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Monticello firefighter unveils state monument

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In a wind-swept, sun-splashed ceremony on the Capitol grounds on March 17, Monticello Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief, Michael Long helped to unveil the Florida Fallen Firefighters Memorial. Long spoke alongside no less than Jeff Atwater, Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal; Reverend Ragan Vandergriff, Chaplain of the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association; Adam Putnam, Florida Agricultural Commissioner; Julius Halas, Director of the State Fire Marshal’s Office; and Chief John Fish, Fire Chief of the Florida Forest Service and representative of the Joint Council of Fire & Emergency Services. Other speakers included friends and family of the fallen firefighters remembered on the monument: Kevin Barnes, John Keppler and Andrew Keppler. The Pledge of Allegiance was led by a small band of children, clad in suits, tee shirts and dresses who came to remember their parents and grandparents whose names were etched on the veiled stone. The monument, which is only in phase one of its development, features the names of 181 Florida firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty since these deaths began being recorded. From above, the monument is shaped as a Maltese Cross. As great and beautiful as it is, the project has still not reached its completion: by next year, organizers anticipate that the rest of the project, including two bronze firefighters, will be finished. One will be a fully-equipped structural firefighter and one will be a fully-equipped wildland firefighter: these face out over the granite pedestals upon which the names are etched, so that the bronze sentinels can keep eternal watch over the men and women who are memorialized there. The bronze firefighters will complement a bronze Maltese Cross on the center pedestal of the monument. The mechanism is cleverly, artfully disguised: no passer-by would notice. However, this cross opens and can be removed. Twelve people, whose identities are known only to each other, were presented with keys to open the monument. The face of the cross swings out to reveal an inner chamber. However, one key alone is not enough to open the monument: indeed, the designers saw fit that it should take two keys— held by two key holders, scattered across the state— to remove the bronze cross for cleaning and maintenance. In it, on the back side of the face of the cross, each name of these twelve are carefully engraved. The front side features a fire helmet, around which the words “Courage,” “Honor,” “Tradition,” and “Respect” “For the Fallen” have been placed with care. These are ideals upon which the Florida fire services have been built from structural firefighting to wildland firefighting, from career departments to volunteer. This monument displays the names of all line of duty deaths in the state of Florida, regardless of their branch of service or paid status. It was Long’s involvement that spurred such an inclusive memorial. Formerly the Fire Chief and then Director of the Florida Forest Service, then called the Division of Forestry, Long was the first of his rank to have structural firefighting training and experience. He started initiatives to cross-train foresters into as capable structural firefighters as they were wildland firefighters. Long has always regarded both branches of service with the same dignity, and has honored the fallen. While a career firefighter, Long’s roots are in the volunteer department and he serves the city’s volunteer department now. During his speech, Long said heavily, "Three of the names on this memorial came under my watch and that is a tremendous tragedy to bear. Four others are from my former organization and that is an even greater tragedy for others to bear.” However, Long focused on the future, saying, “We need to provide and work together to provide the tools and training necessary to prevent any additional fatalities to the brave men and women that carry out their duties of protecting our communities. […] We should never lose sight of our goal of no new names on this memorial.” This was a sentiment echoed by Fish and other front-line firefighters. Others reflected eloquently on the price that these 181 paid for their communities’ safety and comfort. Atwater reflected eloquently, "We must realize as we gather here today that these are not just names etched in stone [...] for in firehouses all across the state, there is an empty bunk [...] there is an empty seat at the firehouse dinner table where stories were once shared. The halls of the firehouse are quieter without your laughter and your encouragement. "And for each of these names, there is a daughter who had no father to walk her down an aisle; a son who never got one more game of catch; a spouse who's never had the chance to hold the hand again of their one true love; a thousand bedtime stories never told. "And they... they gifted to us all of their tomorrows; they gave us all of the memories they could have made; all the I-love-you's they could have said. They did that for us. […] “Those of us who are not firefighters do not know what it’s like to feel the instinct to get up and run to another’s aid every time we hear a siren in the distance. We will never know what it’s like to expose our own bodies to chemicals and burns; to pounding physical stress; and be forced to make split-second decisions when life or death is in the balance. We will never feel the unbearable heat of a flame that spares none; see someone’s home and belongings burning around us; nor hear the cracks and roars of an advancing fire and choose not to run away— but, like you, choose to run in. We will never know the pressure of being the first and only line of defense between a perfect stranger and a violent enemy that seeks only to destroy. We will never know these things, because— as firefighters— you have known them, and you have borne them for us. And the 181 men and women whose names are etched on this memorial have lived—and died—so that we will never know them.” Long has certainly lived that, fighting fire in Pennsylvania as a volunteering youth; fighting fire as a wildland firefighter in the western United States; fighting fire all over the state of Florida as a forester in the Division of Forestry; all the way up to managing operations in Taylor County in 1998 when a wild fire caused the town of Perry to be evacuated and almost destroyed. Long’s quick thinking, good management, and loyal men— along with the Providence of a sea breeze— saved the town. A couple years later, he managed operations up and down Florida’s eastern seaboard, when there were more fires than firefighters. His distinguished career is draped in honors; his body bears the scars of hard use and the dangers he bore for many years for this state and this country. Today, Long struggles with the idea of retirement: he lives in neighboring Monticello where he is the Assistant Chief and training instructor of the Monticello Volunteer Fire Department; Florida Fire and Emergency Services Foundation Chairman of the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association; and an active part of the Northwest Florida Volunteer Firefighter Weekend. He actively trains recruits to his department— the Monticello Volunteer Fire Department— and Jefferson County volunteers. In his late sixties, he is still a front-line firefighter: many of the students he has trained will proudly call him the best firefighter in the state. Long has many years in the fire service: he has countless times faced the fate that the 181 brave men and women eternalized on the memorial share. His involvement in this monument, therefore, is a source of pride to his department, his city, his county, and himself: seeing even this first phase reach fruition is a high honor to the humble hero. He closed his comments with a glow of pride: "I'm sure that those of you in the audience who have lost loved ones or lost one of your comrades feel the same way I do: we want something at the Capitol that when every person walks by, looks at it and recognizes the sacrifice made by the men and women of emergency services as they carry out their duties. I think it is little known, and we need to make sure we have an impact on every child, every person that walks by."

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