at the time also carries the burden of being one of the busiest houses in the nation.

Leslie and I attended a funeral at our church yesterday. While I had only met the man once, and only for a brief time, it was touching to see how he impacted those around him, and how their recollections of him, in both words and pictures, shaped a mental picture of this person to someone unfamiliar with his daily presence.

Yesterday also brought more difficulty for the families and firefighters of Boston’s Engine 33 and Ladder 15, as two of their own succumbed to injuries sustained while fighting a 9-alarm apartment building fire in Boston’s Back Bay.

Something that is becoming increasingly easy to locate, listen to, or look at online is bystander video, recorded radio traffic, and even video from cameras mounted on the helmets of involved firefighters.

I had the opportunity to listen to about 37 minutes of audio excerpted from radio traffic of the fire in Boston. The crew of Engine 33 apparently became trapped in the basement, and can be heard making a mayday call fairly early into the recording. These mayday calls continued, becoming more frantic as the minutes ticked on, until they stopped. You could hear them running out of water, then breathing air, and then time.

I’ve listened to lots of fireground audio, but this had an impact that was unexpected for me. I’ve always tried to learn something from what I heard, such as what strong vocal stress patterns sound like through a digital radio, filtered by SCBA.

Today I thought about how others perceived this information, and whether or not its seemingly immediate availability was somehow doing a disservice to the effort to make government more transparent, by simultaneously de-sensitizing the listener to the danger, horror, and anguish reflected by the voices of not only those on scene, but in dispatch as well.

Along with the difficulties of knowing also comes the extreme emotions associated with uncertainty. This has been most recently evident among the family members of the passengers and crew of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Their anguish and anger has transformed their group dynamic toward activism.

There is an example of this kind of uncertainty playing out in our local area, with search for 55 year-old Ruth Mullenix of Wilmerding. Searches have been conducted along the Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks, where some of Ms. Mullenix’ personal effects were found.

Sadly and tragically, the only result of these searches thus far has been the death of a volunteer firefighter, struck by a passing locomotive as he navigated the tracks as part of his department’s search dog team.

Amidst the continued uncertainty as to this woman’s fate, and the tragic circumstances of the firefighter’s death, loom questions about how and/or why these things happen. Aside from the metaphysical or spiritual implications of such a curiosity exists a quest for understanding and learning, with the end goal of obtaining as much of the truth as we can, and learn from what we have found out.

In many instances that truth is the realization that we will sometimes never find out what really happened. Whether that outcome is rooted in causes of a human, divine, or other origin remains within the perception and judgment of each of us.

With growing citizen awareness of their abilities and rights to record public activities, the ability to convey those images to the world, and the lengths to which their government has gone to watch them, those in positions of authority struggle with how to effectively manage or govern in an increasingly transparent environment.

Examples of this can be seen with regularity on websites such as Photography Is Not a Crime. If you need some local flavor, the recent decision by the commissioners of one Allegheny County municipality to outlaw firefighter helmet cams offers some curious insight into the nature of local government, and its sometimes paradoxical charm.

Some people need God’s help to handle the truth. Some don’t, or don’t think that they do. If you do pray, join me in offering prayers for those from Boston and Youngwood who made the ultimate sacrifice, and for those who love them. Think also about those in our midst who may be grieving over the loss of a loved one, whether recent or not.

May they know the peace that transcends all understanding.

Enjoy the spring.

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