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AT THIS TIME OF YEAR, FIREFIGHTERS DESERVE SOME EXTRA RECOGNITION

"I just saw a TV show where they were interviewing people about how tough the holiday season is for divorced men. They didn't ask firefighters about this being the toughest time of the year for them. I hope you plan to run a reminder again."

That message came to me just before I read a letter about our military people in Everybody's Column in which the writer used some words that hit me where I live. They were, "As a former member of the United States Navy, I find it hard to feel one ounce of compassion for our men and women serving our country in the Persian Gulf. How come our firemen and policemen get recognized as much when they put their life on the line every day?"

Many years ago, Monsignor Robert Mack, the chaplain for the Buffalo Fire Department, chided me for not paying enough attention to the firefighters. And the next day another observer said, "The problem is that comparatively few people see firefighters in action. To the majority of people a fire is something that happens to the other guy. Such people may some nice things about firefighters, but they won't really appreciate them until they come into their lives in a fire."

Because of those talks, I began visiting firehouses at Christmas time. And from the first visit on, the ominous presence of the "squawk box", the radio alarm device, brought back memories of a long-past winter in Europe when a sudden call to a combat patrol might be the last call some of us would ever hear.

But during the yearly visits to the firehouses I never met a firefighter who showed any dread about his immediate future. The prevailing attitude always was: "We are trained and we know what to do. It is no big deal."

Over the years I have wondered about what each man was thinking of when he said something like that.

Since the visit in 1984 I have wondered if a firefighter can say such words without thinking of Dec. 27, 1983. On that night a propane explosion in a downtown warehouse killed five Buffalo firefighters.

There have been two constants about my visits to the firehouses -- I have always learned something new about these special humans, and I have always gone back into the night feeling better about my fellow man.

I have learned about how the ice and snow at this time of year can hinder the firefighters before they reach the fire and while they are fighting it. I have learned that the Christmas season brings extra problems because of the way untrained people handle Christmas trees. And I have learned what the firefighters wish every one would learn -- that in a fire, smoke claims more victims than the flames.

And I have learned that, although few firefighters will not admit it, many feel that for them there is a difference between a fire at Christmas time and a fire at other times. "Its like this," a veteran officer said one day. "Christmas is for kids, and when we go into a fire at this time of year, we find ourselves thinking of our kids. I've seen our men do seemingly impossible acts of bravery at fires at Christmas time that they would consider to be foolhardy at any other time."

Among the emotions one doesn't find at a firehouse is a longing for what others call "the good old days." The veterans who were around for those days and remember many children dying in a single fire started by a messed-up Christmas tree like the new trees. And they like what the advent of the smoke alarm has done to save lives.

Because of smoke alarms the death rate from fire is down by 40 percent in the greater Buffalo area. And the people in the firehouses want it known that will provide new and free batteries to anyone needing them. They will even install them for those who can't do that themselves.

One part of the old days that is missed at the firehouses is the camaraderie between firefighters and the youngsters in the neighborhoods. As I wrote that last sentence. I had to think of a man telling me a story about some firefighters in another city who pinned the name Duke on a him because his dog was named Duke. Actor John Wayne was called Duke by his friends till the day he died.

Because of changes in our social structure, youngsters aren't around firehouses any more. But the firefighters still become involved with community projects. On Wednesday, John Leising of Engine 1 on South Division Street told me about a special project that would help the Variety Club and other ongoing endeavors.

During my visit to Engine 1 Capt. Tom Bouquard, a much decorated veteran of 33 years service, said: "No job brings faster rewards than ours. We get a special sort of pay that can't be counted in dollars the moment we rescue a person."

Experience picked up in other Christmas visits leads me to believe that Tom's feeling about his profession is shared by Lt. Bob Stasio, Firefighters Leising, Mark Swannie and Don Suarez and the other firefighters who were at the station Wednesday. And indeed by professional firefighters everywhere.

And I know that from now on his words will come front and center in my mind every time I pass a firehouse or see one of the "invisible heroes" who do much for us every day.

Todays's score. Bills 31 Colts 17.

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