How 9/11 shaped the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation

Executive Director Ron Siarnicki reflects on the NFFF’s role to support the FDNY, and how tragedy ultimately expanded the Foundation’s mission


When Ron Siarnicki took on the role of executive director for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) in June 2001, the NFFF budget was $1.5 million and there were five employees working out of the National Fire Academy offices in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Three months later, terrorists struck the fire service at the Twin Towers, and the Foundation faced an unprecedented situation, with hundreds of FDNY firefighters killed in a single day.

I spoke to Chief Siarnicki – who also serves on the FireRescue1/Fire Chief editorial advisory board – about his 9/11 experience and the impact of that fateful day on the long-term mission of the Foundation.

A 40-foot-tall bronze monument, named “To Lift a Nation,” was created by sculptor Stan Watts to honor the heroes of September 11, 2001. Along with the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, the statue is located on the campus of the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Maryland. (Photo NFFF)
A 40-foot-tall bronze monument, named “To Lift a Nation,” was created by sculptor Stan Watts to honor the heroes of September 11, 2001. Along with the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, the statue is located on the campus of the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Maryland. (Photo NFFF)

Directed to New York

Chief Siarnicki describes the start to his September 11, 2001, as routine as any other day. As the events unfold on TV, Siarnicki commented to NFFF staff, “This isn’t an accident, this is an attack.”

As Siarnicki and staff watched the Twin Towers burn and ultimately collapse, they immediately began to discuss the potential for firefighter deaths and injuries. They started developing a plan, and anticipating family outreach and support efforts, including the need for chaplains and NFFF staff on scene.

Siarnicki talked to Ken Burris, who was the FEMA Region IV director, about all the programs they were already looking at and how this would all relate to the upcoming NFFF weekend. Burris would soon be on a plane with FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh to whom Burris mentioned his conversation with Siarnicki earlier in the day.

Allbaugh quickly directed the NFFF be on the ground in New York City by September 12.

Building a team and heading north

At the time, the NFFF was essentially a mom-and-pop organization run off some contributions from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and personal and corporate partnerships that the NFFF had established.

With little to go on but the $5,000 limit Bank of America credit card and some personal contacts, Siarnicki started calling contacts and established an additional cadre of people to help.

They headed to New York on September 12, using borrowed fire department cars and rental vehicles, in order to help the FDNY with family services. It became evident early that $5,000 wasn’t going to go very far!

This really was a mission of establishing and exercising relationships. Through one of those chief-to-chief relationships, Siarnicki called Chief Luther Fincher in Charlotte, North Carolina, which happened to be the location of the corporate headquarters for Bank of America. At Chief Siarnicki’s request, Chief Fincher reached into his community contacts to see what “magic” could be worked. Remember that $5,000 credit limit? Gone, in a matter of moments. Those chief and community contacts paid dividends immediately – when it was needed most.

Setting up shop for prolonged assistance

Driving through empty streets and tunnels, the team showed up to a space that was still in shock and in a chaotic frenzy. They were told they were going to meet with the FDNY family assistance unit; however, they spent the first day trying to get their bearings and make heads or tails out of all the news.

The Sheraton Towers Hotel in New York served as the NFFF Command Post. (Photo/NFFF)
The Sheraton Towers Hotel in New York served as the NFFF Command Post. (Photo/NFFF)

On September 13, the team reported to the chief of training at Fort Totten, where they were to set up a call center for the family assistance function to work. They were escorted to their 10 x 10 room, which included a metal desk – no phones, no nothing. This is where Siarnicki met Vinny Brennan, a retiree working at the counseling unit – a guy Siarnicki could tell would “get it done.” Through a cooperative effort with the counseling unit and the NFFF credit card, they were able to get most of their early supplies from a local Staples.

As they met the next day with FDNY officials, Siarnicki explained the NFFF role in this scenario. The glassy-eyed, “Oh great, another government agency we’ll never get anything out of and never hear from again” seemed to be the prevailing feeling from those initial meetings. Ironically, the NFFF is the last agency still actively engaged there today, still helping honor our brothers and sisters.

The following week, NFFF staff moved its Command Post to the Sheraton Towers Hotel in New York.

Taking action to help FDNY

The FDNY is no stranger to firefighter deaths; however, the volume of firefighter deaths was unprecedented – and the department would need immediate help with personnel, particularly with the heightened threat level and call volumes spiking as the anthrax threat hit.

After meeting with former NFA Superintendent Dr. Denis Onieal, IAFF Assistant to the General President Pat Morrison, and the behavior health services team, Siarnicki and others began setting up teams of firefighters from all over the country – 200 firefighters in all – who could rotate into the existing FDNY schedule every week.

In addition to the FDNY chaplaincy program, the NFFF worked with chaplains, who were blessing body parts as DNA identification processes continued.

