On Tuesday, September 13, the echoes of bell tolls reverberated outside Calgary City Hall as firefighters honoured their fallen colleagues in an annual memorial service. But what some may not know is that the Police Officers and Firefighters Tribute Plaza which opened in 2006, was originally initiated, among others, by an Airdronian.
While today the public and media know Deputy Chief of Operations Garth Rabel as a familiar face in Airdrie's Fire Department, Deputy Chief Rabel was a firefighter for 31 years in the city of Calgary.
"The Calgary Memorial is extremely meaningful to me personally because I was also on the group, a very small group of us that initiated the memorial."
Two names that stand out at the memorial to the Deputy Chief are fallen firefighter Morley James and George R. Look. James died in 1992 during the Forest Lawn hotel fire, while Look died in 1981 in the Manchester Racket Club Fire. James' death saw an unprecedented outpouring of emotion from both the city's residents and his colleagues. News reports citing thousands of members of the public lined the streets during Morley's funeral procession. His heroic actions led him to be posthumously awarded the Meritorious Service Medal in 1998.
"I worked with both [of them] and was raised up early through my career with those two firefighters that we lost in the line of duty. George was working at 16 fire station, which was my old fire station. [The memorial] was an opportunity for us to come together, not only for the opening of that glorious memorial, but to actually start something meaningful, that would continue to ensure that people remembered the sacrifices that all first responders are prepared to make and, in this case, some of our own."
Rabel comes from a family of firefighters. His brother was a firefighter and his own son also served in the Calgary Fire Department for over a decade. He said that there is always an inherent risk in the profession, but that does not mean that firefighters are reckless. Years of training, practice and more practice prepare firefighters to calculate the risks and while no amount of training can ever erase the danger, Rabel says that in the end, it is worth it, in order to make what could be one of the worst days of someone’s life a little more bearable.
And while September 13 is a deeply emotional day for Deputy Chief Rabel and many of his colleagues, the anniversary of September 11, which was also commemorated earlier this week has also been one of quiet reflection and contemplation. Traditionally, Airdrie's Fire Department displays their trucks at the front of the halls, and firefighters stand for a moment of silence, their helmets under their arms. This year, members from the Charlie Platoon at the 89 station (Chinook Winds Station) did something different.
"Some members chose to walk what would be [the] equivalent of 110 stories within our own building to represent the 343 firefighters [FDNY] that would have walked up to 110 stories to help people in need. We all do it our own way. I still take time. It's important for me to remember."
Rabel, like so many, remembers his routine that Tuesday morning, 21 years ago, was shattered as his wife told him there was something he had to see. He watched in abject horror as the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan. The first thought was that a sightseeing plane had somehow collided with the building. By the time he had gotten to work and made his way into the Fire Chief's Boardroom, the second plane had hit the South Tower.
"None of us in our careers ever thought that those towers would come down. There have been extreme high-rise fires in cities and countries all over the world and never did a tower come down. Then to see those two massive towers come down like dominoes, it was just gut-wrenching," Deputy Rabel said. "And then to understand the people and the firefighters that were still inside. It was... [I'll] never forget it."
343 firefighters died on September 11, while many more have succumbed to various lung and respiratory-related cancers over the past two decades. Those cancers have also spurred fire departments across North America to shift their thinking on toxic chemical exposure and how to mitigate the risks of profession-related cancers. Many fire departments, Airdrie included, are now implementing strict decontaminating procedures for their members and being vocal about the fact that fires are only part of the danger firefighters face.
Deputy Chief Rabel admitted that the emotional toll of being a firefighter, whether it's personal traumas and tragedies that he has witnessed or those that his fellow colleagues have succumbed to, is a heavy burden to bear. However, in circumspection, he said time does allow one for emotional distance and a calmer reflection, one that offers hope for the future.
"That's what memories are for, they're supposed to make you feel sad, but then you think, there's something positive [that] had to come out of everything that's happened, and I believe that fire departments have really advanced the way that we approach large scale incidents," he said. "In the case of industrial injuries or deaths, there's always learning to be taken away. How do we make workplaces safer? For Fire departments, how do we manage these scenarios more effectively? And what do we need to consider that we possibly didn't consider in the past?"
Although the memorial in Calgary is a sombre reminder to the public of just how much first responders are willing to sacrifice, for Airdrie's Deputy Chief, it is a place that also holds a sense of tranquillity.
"The memorial itself, you'll see it light up at night. I've always thought of it as a pathway from earth to heaven. I find those memories soothing. When I feel a little down, they keep me up, because we're in the business for the right reason and we did it with some remarkable people," he said. "I think fire services; first responders sacrifice as well as anyone. We don't need credit for it. It's sewn into our fabric."
Calgary has lost 58 firefighters in the line of duty, nine during active firefighting and 49 due to illnesses related to firefighting.
September is honoured as firefighter appreciation month.
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