Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Remembering Lt. Matthew LeTourneau

I had loved when my two passions of writing and firefighting would overlap at work, but this time the best of both worlds collided in the worst way. I sat down with a cup of coffee to finish a story on my day off when I received a message from a friend who also works in the media. I thought he was asking for a tip on a story, but then he warned me that a few Philadelphia firefighters from my friend’s platoon had been injured battling a fire that morning.

I stopped writing my story and instead turned to media outlets to find out what was happening. I read a few of the news stories about a civilian dying and that a few firefighters had been injured. I didn’t get a bad feeling about the fire and I didn’t think my friend Matt was hurt. He was so well trained and experienced that I never would have imagined what unfolded happening to him. It was truly a case of being in the wrong spot at the wrong time and it was a scary reminder that it could happen to anyone.

There were conflicting news reports that a firefighter, who was critically injured, had died. Some stories said a firefighter and a civilian had died, while one posted an editor’s note that officials said a firefighter had died but were no longer confirming that. I started thinking about the importance of accuracy in reporting so that people are informed. About an hour later I learned from my journalism friend and another firefighter that Matthew LeTourneau was the critically injured firefighter and he had passed away. My journalism friend heard from two sources. Hearing information from your trusted source is like hearing a secret from your best friend, you know what they are saying is true. 

Shortly after the press conference when Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel announced the line-of-duty-death, my fire company was dispatched for an automatic fire alarm. Wiping the tears away from my eyes, I drove to the firehouse because we were called to help. The American flag at the firehouse was already at half-staff.

I started thinking about the Philadelphia firefighters who were there that day and what they were going through. When we responded for the fire alarm, I thought about how the Philadelphia Fire Department would continue responding to calls as they dealt with the loss in their own way, just like we would.

We gathered around the kitchen tables in disbelief before we managed to share stories about Matt. We talked about calls, training and the last time we saw him.

We displayed black bunting over the engine bay in honor of Matt. I think he would have been happy to see us putting ladders up against the building because he would consider it as a way to practice.

LeTourneau was one of my favorite firefighters to train with because of his willingness to review skills and help firefighters build their muscle memory. He shared his knowledge to teach the next generation. I would come up to the firehouse on my day off or before my shift at the newspaper started when Matt worked and we’d train together for hours. We reviewed equipment and practiced skills until there was a call. Our only other break was for lunch when he would cook for whoever was at the firehouse during his shift. Food serves as another way to bring the family together. We continued training on my day off because I wanted to learn and he helped me with the basics. Matt told me it showed my dedication because I made time to practice and I understood why he spent most of his shift in the engine bay. He cared about the job and he loved training.

“If you have a mop in your hand for longer than you have a (firefighting) tool, then you did it wrong,” he would say about his eight-hour shift. 

Ginger Rae Dunbar and Matthew LeTourneau pose together during a media day event at the Delaware County Emergency Services Training Center. where the UL conducted research training.  

I’d also see him at the Delaware County Emergency Services Training Center, where he taught classes as a state instructor. I even saw him during research testing by the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute. He was there as a firefighter, learning more about fire behavior and firefighting tactics while I was there as a journalist, informing the public about what I learned that would also benefit me as a firefighter. He thought it was great opportunity that I picked up such assignments because like him, I was bettering myself.

“Never stop learning,” LeTourneau told me.

1 comment:

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