After about 10 retirements, Father Norman Burke volunteered as a chaplain for the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department (PSFD) in 2000. At 85 years young, he is still serving.
Fire Chief Gary Morris recognized Burke for his 20 years of service to the department at its annual banquet in December.
Burke was a parish priest for the Episcopal Church for most of his career. During the past 20 of an almost 60-year career, he has been available around the clock to the PSFD. Less preacher more minister, as chaplain, Burke focuses on helping those in traumatic moments.
Early in his priesthood, he volunteered as a firefighter and chaplain in Momce, Ill. In 1976, he moved to Phoenix to serve parishes in Sun City, ASU and other programs in the Phoenix area.
After retiring, he moved to Pine-Strawberry in 1996. In retirement, he served as a parish priest in Payson and in Winslow.
“They say Burke’s retired 10 times, and he’s still going,” chuckled Burke.
Today, he is not serving a specific church, but serves as a substitute priest in Arizona Episcopal churches.
In 2000, Burke and then PSFD Fire Chief Paul Coe met, and Coe convinced Burke to take a vacated seat on the fire board. Once that year was up, Burke saw a need he was uniquely qualified to fill — department chaplain.
Burke is trained in conflict resolution and critical incident stress debriefing (CISD), giving him a different set of tools than a firefighter. Burke surveys a scene, looking for the mental and emotional needs of everyone there. He may end up working with a victim, a witness or a firefighter.
CISD was started in the military as a preventive approach to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Burke has been an advocate for bringing that to PSFD, said Morris. The board and department have been supportive of that decision.
“The minute a preacher or priest comes on board the scene is entirely different,” said Burke.
“He helps on a scene in many ways,” said PSFD Engineer Shane Johnson. “He’s kept worried family members out of the way. Over-caring families can get in the way and frustrate working firefighters.”
“He can just tell by looking at me,” he said of Burke’s ability to interpret what is needed on a scene.
“I try,” said Burke, “as the family is hovering to distract and comfort them.”
His training allows him to deal with the trauma and yet still say focused on the person and their emotional needs.
Witnesses can be his focus, Burke said. Imagine just driving to work on a normal day, and in a flash you are trying to pull a person from a burning vehicle. He has been there for people in those situations.
For example, two motorcycles hit head-on, one cyclist was then run over by a truck, driven by a friend. Burke consoled that person.
“Imagine being that person, how would you feel?” he said.
“That’s the guy to go to,” said Johnson. “Which I have.”
On the job, death and sadness can be regular events. For Johnson, younger victims hit him hardest.
“Teenagers passing bothers me very much so,” he said. “He’s really easy to talk to. He’s that father figure that some of us don’t have readily available. He looks at things from a different perspective.”
“He’s the father of the tribe if you will,” said Morris. “Assisting where he can, he’s a shoulder that a member can talk to about anything in total confidence.”
Burke says he looks at the ramifications, the ripple effect of a traumatic event.
“I’ll check on the patients, their families, personnel and their families down the road,” said Burke. “Symptoms may not show up for several months.”
That’s the focus of CISD, said Morris.
In 2009, Johnson really leaned on Burke.
“Father Burke officiated my wedding, he’s done several,” said Johnson. “He’s the best. I love the guy.”
Nice to know his career has positive moments, and the crew appreciates his presence. Thank you for your service Father Burke.