It was late in the afternoon on a Saturday a few years ago. I had finished a wedding and come back to the rectory for a few minutes before confessions. Suddenly I felt dizzy and started to lose my eyesight. I thought I was having a stroke. I tried to find the phone, but couldn’t see to dial it. I called for help and the receptionist down stairs heard me. Along with the wedding coordinator, who was also in the office, they rushed upstairs and called 911. Since the fire station is only a block away, the paramedics and firefighters were in my quarters in just minutes. They took my blood pressure, checked my sugar levels and checked me out. They advised me to go to the hospital. I could walk, so they helped me off of the couch and down the stairs. As I was climbing into the ambulance, one of them squeezed my shoulder and said, “You’re going to be OK, Padre.” And I was. I just had a bad reaction to a new medication, which I discontinued immediately. But that was the start of my friendship with our local firefighters.I started inviting them to our parish carnival and offered to buy them food, but they’d always buy their own, saying that they wanted to help the parish. So I brought them ice cream. As I got to know them, I realized that they are a brotherhood of guys who are tough on the outside, but with hearts of gold. They started to invite me over, on occasion, to have a meal with them. In September 2011, at a “Blue Mass” celebrated at our neighboring parish, the fire chief asked if I would be the chaplain for the fire department. I jokingly asked, “How much is the pay?” He grinned and replied, “Absolutely nothing, which we double every year.” We laughed and my friendship with the firefighters grew deeper. I went to training workshops with the California Firefighter Chaplain Association and was given access to all the fire stations in the city. I was allowed and encouraged to spend time with the men and to go on calls. I discovered that this ministry wasn’t just serving firefighters, but the people they went to help as well. There are a lot of parishioners at St. Raymond, and I’d often be recognized when we went on calls for the sick or injured. I’d pray with them, anoint them and sometimes talk with them, as time allowed. Part of my role was to help relatives and friends of the sick or injured person deal with the situation. Sometimes I’d just hold a flashlight for a firefighter as he worked or assist with a patient in the ambulance. I knew enough about emergency medical care, after having worked in hospitals before I went into the seminary, that I could at least hand the paramedic what he needed or talk to the patient while the paramedic worked on him or her on the way to the hospital.It’s been one of the greatest joys of my life to be chaplain of the fire department. It’s taken me into the homes of many of my parishioners who I would not have had a chance to minister to or sometimes even see. It’s given me a new relationship with all of the firefighters and they’ve been a great help to me, too, especially when we have an emergency in our parish. My role is to assist them spiritually and personally first, and if needed to help them with a gurney or assist with anything else I can provide as priest. I’ve done a baptism for one, a funeral for a firefighter’s mom and offered ashes on Ash Wednesday. I don’t try to get them to become Catholic or get involved in their jobs in places I don’t belong. But I do have a willingness to serve the firefighters, their families and the people who they serve in our city. I have a deep respect for the work these men do, and for the hardships their families endure. But even more, I’ve seen the love they bring to their work and the caring they have for the sick, the injured and those who’ve lost so much due to fire or other emergencies. Please say a prayer for all of our First Responders whenever you can!Father John Higgins, ordained from St. John’s Seminary in 1981, is pastor of St. Raymond Church in Downey. {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0503/higgins/{/gallery}