Recognizing and respecting the mental as well as physical stresses of firefighting was a major theme of the 26th annual Elgin Area Firefighters' Memorial Service observed by 16 departments Saturday.
Delivering the memorial message in front of the Elgin Fire Barn No. 5 Museum, Carpentersville Fire Chief John Paul Schilling noted that such occasions have traditionally been a time to remember line-of-duty deaths while the suicides of active or retired firefighters have been largely overlooked.
"Mental trauma is the other side of the fire service -- the dark side," Schilling said. "Only now are we, the fire service, beginning to recognize the significance of this issue."
While the physical dangers firefighters face are apparent even to children, there should be no stigma or shame in recognizing they carry mental consequences as well, he added.
"Who is there to make our day better?" Schilling asked the audience. "Those who can make a difference are here today. I'm looking at them."
Everyone in the community can be part of the solution by making a commitment to safety and improving their physical and mental health, he said.
And if firefighters can't seek and find help for the mental stress they endure while still working, what are retirees supposed to do, Schilling asked.
"We will carry these memories and bear these demons with even less opportunity for support," he said. "Don't let them walk in the darkness of mental trauma alone."
Chiefs of the departments recalled the names of retired members who had died in the last year -- or spoke of being fortunate enough to have lost none -- before a bell was rung as a last alarm for the deceased.
Bartlett Fire Protection District Chief Mike Falese, whose agency lost four former members in the past year, attested to the value of the annual memorial he's never missed.
"It's just a wonderful way to remember and show appreciation to these people who served their communities," Falese said. "We can see the reactions from the family as the bell is rung and 'Amazing Grace' is played. It's hard to see that, but it's also good to see that they're feeling it."
The Algonquin/Lake in the Hills and St. Charles departments joined the memorial service this year alongside existing participants Bartlett, Carpentersville, East Dundee, Fox River & Countryside, Elgin, Geneva, Hampshire, Hanover Park, Hoffman Estates, Pingree Grove, Rutland Dundee, South Elgin, Streamwood and West Dundee.