By Arthur McClanahan*
Rob Sibley is one of Newtown, Connecticut’s first responders. He was one of the first group to receive Strength for Service to God and Community, a devotional book created by the General Commission on United Methodist Men for firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical personnel…the people in the community who rush towards danger to save and protect.
“I started when my father was a police officer,” Rob Sibley said of his career as a first responder. “He said, ‘you’ll probably end up doing something like I’ve done-you may want to look at the fire service.’ Our family’s always had some sort of service.” Rob joined the Explorers in Easton, Connecticut in 1982 and became a full member of the Easton Volunteer Fire Department in 1986. While he considered become a paid fire fighter he instead became a biologist and is now the Director of Land Use in Newtown. “Being a volunteer fire fighter shows my family, my children, just where they need to be, being in a place and position to help.”
Rob has many books and readings that he looks to for strength and support, though no one in particular that he regularly pulls out that’s specific to the service of being a firefighter. He draws from music, the Bible, and other sacred writings. When he learned of Strength for Service to God and Community he thought about how such a book would help him. “This is wonderful to be able to point to,” he observed.
Over the past four or five years “we’ve had some particularly bad storms,” he remembered. “We’ve had four declared disasters in the State of Connecticut.” As the Assistant Director of Emergency Management for Newtown he’s “watched people around me have some very difficult times through natural disaster, fires, accidents – it’s been a particularly long road over the past few years.”
“Then,” he went on, “to have something like 12-14, which is the unimaginable, happening is where you begin to reach out to areas that you didn’t know were even there. There are issues you have to deal with when you’re dealing with loss and trauma and grief. And so, you’re constantly searching.”
“There’s something to be said about a road of healing,” he noted. “It means that one day you will be healed. And also, trusting in your faith…if you’re not walking hand-in-hand there, the road becomes much longer. So, that’s why I appreciate this book, this good work, and I look forward to using it to help to continue that road of healing and also to continue to do the thing that I feel I’ve been called to for the last quarter century, which is to be a resource for those who are in need.”
Reflecting on how he and his fellow first responders had been sustained over the past four months Rob Sibley acknowledged, “We’re still in shock. We’ve never been un-sustained; we’ve always been able to continue to serve, but the shock of what we’re all dealing with…” The unusual factor has been “the layering of exposure that defines how people are reacting. There were individuals who had to go into the building (Sandy Hook Elementary School) to rescue or to protect. There were first responders who specifically were there for counseling and for literally holding someone up during the telling of the tragic news. There were those who witnessed. There were those who were exposed to a vision that no one should be exposed to. There was the aftermath, which was the following day. Every person – you’re talking about less than one hundred people. And then to know all the people, the children – there’s a lot going on.”
First responders’ reactions are individual and unique. “How the firefighters are reacting now is each to their own abilities. While the support services are there, it’s important to know what’s best for each of us. And this book will be one of those things that helps that tremendously.”
“People are finding faith in ways that they never dreamed they would have. I don’t think anybody can really draw upon their own individual psyche to be able to deal with this. A lot of times in emergency service we’re told to compartmentalize, do what you need to do, and then move on, but that doesn’t bode well for later on in life. I think, though, that first responders will be receptive to anything” Rob Sibley observed, referring to Strength for Service, “that will help them to continue to heal. I can see something like this meaning a lot, and becoming dog-eared more.”
*Rev. Arthur McClanahan is Director of Communications for the Iowa Conference. A Police and Fire Chaplain for over three decades, his is a former member of the New York Annual Conference.