Reno Fire Department Chaplain Stephen Arvin

Reno Fire Department chaplain Stephen Arvin has been the city’s chaplain since 2000. He can be reached at 560-4861.

Reno Fire Department chaplain Stephen Arvin has been the city’s chaplain since 2000. He can be reached at 560-4861.


The word “hero” gets bandied around quite a bit. Somali pirate hostage and ship captain Richard Phillips was hailed as a hero upon his return to Vermont. Police and fire fighters are routinely called heroes because of their willingness to put their lives on the line. Professional athletes are often considered heroes.

But what’s a hero, really? Peculiarly, in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, the closest definitions to the popular notions are “one that shows great courage,” or “an object of extreme admiration and devotion.” Nothing about sacrifice, but that’s got to be one of the most connotative aspects to the word.

And yet, there are people whose lives become the ultimate sacrifice—not because they give up or risk the living of it for others, but because they devote the living of it to others, and they do it without pay. To name some of the more recognizable heroes of this nature is to put the chaplains of the Reno Fire Department on too lofty a plane, but make no mistake, these chaplains’ sacrifice is genuine and extraordinary.

I’m sure Stephen Arvin, 52, would never call himself a hero. The community’s other fire chaplain, Dave England, probably wouldn’t either, but I’ve never met him. Arvin doesn’t really look the part of a hero, but as we sucked down the caffeine in a local coffee shop, I became momentarily distracted by the depth of this man’s sacrifice. He ministers to the men and women in government—both on psychological and spiritual levels—who get the pats on the back for their heroism. He’s there to pick up the emotional pieces in the face of trauma, both for the first responders and for the victims. Death and disaster is not easy for anyone, not even those trained to deal with them. Arvin’s on call 24/7, often awakened from a sound sleep to go to a place where lives are on the line. But one thing that makes this man’s life and sacrifice extraordinary is that, despite the fact he drives an official vehicle, wears a uniform and carries a City of Reno business card, he works for free. Chaplain for the Reno Fire Department is an unpaid position. It’s a peculiar and inexplicable situation.

“As a department chaplain, No. 1, you’re there for the personnel of the department,” Arvin said. (In fact, he’s there for all government employees.) “It doesn’t matter if it’s an online personnel or an office secretary. You’re there for them, their families and then the community.”

In mortal situations, Arvin offers information about end of life decisions—for example, after the Mizpah fire. He’ll use his skills as a genealogist to find family-members. Sometimes it falls to him to do research for the eulogy or celebration of life for people new to the area. He deals with people of any religion or spiritual belief system. He does not proselytize; in fact, he won’t even discuss a matter of spirituality unless the person he’s dealing with brings it up.

“I felt that God was calling me to be the pastor of a local church,” he said. “I didn’t really realize until I was going through my schooling that he was calling me to chaplaincy. … I had run from doing God’s will for years. This is nothing that I would have dreamed of doing.”

Eight years without a salary: It’s hard for me to get past that. There’s an unsung hero behind the hero, and that role would fall to his wife, Marla, a nurse, who pays the bills so this man of conscience can minister to Reno employees and the community they live in.

“There’s no greater support that I can have when I go home than to be able to know that she’s there for encouragement and to give me that push.”

It seems the Merriam-Webster online dictionary needs to amend its definition of hero.