First responders rely on faith, provide service
David Kirchofer saw the terrified faces of children who, along with their parents, were plucked from floodwaters and stood to lose everything they had in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. It left an indelible mark on him.
Kirchofer was in the Houston area for more than a week as part of Nebraska Task Force One, a group of firefighters, doctors and others sent to help with rescue efforts. A 19-year veteran of the Omaha Fire Department, he handled hazardous materials decontamination and helped evacuate flood victims to safety.
"My heart just went out to them," said Kirchofer, who is both a firefighter and a paramedic. "And that’s when I prayed the most – that I can bring some peace and solace to these people … being ripped from their normal lives and thrust into a refugee situation."
"You see things in this job you can never undo, that you’ll never forget and that will stay with you the rest of your life," he said.
IMPACT OF CATHOLIC UPBRINGING
Kirchofer and Fremont Fire Capt. Pat Tawney credit their Catholic faith and upbringing for their resolve to serve others in often tragic circumstances.
Kirchofer and Tawney have seen their share of such events, rescuing victims of car accidents, trauma and violent crime, which they said are especially difficult to process when the victims are children.
"Without the solid faith instilled by my mother and father, and Catholic schools, I would find it really hard to soldier on in this job," said Kirchofer, a member of Holy Cross Parish in Omaha.
Tawney, 29-year firefighting veteran and a member of St. Patrick Parish in Fremont, said his work requires a passion for helping others. "It’s what you’ve been taught all the years of going to church and being raised Catholic – how you’ve been taught to respect and help others.
"If you don’t have that passion to help people, you’re not going to make it in this kind of work," he said.
And when responding to fires or other emergencies, there are close calls, where one’s own life is in danger, Kirchofer said. "But I have faith in the people I work with and faith in God above – faith that I will be protected and faith that what the Lord wants me to do will happen."
"The biggest thing is dealing with the unknown," he said, such as what he encountered responding to a building collapse in Omaha, rescuing trapped workers in a very unstable environment. "It was our job to do the initial reconnaissance to figure out what was going on. It was very intense."
CALL TO SERVE
Kirchofer, who attended both Jesuit-run Creighton Preparatory School and Creighton University in Omaha, credits the Jesuits’ philosophy of being "a man for others" with his strong desire to serve people in danger.
"There’s no better profession in which to serve people," he said. "I always looked for that career where I could serve others. There’s no greater service than serving people in crisis.
"We encounter people on the worst days of their lives, when they call 9-1-1, and hopefully on that day, I serve them as the Lord would want me to serve them," he said.
And prayer helps both men meet the challenges.
"A lot of times, my most peaceful moments are when I sit and listen to the Lord in prayer," he said. "So often, prayer can become an action of asking for things, but when I just listen, I feel peace."
That type of prayer can happen anywhere, Kirchofer said, including while working out on the treadmill at the fire station.
Tawney said he relies on prayer as needed, stopping in the middle of the day to pray, especially when returning from a challenging fire or rescue call. He also prays nightly and prays to St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters.
As a captain, Tawney shoulders a special responsibility – the safety of his crew. "I just pray that everyone will be safe and that everyone gets to go home at the end of the shift," he said.
Both men said their jobs have great rewards.
"There are so many opportunities during the course of the day where you encounter the Lord – the homeless man that you assist on the street, in the birth of the newborn baby we delivered seven months ago. Our actions can be prayer," Kirchofer said.
"And the most satisfying aspect," Tawney said, "is helping others and making a difference in the outcome for that person’s life. Not every job gives you that opportunity."
"But sometimes it’s a rollercoaster," he said. "We’ve picked up people with no pulse and they survive against all odds, but other times, no matter how hard we try, it doesn’t work out. You just have to accept it as God’s will."
Tawney faced his own challenge to accept God’s will in 1999 when his wife was killed in an automobile accident. "My relationship with God and my faith was shaken for a few years," he said.
And that crisis made it difficult for him to respond to accident calls. "Doing this kind of work, it was hit-or-miss," he said. "Can I continue on, or do I pack my bags and find something different to do?"
But when he met his current wife, Jolene, her and her family’s deep Catholic faith helped bring him back, he said. "It took a lot of time and a lot of deep thought and prayer, and support from family and coworkers."
Tawney said the support from spouses, families and fellow firefighters helps him and his coworkers keep going. "If there’s something wrong, we’ll be there for each other."
Kirchofer also recognizes the importance of fellowship with his coworkers.
One way he gives back is by planning the annual Blue Mass honoring police, firefighters and other first responders, this year set for Oct. 5 at Ss. Peter and Paul Church in Omaha.
Named for the color of police uniforms, the tradition began in 1934 in Baltimore to honor fallen police officers and to pray for safety. It was expanded after 9-11 to include firefighters and other first responders. The first Blue Mass in the archdiocese was held in 2007.
Kirchofer has been helping with the Mass since that time and now organizes the event. "It’s a wonderful opportunity to gather together to pray for our members, especially those who have gone before us."
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