SIZE UP Issue 4 • 2016


What Does a Chaplain Do in the Emergency Services?

Why Your Organization Needs a Chaplain

Robert H. Ruston, Chaplain

New York State Association of Fire Chaplains, Inc.


CHAPLAINCY HAS BIBLICAL ROOTS as seen in the relationships between Moses and Aaron; the prophets and the kings of Israel and Judah; David and Nathan, etc. As long as there has been war and fighting, chaplains have been called upon to tend to soldiers facing the prospect of death concerning their spiritual well being.


In today’s world, the word “chaplain” and the necessity for chaplaincy dates far back, prior to the United States itself, when the Continental Congress recognized the necessity of chaplaincy in the Continental Army in July 1775.


Chaplaincy encompasses members of all religious beliefs. Chaplains may be of any faith and typically do not discuss their personal faiths with those to whom they are ministering unless they are asked to do so. The Supreme Court has ruled that chaplains do not violate the separation of church and state if the purpose of the chaplaincy is secular, such as during crisis intervention, situations of trauma, suicide and suicide prevention, etc. The chaplaincy remains neutral on the subject of specific religions.


It is the privilege of chaplains to respond to the most stressful and unexpected moments in people’s lives, including sudden deaths, domestic disputes, accident scenes, fires, destructive storms, and child abuse, just to name a few. Chaplains offer comfort and support in the midst of whatever is happening. The form that this takes varies dependent upon the situation. Examples include consoling a distraught spouse or distracting children so that questions may be answered. Chaplains hold 100 percent confidentiality with anyone they help. Sometimes the chaplain is faced with the delivery of sad news involving injury or death. The chaplain reaches out to help those that are impacted in the community, including those serving as emergency responders, their families, and friends.


Chaplains care about and for the firefighters, EMTs, first responders, dispatchers, and all members of their respective and neighboring departments. In doing so, the chaplain spends time involved in training, organization meetings, and responding to emergencies, as well as getting to know the individuals who serve their community. Responsibilities include mitigating stressful situations and assisting in resolving disputes should such arise. Sometimes, with appropriate permission, a chaplain may establish a support group to benefit individuals or an organization. A chaplain meets the needs of members and will serve a diverse population of faiths regardless of his or her own faith. Chaplains attempt to provide a moral and ethical compass to an organization’s leadership, often assisting the leaders to make tough decisions as a neutral person without bias.


A chaplain provides invocations, benedictions, and service at wakes and funerals, equipment dedications, memorials, award ceremonies, baptisms, and weddings (if ordained or authorized by the municipality). Other duties may include hospital and home visitations, providing crisis intervention, emergency response, line of duty death protocols, and Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), offering a listening ear to department members, or serving as a public information officer. In the emergency services, a chaplain is often accorded the position of a chief officer or an honorary chief officer (or is certainly recognized as such), and is commonly a member of the executive board of officers within the organizational structure he or she serves. As such, at least in the fire service, the chaplain normally wears a Class A uniform as described by the Federation of Fire Chaplains, International Police and Fire Chaplains Association, and New York State Association of Fire Chaplains.


A chaplain in the emergency services may also serve as a hospice palliative care chaplain, prison chaplain, or military chaplain, and may indeed have varied roles or ranks within his or her own religious institution’s hierarchy such as priest, deacon, bishop, canon, reverend, elder, lector, brother, rabbi, pastor, imam, chaplain, and so on. A chaplain may also participate in community or church events outside of the emergency services and help with memorials and ceremonies. A chaplain may provide religious services of his or her own faith.


A chaplain in every fire department and EMS organization is not only appropriate, but also beneficial to its membership and leaders.



Chaplain Robert H. Ruston has been a member of the volunteer fire service since 1956, first in New Hampshire and later in Westchester County. Ruston was secretary of the Somers Volunteer Fire Department for 15 years and currently serves as chaplain/secretary emeritus. He was also secretary for the Westchester County Volunteer Firefighter’s Association for 34 years. Ruston currently serves as chaplain for the association, as well as for the New York State Fire Police, Dutchess County Volunteer Firefighter’s Association, and numerous organizations in Dutchess and Ulster counties. He is the Southeast Region director for the New York State Association of Fire Chaplains, Inc., which includes the counties of Greene, Columbia, Sullivan, Ulster, Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Westchester, and Rockland. In 2012, Ruston was awarded a U.S. Congressional Commendation for fire and EMS activities.