What causes a man to rush into a burning building and risk his life for strangers? Colleagues say Mark G. Falkenhan's career as a first responder can be traced back to childhood with the influence of a firefighting uncle and watching reruns of "Emergency!" — the 1970s-era TV show that centered on a Los Angeles County paramedic team.
Yesterday, thousands of fellow firefighters, friends and family attended funeral services at Baltimore's Cathedral of Mary Our Queen for the 43-year-old Lutherville volunteer firefighter and paramedic who died last Wednesday while battling a four-alarm fire at the Towson Crossing Apartments. It was an extraordinary outpouring of love, affection and deep respect for a man who had devoted himself to public service.
Mr. Falkenhan was no casual acquaintance of firefighting, not some fire hall hanger-on or cocky adrenaline junky who wanted only to put the "wet stuff on the hot stuff." He was a knowledgeable and accomplished professional in every sense of the word, from the 16 years of paid service with the Baltimore County Fire Department to his subsequent career with the U.S. Secret Service, where he taught emergency services.
It has been more than a quarter-century since a Baltimore County firefighter died in the line of duty, and so his death has hit the community particularly hard. That he was posthumously honored with the county fire department's medal of honor, an award rarely given and reserved for extraordinary heroism and bravery, seems entirely appropriate.
Communities such as Lutherville need men and women like Mr. Falkenhan, even if many of us don't always appreciate what a vital role they play. Volunteers are the backbone of this country's fire service — they outnumber paid firefighters by a 3-to-1 margin — and Mr. Falkenhan was a particularly well-qualified and dedicated example of the breed.
The word "hero" gets used too often to describe the most pedestrian of admirable behaviors, from the star quarterback who marches his team for a winning score to the kid who finds a missing wallet and turns it in. But exceptional bravery, special ability, exceptional deeds and noble qualities — those are what define an authentic hero, and Mr. Falkenhan lacked for none of them.
It was not by accidental circumstance or naiveté that he ended up on the third story of that Hillendale apartment complex in the midst of a fire, searching for missing residents. He knew the risks as well as anyone could. But his selfless desire to help others drove him forward into the flames.
That's what made him exceptional. That's why his legacy is important. That's why the community is in his debt.
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends," according to the Gospel of John. Our thoughts go out to the family and friends of a man who paid the ultimate price for the sake of a grateful community.