Lessons from a line-of-duty death

Patrick Cullum's quick and frank openness allows us to better understand the tragic event and its consequences

You can probably count on one hand the worst things that can happen to you as a firefighter. My list would include my own death, responding to the fatality of a family member or close friend, and a line-of-duty death within the department.

Worst of all, would be causing the death of another firefighter.

That's where now-former firefighter Patrick Cullum finds himself. He was the engineer for a rural Illinois volunteer department who was backing a rig when it struck and killed Medora Fire Chief Kenneth Lehr.

Some preliminary details about the incident have come out, such as the chief may have been riding on the back of the rig and Cullum did not use a spotter.

As is always the case with a line-of-duty death, professional investigators are examining what happened that February afternoon. There will certainly be plenty of fault found in both procedures and policy. What those faults are will come further down the road when the reports are issued.

Though a professional investigation is underway, this has not stopped Cullum or others near the situation from assigning blame — Cullum blames himself, as do others.

The blame was such that he was asked to resign from the department and not attend the chief's funeral. He complied with both requests.

Cullum and his story came to us in a somewhat unlikely way. FireRescue1's sister publication EMS1 ran an editorial questioning the tactics at that fatal incident. It drew sharp and critical reactions from readers — Cullum was one of those readers.

Cullum's social media post led to an exchange of emails, which led to phone calls, which led to the story on his coping with the tragedy.

When we first came across Cullum and learned of his being ostracized from the fire department, my initial fears were that he was a candidate for suicide. I was fearful that level of isolation would push him over the edge.

Another firefighter death is not what this situation needs.

I've thought a lot about what Patrick Cullum must be going through. We can never fully imagine our reactions to a tragedy we've not experienced. Yet, I can see myself in his situation curled up in a corner with only a bottle for company.

Thankfully, he did not follow that route. I was relieved to hear that he has a support network of family, friends and other firefighters. I admire that he's telling his story with the hopes of teaching others — that takes guts.

I'm thankful, too, that he's older and has life experiences that can help him keep this in perspective.

As prudent as it is to reserve judgment on Cullum's actions, I also refuse to rush to judge those within the community who turned against Cullum. I can appreciate how raw the emotions were following the chief's death.

I also can appreciate how this tragedy may prevent others. Certainly, we can learn from these events and take steps in our own department to safeguard against repeating them.

Just as importantly, we can glimpse inside his head and feel his suffering. That too may one day save a firefighter's life.

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