Monday morning in Webster NY, a village to the east of Rochester, a house fire was reported. Firefighters responded, and walked into a trap, resulting in two deaths and two seriously wounded. The shooter killed himself after SWAT units responded, but in the delay, several other houses caught fire. Two families lost their loved ones, and others were homeless for the holiday. What makes this resonate so much is not just that they were firefighters. They were volunteer firefighters, and it’s something that strikes a major chord with rural areas.
When people hear “New York,” they think of New York City. A place with over 8 million people, huge skyscrapers, “the Big Apple.” The media center, the place you see on television shows, newscasts, and in the movies. But it isn’t the only place in “New York.” Which is why those of us who don’t live there tend to stress that we live in New York State. While the City has half the population of the State, it’s a very small part of it.
Once you get out the city, you’re in “small town New York,” also called “Upstate.” Small villages, farms, and forests are the norm. The majority don’t have full-time fire departments, they have volunteer fire departments. The residents are the firefighters, and if you aren’t a member, you have friends and family who are. They put in a lot of hours in training, and take a great deal of pride in what they do. When the siren blows (yes, they have a loud siren), they drop what they’re doing, and head out. Some head to the fire station to get the fire trucks, others follow in their personal vehicles. Everybody in town knows “there’s a fire.”
The fire departments act as community centers. Besides fighting fires, the fire halls are where social events are held. Parades, Halloween and Christmas parties, cook-outs (which are usually fundraisers), and sometimes they’re the place you go to vote. The fire departments are what we have in common, what makes us a community. Everyone supports it, and it’s something we’re proud of.
That’s why what happened in Webster hits so hard. Volunteers, who don’t get paid for it, but spent their time protecting their community, just like they do in ours. They went on a “normal call,” to fight a house fire, and someone who had decided to kill people was waiting for them. With an AR-15 rifle. It’s no longer something that “couldn’t happen here,” it’s something that happened in a place and to people “just like us.” The next time the siren blows, everyone will be wondering what their friends and neighbors might face.
There are still many questions to be answered about this incident, and it will take time for all the facts to become known. But there are some things we do know. He had a rifle he shouldn’t have been legally in possession of, and it was a type which has a high rate of fire and large ammunition capability. Once again, an “assault rifle” has been used, and a community is mourning. Once again, in a place where “this doesn’t happen.” Newtown started the conversation about gun control, and Webster is keeping the conversation going. Rural communities and suburbs can no longer going to dismiss it as “a big city problem.” It’s here, and it resonates. I wish it didn’t take these incidents. to have the conversation.