Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Police & Fire

Drawing on heartbreak

Bryan firefighter uses artistry to offer condolences


Cartoon is by Paul Combs, a firefighter for the city of Bryan.


In the tight-knit firefighting community, news spreads fast.

Paul Combs, a firefighter and emergency medical technician with the Bryan Fire Department, learned of two fellow northwest Ohio firefighters in peril soon after the Toledo men were pulled from a burning apartment building in North Toledo.

Mr. Combs received about 20 texts within half an hour.

The Toledo firefighters — Stephen Machcinski and James Dickman — were killed in the line of duty Sunday.

■ Firefighters died from bad burns, carbon monoxide
■ Many funds will support families of the fallen
■ Dave Hackenberg column: Now is the time to grieve for our losses

The 47-year-old Bryan firefighter, also a freelance illustrator and syndicated editorial cartoonist, turned to artistry to express the feelings of many.

He quickly reworked one of his existing illustrations, and on Monday posted to his blog a cartoon expressing his condolences.

The commentary: “Ready the bagpipers ... let’s prepare a heroes’ welcome.”

It depicts God reading a newspaper with the headline, “Two Toledo Firefighters Fall During Apartment Fire.” In the background, an angel with wings and a halo wears a firefighter’s hat.

Since posting the cartoon, it has been liked and shared thousands of times on Facebook — one example of the profession’s fraternal culture, where the fallen are grieved by all.

Toledo’s loss reverberates this week through fire stations nationwide, and firefighters from across the United States and Canada are expected to attend a Last Alarm memorial service Thursday.

“When you meet another firefighter, there’s an instant connection because you do share the same world,” Mr. Combs said.

He studied fine art at Defiance College and graduated in 1991. In 1995, he joined the fire department in Bryan, leaving for a couple of years to work as an editorial cartoonist for the Tampa Tribune before returning to Ohio.

A decade after becoming a firefighter, he began to combine his duties at the fire station with his drawing talent, creating illustrations about fire service issues and the firefighting life. He produces several cartoons each month for Fire Engineering magazine, and his fire-inspired illustrations are compiled in two books, Drawn by Fire and Drawn by Fire, Too.

Mr. Combs didn’t know the Toledo firefighters who died, but he feels connected by the bonds of firefighting. “Being an artist, we are kind of in tune to emotions anyway ... so [when] something like this does happen, you do become very emotional about it,” he said.

Many firefighters embrace their colleagues as family, said Ryan Grant, coordinator of the fire science program at Owens Community College.

The long shifts and shared sense of duty link those who share the dangerous job. “Yeah, they’ve lost a co-worker, but they’ve really lost a member of their own family,” said Mr. Grant, also a part-time firefighter for Springfield Township and Whitehouse.

Part of the job is to serve even as the department mourns. Everyone develops his or her own coping mechanisms, and the ceremonial services to honor a fallen firefighter can help bring closure, Mr. Grant said.

Carry on, in honor of those who cannot.

“We’ll take it from here,” reads the sign outside the Attica-Venice-Reed Fire District.

It, too, is inspired by the deaths of the two Toledo firefighters.

Flags at the Sylvania Township Fire Department will remain at half-staff until the two are laid to rest. Meanwhile, firefighters will continue to serve and mourn.

“They still have that duty; they have to protect the public,” Sylvania Township Fire Department Chief Jeffrey Kowalski said. “Even though they are in the stations and they go out to do their jobs, they are doing it with a heavy heart.”

Contact Vanessa McCray at: or 419-724-6065, or on Twitter @vanmccray.

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