Eagle Eye

For me and I’m sure many others, February 12, 2009 was one of those moments in your life where you’ll always say “I remember exactly where I was, what I was doing … at the moment I heard of the crash.”

My wife Laurie and I have always had an unwritten rule that we don’t swear in front of our kids and hold to that today, even with them in their twenties. Seven years ago tonight I was watching the movie “Eagle Eye” with my then 16-year old son Alex. My pager went off for about the sixth time that day and I immediately let out an involuntary “Ho—ly Sh**!”

Sensing that obviously something wasn’t right, Alex asked me: “What’s wrong Dad?”

I said, “I can’t believe it, but… I’m going to a plane crash.” That was Thursday night about 10:30pm. I didn’t see him again until 7pm Saturday night. In the meantime, my wife Laurie, quite reluctantly, had flown to Wisconsin to see her sister and I didn’t see her for nearly a week.

As I wrote in an article I posted a few months after the crash:

NOT ABOUT US-LANDSCAPEThe business of taking care of people starts with taking care of ourselves. Taking care of ourselves starts with identifying, acknowledging and minimizing risk. I can think back on several instances in my fire service career when I could have made better choices for personal safety. That’s putting it politely.

It took me a long time and several close calls to realize that everything I do in the fire service is not about me. It’s about the people we serve, those we serve with and most importantly, the people who allow us to serve: our predecessors and officers; our spouses, parents, children and our families.

In his presentation aptly titled: “Firefighters Scared Straight“, my good friend Billy Goldfeder asks the question: “Who is in your wallet?” The phrase plays off the popular credit card commercial that asks “what” is in your wallet.

To remind myself of who is in my wallet, I’ve taken Billy’s concept one step further and hand-written a very simple three-part risk management plan that even I can follow. Under the back lid of my leather fire helmet you will find the names of my wife Laurie; my daughter Kathleen and my son Alex.

REAL SACRIFICE3-800x600The last thing I see before I don my final piece of battle gear is those three reminders that everything I do is not about me – it’s about them. It reminds me not to do stupid stuff that’s going to make me dead.

My family is inspiration and motivation for most of what I do in the fire service. One of my most challenging assignments was as part of the unified command team that managed the recovery of Continental Flight 3407 that crashed in Clarence Center, New York. Fifty people were killed on February 12, 2009 and a community was changed forever.

Two days later, Valentine’s Day, my wife reluctantly got on a plane and flew from Buffalo to Wisconsin to visit her older sister for a few days. I was back in the emergency operations center by 5am and missed the opportunity to say goodbye, as she was still sleeping when I left home.

She wasn’t leaving until mid-afternoon so I pulled some strings and made arrangements to meet her at the airport to kiss her goodbye. The plan was working flawlessly until I got to the gate and her plane had boarded 5 minutes early. Imagine my disappointment. Imagine how much trouble I was in! Being the hopeless romantic that I am, I apologized to her via text message.

When I got home late that evening, I found a note that she had left for Alex and I on the kitchen table. It now hangs in my office as it reads:

CLEAN THE LITTERBOX NOTE   “Please remember to feed the cats, give them water, and clean the litter box.”

But the best part was written in parentheses below:

   “(and do the same for yourselves)”

I smiled out loud. Needless to say, it provided some much needed stress relief. She’s always had a unique way of keeping me grounded and focused on what matters.

That note inspired me to lead my first command meeting the following morning. I shared the note as a reminder for all of us to do a buddy check of our mental, physical and emotional health after what we had endured in the last 55 hours. Furthermore, were we prepared for what we would deal with in the coming days?

And, as it was 6am on a Sunday morning, I thought it appropriate to end the meeting with a silent prayer for all those lost – and all those who had suffered loss.

As it would be for anyone, this was a career defining and life changing event for me, not only due to the losses that were suffered, but for the even deeper appreciation I came away with for the humble and hardworking fire, emergency services and public safety partners we have in Erie County and Western New York – and for the almost overwhelming goodness that was displayed by our community, which is beautifully perpetuated every day.

While we always focus on the importance of the three-C’s of Communication, Coordination and Cooperation in implementing the Incident Command System – it’s the often sought and more often overlooked “Fourth-C” of Community that was the game-changer in the outcomes of how this horrific disaster was managed. How our community rallied around all those affected, but especially how they supported our first responder community, inspired all of us to give our best and work at an unprecedented pace to restore some sense of normalcy to this time of tragedy.

As another reminder that it’s not about us, this typed and [hand edited] note hangs on the bulletin board of my office at our Erie County Emergency Services Training & Operations Center:

“On behalf of the families of Continental Flight 3407, we would like to express our deepest gratitude to all of the agencies who have worked so hard, and in such a professional way during our time of need. The respect you have given to us, our families, and especially the respect [and dignity] you are giving to our loved ones, who were aboard Continental Fllght 3407, is valued and appreciated by all of us.”

That’s what this job, this life is about.

So I guess this serves as my annual reminder to all those who were a part of, or touched by this tragedy to Clean the Litterbox!

Thank you to all those who serve and protect our community every day. I continue to be in awe of all you do and the genuine caring with which you do it.

This is not about me. It is about those we serve; those we serve with; and those who allow us to serve. Peace to all of you.

  • Thomas E. Netter

    Amazing and inspirational words as usual Tiger, make sure to thank your Wife and children for sharing you with all of us !