Passionate. Happy. Selfless. Loving. Loyal.
Those were some of the words fellow firefighters and friends used to describe Richard “Rick” Garner Jr. — a Madison firefighter and paramedic who died suddenly Sunday after a 48-hour shift — at a memorial service Friday attended by hundreds of firefighters and police officers from across the state.
The former University of Wisconsin football player and five-year veteran of the Madison Fire Department collapsed after returning from Easter church services and lunch while visiting friends in Mount Pleasant, just hours after completing his shift, Fire Chief Steven Davis said.
Garner died four days before his 30th birthday.
Davis and others described Garner as a dedicated firefighter with a personality as big as his 6-foot-6 frame.
“It’s very rare in a department of our size … that you have someone who has an effect like (Garner) had in such a short amount of time,” said Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin president Mahlon Mitchell.
While the cause of Garner’s death is unclear, Davis said it is believed to have been due to an unknown medical condition. Because his death occurred within 24 hours of his shift ending, it is considered a death in the line of duty.
During his last shift from Friday to early Sunday, Garner responded to 19 calls, which Davis said likely contributed to his death.
While Davis said the number of calls is not unusual, the types of calls — which included a structure fire and child birth — were more stressful than a typical shift.
“They had a lot of high-trauma events,” Davis said. “You can have one call and if it’s stressful enough, it can do a lot of damage to the body.”
The department wasn’t aware of any underlying medical conditions and Garner didn’t report feeling ill during his shift, he said.
Davis said Garner was in good shape and had passed annual health exams and physical fitness exams every other year.
Garner’s death could lead to changes in the Fire Department’s policy to prevent future deaths, Davis said.
Once the department has more details, it will look at possible adjustments, Davis said, but did not specify what those changes could be.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us … on how we’re going to make sure this never repeats itself,” he said.
Davis said grief counselors have been made available to help other firefighters cope with Garner’s death.
A popular firefighter
At Friday’s memorial at the UW-Madison Field House, Garner was remembered as a great firefighter who was high-energy, popular and fun.
“Rick was a special kind of crazy,” said Madison firefighter and friend Brandon Jones. “It was his energy that allowed him to touch so many lives.”
Whether it was mentoring boys who hung around his fire station or checking up on patients as they recovered, Garner was committed to the job even when he wasn’t working, firefighter friends said.
“He had a passion for helping children in this community,” said Doug Johnson, a Madison firefighter and friend.
Family members, including Garner’s parents, Richard Garner Sr. and Lenell Mitchell-Garner, and brother and sister from his native California, attended the memorial.
Garner will be buried in California. He was not married and had no children.
To allow as many Madison firefighters to attend the memorial as possible, firefighters from departments as far away as Kenosha and Green Bay volunteered to respond to fire calls.
The memorial included remarks by Mayor Paul Soglin and Gov. Scott Walker.
Madison’s fire Engine 10 will be named after Garner and include a plaque honoring him.
“He absolutely loved this city and loved working for the Fire Department,” Davis said, adding that Garner was one of his first hires as fire chief.
“We have a department that’s grieving because Rick was a very popular person,” Davis said. “It’s rare in our business to have this big personality come on the scene that everybody loves.”