Lessons Learned During 50 Years of Fire/EMS and Chaplain Services

Rev. Bill Michatek, Chaplain

New York State Association of Fire Chaplains, Inc.


CELEBRATING 50 YEARS IN the fire service as a firefighter and chaplain has brought back many memories, mostly happy – but some tragic as well. I really didn’t know what I was getting into when my first fire department, North Greece, twisted my arm and asked me to join as a firefighter and member. They soon taught me about firefighting, but I didn’t really understand the role of the fire chaplain. Then member Ty Coon (I never forgot his name) came back from a FASNY meeting where he picked up an application for the newly formed state fire chaplains association. He told me that the chief wanted me to join. That’s when I began to learn this role, and I have continued to learn ever since.


Joining the state chaplains associations and meeting its members from all over the state and from every denomination has taught me much. The association’s manual contained suggestions for prayer and how to serve firefighters in good times and bad. I learned what to do at the emergencies we were called to. I also learned that our ministry is one of presence – being there in time of trouble, especially for members, but also for victims of the emergency.


Since I did not know many in the fire department, I went about meeting everyone. Most were very welcoming, but some were shy or standoffish. I believe some thought that I would cramp their style by being around. They got used to me quite soon. One jokingly gave me the nickname “Father Watch Your Mouth.” I gained great satisfaction at major calls, finding the victims and greeting them with, “I am the fire department chaplain, can I help you in any way?” They usually had many needs.


Responding to all kinds of calls was good training. My first real challenge was a death notification. A teenager I knew had been killed in a MVA that I responded to. A police officer asked if I could accompany him to notify the family. I was worried about what I would say when I got there and prayed for the Spirit of God to give me guidance. When we walked up the driveway that Saturday morning, the parents knew what had happened as they opened the door. They were overcome with grief and out of control for a few minutes (I wasn’t doing too well myself). As time passed, they calmed down and began to sort things out. We didn’t have to say much, but listened and gave some guidance. They had a few questions and thanked us so much for what we had done. I have a small card from our manual on what to say at a notification (don’t say too much and listen) and also what not to say. God’s Spirit was with us and I learned a lesson.


I really got into my new avocation and seldom missed a call. I experienced fatal fires, members injured at a scene, serious MVAs, and then in the 1990s a line of duty death when I was with the Spencerport Fire Department. Member Bob Fowler was responding to a call on a stormy day when a huge tree fell on his vehicle, killing him. I really didn’t know the procedure for a LODD, but to our rescue came a team from the county and state fire service that specializes in these deaths. The same thing happened when our neighbor West Webster Fire Department’s Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka were tragically murdered on Christmas Eve 2012. This broke the hearts of firefighters the world over. We welcomed the county and state team to help plan the services. I was asked to join the planning team. They are a gift.


I would suggest that every department have a chaplain. Ordained chaplains are fewer and busier than in the past. Even if they cannot be active, they could be on call when needed for sacraments or special needs. Military chaplains have a chaplain’s assistant in the unit who can take care of many of the duties. Most departments have capable members to serve as a lay chaplain. It’s a wonderfully satisfying calling in addition to firefighting, and the retirement benefits are out of this world.


Peace, blessings, and enjoy life.



Rev. Bill Michatek is the retired pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Webster, N.Y., and now lives in Wolcott, N.Y. He continues to help at area parishes and is still active in the Webster Fire Department as chaplain. Michatek celebrated 50 years as a priest in 2016 and will celebrate 50 years as a firefighter and chaplain in 2017. During these years, he served actively in six fire departments and four ambulance corps, all in Monroe County with the exception of Penn Yan Fire Department and Ambulance in Yates County, where he served for 12 happy years. Michatek is a past chief chaplain of the New York State Associations of Fire Chaplains, Inc., serving from 1990-1992.