During the Mummers Parade, search among the sequins, feathers, and face paint for the man wearing the Class A fireman’s uniform and a black-and-gold sombrero. That’s Philadelphia fire battalion chief Charles Herran, who could not imagine spending the day anywhere else.
His place is in front of Ladder 5, the station on South Broad Street between Bainbridge and Fitzwater. His smile is wider than the brim of his hat, as he struts with older cane-wielding neighbors, carries unconvinced infants and two-steps with friends and strangers.
Every year since 2001, the string bands have stopped there to perform, an unscheduled, undocumented but now-treasured tradition. “It was a tribute to the firefighters of New York City who gave their lives on September 11,” says Herran.
“It’s a huge honor for us that every string band plays here. The first time, they turned and faced the station.
“They were reflecting the sentiment of the country,” he says. “Prior to that time, the public response to first responders was at a zenith. Benjamin Franklin created the Philadelphia fire department to handle accidental fires, but 9/11 changed our profession. Since then, we aren’t just firefighters. Now we train for planned events. We are on the front line of fighting terrorism.
In total, 343 firefighters and paramedics perished in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.
“9/11 also changed the inner feeling of firefighters,” says Herran with characteristic humility, meaning they now feel like essential, valued members of their community.
The chief, a member of the force since 1974, grew up in Northeast Philly — part of a Mummers-loving family. As a kid, he spent New Year’s Day perched on a desk in front of a tall, open window in his father’s municipal office. For years, the agency served soup and hot dogs to employees and their families and friends.
“I am amazed that I have this assignment,” he says, “that I can be here at the station and watch the parade. I come in on New Year’s Day whether I’m on duty or not. Most of our staff come in, too.” And here, too, everyone can sample hot dogs or Italian wedding soup, “the only soup that stays warm and healthful all day long.” Visitors pay a buck for a bite or a cup of coffee or hot chocolate.
In the breaks between banjos and saxophones, kids always climb on the big red engines, and first responders take the opportunity to spread the word about fire safety, often demonstrating fire extinguishers and fire drills.
Herran says that many firefighters are Mummers and that the two enterprises are “part of the social fabric” of Philadelphia, mostly the southern bits.
“I feel extremely proud that this is the only city that has this amazing event,” the chief says. “The Mummers parade brings people together. People visit from other states and often stop to say they were here before.
He credits his entire staff with “making this work” – brewing gallons of beverages, preparing and stirring the soup, wiping up the mustard, managing the first-aid station and cleaning the bathrooms. One year, a paramedic invited her mother, who was schlepping an oxygen tank. She brought an electric blanket, so the guys at Ladder 5 strung 200 feet of electrical cord to the sidewalk so the woman could watch from the front line.
“For one day, we all get along. Everyone is happy. We party out the wazoo,” says the man whose grin demonstrates how much he loves his work, his people and his mummers. See you next year.