Siarnicki had a conversation with the president of National Flag & Display about flags and bunting needs for stations and the funerals. The company retooled overnight to accommodate the need and one-by-one provided the necessary ceremonial accoutrements. (Photo/NFFF)
Siarnicki had a conversation with the president of National Flag & Display about flags and bunting needs for stations and the funerals. The company retooled overnight to accommodate the need and one-by-one provided the necessary ceremonial accoutrements. (Photo/NFFF)

The NFFF even helped with things as mundane as fire station bunting. Siarnicki had a conversation with the president of National Flag & Display – already an FDNY supplier – about flags and bunting needs for stations and the funerals. The company retooled overnight to accommodate the need and one-by-one provided the necessary ceremonial accoutrements.

With social media platforms still years from reality, Siarnick walked into a Verizon store, explained the situation and who he was, and asked for help purchasing and activating 20 phones. The manager said, “Sure, come back in half an hour” and made it happen.

These logistical successes were just the beginning for a broad coalition formed between the FDNY, the NFFF, the IAFF and many other organizations that partnered to handle this unthinkable task. It would take many months before the “new normal” could even be recognizable for these organizations and the fire service in general.

Memorial weekend starts a shift in focus

A bronze monument, named “To Lift a Nation,” recreates the famous photo taken by Thomas E. Franklin, a photographer for the Bergen Record, who captured the image of three firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero. (Photo/NFFF)
A bronze monument, named “To Lift a Nation,” recreates the famous photo taken by Thomas E. Franklin, a photographer for the Bergen Record, who captured the image of three firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero. (Photo/NFFF)

The annual NFFF Memorial weekend was just a few weeks away and would be a much more somber event than ever before. As is tradition to honor the fallen at the following year’s event, the 343 FDNY deaths would be wrapped up with the other 99 line-of-duty deaths recognized during the 2002 NFFF Memorial weekend – but naturally, the event would have new significance in 2001.

The sheer volume of numbers meant the NFFF needed to build a bigger memorial. That part of the tragedy led the NFFF to discuss how they could become involved in firefighter LODD prevention, instead of just building bigger memorials and supporting families of fallen firefighters.

That discussion was the impetus for the Tampa 1 Summit, which was where the Everyone Goes Home (EGH) Program was born. That summit resulted in the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives (FLSIs) and the EGH program, which have become standard-bearers for firefighter safety and survival programs. Chiefs Alan Brunacini and Gordon Routley were instrumental in the summit and the reporting that followed.

Modern-day NFFF

Eighteen years later, there are now 28 NFFF employees and a broad cross-section of contract support for NFFF programs. The NFFF budget has grown to $8.25 million, and there has been a phenomenal 26% reduction in firefighter LODDs since 2001.

The NFFF now has a go-kit trailer, complete with all the supplies needed to support a department in the early stages of an LODD, plus accompanying staff, located near its headquarters in Crofton, Maryland, ready to respond should the need arise.

Members of the NFFF's behavorial health team that helped in New York. (Photo/NFFF)
Members of the NFFF's behavorial health team that helped in New York. (Photo/NFFF)

The NFFF peer support teams work closely with the IAFF peer support program to collectively support firefighters across the country. The IAFF’s peer support program and NFFF Stress First Aid programs have become industry standards, with LODD prevention now sharply in focus, eclipsing the idea that LODDs are simply inevitable.

The Family Assistance Unit of the FDNY worked closely with the NFFF in redesigning the NFFF Fire Hero Family Network, which connects the families of fallen firefighters.

The Local Assistance State Team (LAST) program grew out of the realization that no matter how prepared a state may think they are, the sheer magnitude of multiple funerals could be overwhelming, particularly as a department is still trying to provide 911 services and conducting normal business. These teams are now established in every state and should be your first line of contact should the need arise.

As we all know, 9/11 resulted in significant health impacts on the firefighters who responded to the attack sites, with cancer and other health issues claiming the lives of firefighter after firefighter in the past 18 years. The NFFF recently reported the 200th death from 9/11-related disease, bringing the somber total to 543 – and growing.

The NFFF remains in New York helping, developing a “pay it forward” model of help: FDNY participated as part of the NFFF response to Charleston, South Carolina, to assist after the Sofa Super Store Fire; Charleston responded to assist in West, Texas; West, Texas, responded to at Yarnell Hill.

The NFFF has formed lasting and meaningful relationship with many fire service stakeholders who support the mission: Motorola Solutions, Dave Levy, State Farm, Pierce Manufacturing, SCOTT/3M, Dupont, KIDDE, Safety Components, LION, Dover International Speedway, Knox, X2, VFIS, Glatfelter Foundation, 1-800-Board-up, FireRescue1.com, Firehouse.com, iamresponding, ICMA, Johnson Controls, NFPA, NFSA, Paul Davis Restoration, QALO, Skidmore College, Stanley Black & Decker, and many others who offer support at varying levels.

There are a lot of great partnerships and great programs at the NFFF. Through the Board of Director Chairs (Hal Bruno, Dennis Compton, and now Troy Markel) to the day-to-day management under Chief Siarnicki, the NFFF has matured significantly since 9/11. I challenge each of you to make sure that “Everyone Goes Home” is much more than a “just a slogan” born out of the tragedy of 9/11. Everyone Goes Home should embody all of the things we do, from firefighter and paramedic safety and survival to ensuring our communities are able to come home to safe and secure environments.

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