“They all [offer] whatever we need,” said Patrick Haggerty, a lieutenant with the fire department and a master sergeant who serves in fire protection in the Massachusetts Air National Guard. “If work needs to be done at home, … everyone’s like, ‘If any work needs to be done while you’re gone, let us know.’”
That’s one of the reasons Haggerty, a 16-year veteran of the fire department, nominated his employer for the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve’s 2009 Secretary of Defense Freedom Award. The award recognizes public and private employers for going above and beyond what’s required by the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act for their employees who serve in the reserve components. The National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve manages the award.
Haggerty, who has served in the Air National Guard for nearly 19 years, deployed in 2005 to the island of Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles off the South American coast for almost six months in support of the war on drugs.
When one of the Cambridge Fire Department’s dozen military employees is activated, the department does its best to ease any strain on the servicemember and family, Haggerty said, providing several benefits in addition to making sure families don’t have to deal with major home-repair issues on their own.
“They keep our benefits going,” Haggerty said. “They make sure that everything’s still fine here. That’s just one less thing for us to worry about while we’re deployed.”
The touted brotherhood in firehouses is “a true thing,” he added.
To show their continuous support of the military, department officials instituted “Red Shirt Friday.” Every member of the fire department wears a red polo shirt that bears a yellow ribbon with the phrase “Support Our Troops” on one sleeve. If a member of the fire department was in the military, his or her service branch is represented on the other sleeve, Haggerty said.
And when department members are deployed, he added, their fire truck sports a blue star, symbolic of the deployment.
Cambridge Fire Chief Gerald Reardon said that while he wasn’t surprised that Haggerty nominated the department for the award, he was surprised to learn that his department had been chosen as one of the 15 award recipients from the more than 3,200 nominations.
“We had won the Pro Patria award here in Massachusetts and we were actually shocked at that,” Reardon said. “When you go to that award [ceremony], there’s so many employers out there that have done some phenomenal things.” The Pro Patria award is presented by state Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve organizations.
“I felt humbled by the whole experience, to be honest with you,” Reardon added.
The chief said either he or the department’s chief of operations tries to attend each deployment ceremony, and that the department also provides care packages and goodie bags to their military employees’ families. But perhaps the most important factor in the department’s recognition, he added, is the department’s determination to go beyond Massachusetts law in caring for its military employees.
“Basically, state law … is that the employer pays you your salary, less the difference of the military pay or stipends,” he explained. “I paid them the full pay and I didn’t deduct stipends. At the end of the day, I did get caught.” At the end of another day, which included a reprimand by the city manager, the Cambridge City Council voted to approve full benefits for Guardsmen and reservists employed by the city of Cambridge who are deployed.
“[They voted] that they would get their full benefits without touching their military pay, and they had to go to home-rule petition to the state to do that,” Reardon said.
The ruling retroactively applied to anyone activated to serve since Sept. 11, 2001, he said.
Currently, the department has one member deployed and another who recently returned. Reardon estimated that the about one-third of the department’s 300 firefighters are former military, which could explain the staunch support the department provides for its military employees.
“[For] the people who serve, or who have had someone serve who actually know … the level of commitment and the level of upsetting your life, … I think there’s great appreciation,” Reardon said. “Obviously, in previous wars, there was more of the full-time professional [soldier]. I think now it really has hit home with the reserve forces.”
The Freedom Award recipients will be recognized at a Sept. 17 ceremony here.