PORTLAND – The last active-duty death of a firefighter in Maine happened in Portland, in 1980, though many others have passed away in the hours following their own responses to emergencies.
Every firefighter who takes the oath also heeds the warning: It could happen anywhere, anytime. Yet, as is common nature, every one expects that that death will happen to someone else.
Certainly not to the young, active, 32-year-old, Capt. Joel Barnes, who’d been wearing a firefighter’s helmet since the age of three, and who – by Kindergarten age – could imitate a siren so real-sounding that an on-call firefighter neighbor came running, wondering why his pager hadn’t gone off.
March 1, 2019, Captain Barnes responded with his Berwick co-workers to an apartment fire. No questions asked. No moaning and complaining.
“At the end of the day, we did not all go home,” said Kennebunk Fire Chief Jeffrey Rowe. “Yet, firefighters never truly die. They burn forever in the hearts of those they saved.”
Ten days later, Sunday, March 10, at the Cross Insurance Arena, firefighters from the Midcoast joined thousands of others from New England and Canada in providing him his 555 (final toll). No questions asked. No moaning and complaining.
They stood outside for more than an hour prior to the ceremony in uniforms not intended for 20-degree temperatures, to stand in recognition of the casket’s arrival. Some kept warm by drinking coffee and passing around doughnuts. They talked with their fellow uniforms as if they’d known each other for more than an hour. Yet, no one forgot why they were there.
As Rowe said during the ceremony, “Anyone of us could have been Captain Barnes, at the top of those stairs.”
In doing his job – as every firefighter works hard and trains hard to do – Barnes saved the life of another. And died in the process.
Berwick Fire Chief Dennis Plant choked on his words as he spoke of the limited and unfortunate club he now belongs to.
Yet, one doesn’t need to be the chief of a station to relate to the sadness of the occasion.
When Ken Desmond, president of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters, learned of the death, he happened to be sitting in the Baltimore airport, on his way home from a fire academy training.
He listened to the “May Day” shout from his phone, and thought of how the call referred to “one of ours here in Maine,” he said.
“That really brought me home quick....it was very very touching. Every time it’s been advertised since this happened, there are tears in my eyes.”
Through a ceremony filled with tears, chuckles, bagpipes, chorus, and salutes, the firefighters recognized the sacrifice of one of their own as they sent Barnes along to his next chapter.
Following the ceremony, all uniforms returned to their salute stance to see Barnes on his way home, this time in a snow squall. Snow nipped at bare necks and accumulated on hands positioned at attention.
Each answered the call for the sake of the uniform. No moaning. No complaining.
Long ago, when a firefighter died in the line of duty, the fire alarm office would tap out a special signal. That signal was five measured dashes, then a pause, then five measured dashes, then another pause, then five more dashes.
“This became universally known as the tolling of the bell that was broadcast over all telegraph fire alarm service.
“This signal was a sign of honor and respect for all firefighters who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice, that has become a time-honored tradition.”
— Capt. Travis Doiron, Berwick Fire Department.