Following the first plane crash of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Catholic priest Mychal Judge arrived at the World Trade Center in his capacity as a New York City Fire Department chaplain. He offered guidance and prayer to firefighters and civilians in the lobby of the North Tower. When the South Tower fell, Judge was crushed by debris—making him the first confirmed casualty of the day. While Judge may be the most well-known chaplain from 9/11, he was far from the only one who helped during and after the tragedy.
In the most general terms, a chaplain is a religious person employed by a non-religious organization to provide spiritual and emotional support to its members. The rest of the details—the chaplain’s religion and position in their church, whether they get paid or volunteer, their specific responsibilities, and so forth—vary depending on the organization’s needs. But regardless of their own religious beliefs, chaplains are supposed to be able to advise and assist people of any (or no) religion. They usually work in fields where death, violence, trauma, and/or other high-stress situations are part of the job—places like hospitals, police departments, prisons, the military, and others.
Fire departments fit this bill, too. “When firefighters respond to a burning building and focus attention on saving life and protecting property, the fire chaplain responds alongside but is focusing on ministering to the needs of the firefighters and the needs of the crisis victims,” the Federation of Fire Chaplains explains. “Victims of an emergency crisis may be the family who has just been burned out of their home, or the scared and confused spouse of a heart attack patient.”
According to Chron, the chaplain is also often tasked with informing family members when a firefighter is injured or killed in the line of duty. Their involvement doesn’t always end there—chaplains might go so far as to help plan funerals and offer grief counseling to a deceased firefighter’s loved ones.
In short, chaplains function as a sort of emotional support staff that firefighters, their families, and trauma victims can lean on as needed.
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