The ringing of a bell is a time-honored signal for fire departments. A bell rings to signal an alarm. To mark the beginning of a shift. To mark the return to the firehouse.
And, in the most somber of circumstances, to punctuate a firefighter’s final ride.
Three clangs … and a pause. Three clangs … and a pause. Three clangs.
Nine rings that hang limply in the air, part of the solemn gravesite ceremony provided by the Huntsville Fire & Rescue Department’s Honor Guard to note the passing of active-duty and retired firefighters and support personnel.
There is no charge to families who utilize the Honor Guard.
“They’ve already paid for our service with their service,” Phillip Cooper says of the departed.
Cooper and Don Murray are the platoon sergeants for the Honor Guard, and two of its three founders, along with the late Chief Dave Robinson. The latter had attended a funeral for firefighters in Charleston, S.C., was inspired by the Honor Guard there, and wanted to establish a similar program in Huntsville. Its first service was in January 2005.
The Honor Guard operates with military precision and dignity, appropriate considering Cooper was a U.S. Marine sergeant who served in the Corps’ Color Guard and Murray is a former U.S. Army sergeant who, as he says, “moved a lot of troops around. We pretty much knew what we had to do and needed to do to help Dave start this.”
There are four levels of funeral services. One, happily, has never been performed by the Huntsville Fire & Rescue Department’s Honor Guard. That would be for a firefighter lost while in the line of duty.
A little less elaborate is the service for an active firefighter who dies of natural causes, then with less pomp and circumstances are those for retired firefighters and, least elaborate but no less touching, for support personnel.
The Honor Guard uses Engine 4, named the L.C. Allen, a gorgeous chrome-splashed red vehicle that went into service in 1979 (pictured below). It has been retrofitted to hold a coffin, much as in the back of a hearse, and with handles for Honor Guard members to stand on the running boards during processions.
For, say, an active firefighter who passes away, guards stand at either end of the casket during visitation, changing shifts every 15 minutes. They march to the services where they stand as pallbearers, then hoist the coffin atop Engine 4 for the procession. After the Bell Ceremony, the Honor Guard folds the American flag for presentation to the family. Then, one by one, Honor Guard members file by the casket and leave their white gloves on top before a bagpiper plays.
“It’s all very strict, very military,” Cooper says.
However, it’s not all sad occasions that bring out the Honor Guard, or the Color Guard that is part of the unit.
“We do tons of special functions,” Cooper says. “Rookie school graduations, the mayor’s inauguration, sporting events, all sorts of things.” The Honor Guard has led the way in Nashville’s 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb, a tribute to the fallen firefighters from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“It’s an honor to serve,” Murray says, and it’s not easy to qualify for the team. There is an extensive interview process and a firefighter needs at least a year’s service in the department to qualify. Says Murray, “We want the best of the best.”
It’s challenging work for members of the Honor Guard. They assume their duties and hold practice while also serving their regular shifts at stations around town. There is an emotional toll, having to remain tin-soldier stoic as they perform the ceremonies.
“We don’t do this for ourselves,” Murray says. “We do it for the families.”
One of the more difficult services to handle was upon Robinson’s death in September 2013 at age 52. Says Cooper, “That one stuck with me.”
When Murray is at Valhalla for other services, or even in the neighborhood, he’ll occasionally stop by Robinson’s vault.
What, they are asked, do you think he’d say about them right now?
“I think he’d be proud,” Murray says.
To which Cooper adds with a soft laugh, “I think he’d rub his nose in the fact it takes four of us to do what he did by himself.”
The Honor Guard is currently staffed by 20 members, all of whom are either drivers or firefighters, divided into two platoons. Each has a Commander – Colon Erskine and Brian Gaither – and Sergeant – Don Murray and Phillip Cooper.
On the First Platoon are:
Trent Bennett and Stephanie Pinto (squad leaders) and platoon members Brandon Frazier, Laine Cowan, Daniel Thul, Jon Michael Williams, Jacob Pfeiffer, Mike Mahoney and Blake Lawson.
On the Second Platoon are:
Allen Painter and Wesley Jones (squad leaders) and Hunter Robinson, Brett Reynolds, Jim Ed Mills, Nick Campbell, Scotty Campbell, Brandon Gibbs and Reese Howell.
Additionally, there are staunch community partners. Chicago Flag provided the flags for the Color Guard, Valhalla Funeral Home donated a casket that is used during Honor Guard practice. Berryhill Funeral Home is a constant source of support and all other local funeral homes have a relationship with the Honor Guard.