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From Fire to conversations: the importance of having someone to talk with

Photo Courtesy of Brad Fairchild

By Michael Cuneo – 

Frank Mercer was awoken one summer night in 2012 to the sound of his fire alarm going off. He would soon find that his entire back porch was engulfed in flames. A record dry season and a cooking mishap created a moment of turmoil for Mercer, who was now tasked with defending his house from the rampant deluge of the flames that were racing up around him. Fortunately, the Fayetteville Fire Department arrived at Mercer’s house and put out the fire. The city Fire Marshal told Mercer if he and his family had stayed in their beds just a few minutes longer, they likely would have died. The swift and cohesive care that Mercer received led him to want to understand more about the Fire Department and eventually to the creation of his nonprofit 4Heroes.

Mercer and his family have resided in Fayetteville for some time now, as he has served as a pastor at a local church. When the Fire Department saved his house and life, he had a newfound respect and gratitude that he wanted to reciprocate.

“Our big push was we are so grateful for these guys who came out here; what could we do to help.” Mercer said.

Frank Mercer. Photo by Brad Fairchild

Mercer began by volunteering for the Fire Department before becoming a volunteer chaplain for the department in 2014.

While he was happy to serve as the Fire Departments’ chaplain, he noticed a need for a more personal role, one that spent time with firefighters by getting to know them on a personal level.

“I understand that the Fire Department is a paramilitary organization and ceremony matters so I want to give those kinds of things attention,” Mercer told the Fire Department when interviewed. “But also, I’m a pastor and a pastor is a shepherd, and it seems like to me it would be really important to know the folks in the department so being able to come into the station and have a relationship with them and being able to sit down at a table and share a meal [would be important].”

This would lead Mercer to create a nonprofit called Fayette FireChaplain in 2017. The idea for FireChaplain was unique yet straightforward: provide a personal relationship for those who work as firefighters and first responders.

“4Heroes is an organization that exists to provide emotional and spiritual support for our friends and heroes in public safety.” Mercer said.

The original name changed from Fayette FireChaplain to 4Heroes in the summer of 2021, something Mercer says drives the focus away from himself and towards the true heroes.

“It had occurred to one of my board members that when you call it Fire Chaplain, it sounds like it’s about me, and it’s so not.” he said. “It’s really about these friends and heroes in public safety.”

The four heroes are Fire, EMS, Police, and 911 call centers. Here, Mercer spends most of his time having real conversations with those who are often to busy to do so.

“We wind up sitting around a table like this drinking a lot of coffee, listening to a lot of stories talking about a lot of nothing before somebody’s ready to talk about something.” Mercer said. “You have to earn the right to be heard. These folks are some of the strongest and the bravest among us, but they are also humans. They break, and they bleed, they hurt.”

While most of the time the people Mercer works with are helping others, he says it’s essential to ask them if they need help, noting that suicide and divorce rates are incredibly high for firefighters and first responders.

“These folks are seeing things they can’t unsee and feeling things they can’t un-feel so having somebody in their life who can be a support, who can be a shepherd, it matters to them.” he said.

4Heroes is a nonprofit, meaning that almost all of its funding comes from donations. Another way the organization generates some funding is through a local thrift store that Mercer opened. The store is called 4Heroes Thrift Store and is located in Tyrone, Georgia.

While the 4Hero’s founder could spend the entire day revisiting moments where someone opened up to him about a specific problem, he talked about one individual in particular who made for a special moment.

“One of the police officers I ride with – the first time I rode with him, he didn’t know what to do with me, he had never had a chaplain in his car.” Mercer said.

Mercer would start a conversation with this officer in the car, one that seemed pretty innocuous until it turned deeply personal.

 

Officer: what would you like to see? We can do traffic stops, neighborhood watch.

Mercer: I’m not here for that.

Officer: What are you here for then?

Mercer: I’m here for you. I’m not just here to ride, I am mostly interested in you.

 

The officer seemed put back by the answer and looked a bit uncomfortable. However, after a span of silence, the officer started to ask questions.

“How do you ever learn to trust somebody again when they’ve broken your trust?” the officer asked.

After asking some more questions, Mercer found that the question was not as general as he first thought and rooted in something much more profound.

From there, the two men had a deeply personal conversation, one that resulted in tears from both parties and a prayer from Mercer.

This conversation certainly would not have happened had Mercer not been in that car that day. More importantly, nobody would have heard what that officer was going through had Mercer not started that dialogue.

Mercer says that people don’t know these stories but that he hears them every single week. Sometimes people just need someone to listen to. Other times people need serious help.

While Mercer is transparent about his views, he never wants to be viewed as someone who only serves Christians, reiterating that everyone needs to be heard.

“I make it clear that I am a chaplain who is a Christian, but we’re not just a chaplain for Christians. We want to be available to anybody, regardless of their faith or who they are or what they believe.” He said.

There is a need for fire chaplains as most Fire Departments around the U.S. don’t have anyone in the position.

“Right now, less than 10% of Fire Departments in the U.S. have a chaplain at all, and many of those chaplains are not really active at all.” Mercer said.

Mercer also touched on the criticism that law enforcement and first responders can encounter, saying that they carry out their jobs for the good of the community.

“Coming into it with the expectation that this is a person who spends their life trying to protect and serve our community – they don’t do this job because they get paid really well, they don’t do this job because it has fantastic benefits, they don’t even do this job because they are going to be respected and honored by everyone in the community,” he said.

The next chapter for 4Heroes is getting more people involved. Mercer has started a Sunday meal program where he and his team are trying to provide a meal for every firefighter in the county on Sundays, something he says he can only do with the help of volunteers.

“We need more hands and feet to do help,” he said when discussing the Sunday meal program. “The idea behind that is not for folks just to bring the food and leave, but that they’re bringing the food and staying and sharing the meal with the guys in the station.”

Moving forward, Mercer says that expanding 4Heroes so that other cities and fire departments can replicate what he is doing is the goal.

“We are trying to create this infrastructure that can be copied in other places. We’d like to provide a template that if you want to do this, you can do it in your community.”

Mercer talked about expanding 4Heores right here in Fayette County in something he calls “buying the farm.”

“What we’d like to be able to do is buy a big piece of property – we’d love for it to be right here in Fayette County – a place that could be their place. It doesn’t belong to the county, it doesn’t belong to the fire department, it’s a place for them.”

For now, Mercer will spend most of his time listening and talking, waiting to be called into a vast array of situations where first responders need him, and when they do, he’ll be there.

By Michael Cuneo

Michael Cuneo is a news and sports reporter for the Fayette County News. Michael graduated from Georgia State University with a degree in Journalism in 2020. In his off time, Michael enjoys torturing himself as an Atlanta Falcons fan. Follow Michael on twitter @michaelcune