Adapt, improvise, overcome- honoring fire heroes in the time of Covid

Emmitsburg, Maryland was calmer than it should rightly have been on Saturday evening, October 3, 2020. What should have been a bustling National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend was instead a quieter time, as COVID-19 forced the cancellation of our official memorial events.

Firefighters do not like to back away from adversity. Around 6:30 PM on Saturday, a familiar sound began to grow from an alley behind the venerated Ott House, as the National Fallen Firefighters Pipes and Drums suddenly marched into the street for a short, informal, but meaningful parade.

“We’re a much smaller band this year, but we are a much more honored band this year.” Pipe Major Brian Brendel spoke loudly to a group of supporters standing outside the Vigilant Hose Company following the short, improvised parade. Brendel explained that the small band was in town to play the following morning in honor of their fallen. They had received permission to perform in the morning adjacent to the Memorial site on the grounds of the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine to honor the fallen heroes.

Adapt. Improvise. Overcome.

That could have been the overall theme of the Memorial Weekend this year. Having to cancel on-site events was a painful decision, but a necessary one, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “At the end of the day, no matter how we tried to work it, there was no other choice,” explained Chief Ron Siarnicki, Executive Director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). “We just could not take the risk of potentially exposing our families and the hundreds of volunteers.”

Bev Donlon, Director of Family Programs of the NFFF, echoed the sentiment. “As heartbreaking as it was, the most difficult thing was telling this year’s families that we would not be gathering in Emmitsburg,” she said. “Although they were understanding, (you could tell) they were disappointed, hurt,” Donlon said.

While plans were made to postpone the honoring of the 2019 fallen heroes until next year when the 2020 families are gathered, something was needed to fill the void. Something the families could see, hear, and keep until they can hopefully meet at the Memorial next year.

Thus, the idea of America’s Tribute to Fallen Firefighters was born and developed. The program would not replace the annual Memorial Weekend activities on the National Emergency Training Center (NETC) campus, but would provide something for the families of fallen heroes and the fire service to find some comfort in until their firefighters can be properly honored in 2021.

The 43 minute program (available online at featured a profile of the line-of-duty-death of Howard County (MD) Department of Fire and Rescue Services Lieutenant Nathan Flynn, including interviews with three chief officers with the department at that time. The Fire Hero Family of Chief Paul F. Price, of the Audubon (NJ) Fire Department, also told their story of the support they received from the NFFF, and their subsequent volunteering as returning family members.

The program also featured the reading of the names of the 82 firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty in 2019, and 21 others who died in previous years. These firefighters will be honored during the 2021 Memorial Weekend, along with the fallen heroes who have died in 2020.

Of the program, Donlon said, “My hope is that after watching the America’s Tribute to Fallen Firefighters, families realize they are they are not alone and that they will feel comfortable reaching out to the Foundation for the resources and support they might need.”

COVID-19 did not prevent some traditions from being carried out. The annual Bells Across America for Fallen Firefighters was carried out in cities and communities from coast to coast. Troy Markel, Chairman of the Board of the NFFF, said that the event united the nation “to salute those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their communities. This annual tradition honors our nation’s heroes and lets their families know that their beloved firefighter will always be remembered.”.

Another tradition that continues to grow with each year is the annual Light the Night for Fallen Firefighters program. This year, dozens of landmarks across the country were lit in red in honor of the fallen heroes. From One World Trade Center in New York City to the Woodburn Bridge in Oregon, Americans were once again reminded of the great sacrifices made by the nation’s fire service in the name of protecting their communities.

The pandemic has forced many nationwide to adapt, improvise and overcome in 2020. The National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend was no different. It is hoped that the video tribute, along with the Bells Across America and Light the Night for Fallen Firefighters brought a semblance of comfort and peace to Fire Hero Families, their departments, and the nation.

The work is already underway on next year’s weekend, scheduled for October 2-3, 2021, when it’s hoped that all can come home to Emmitsburg, where, as the song so poignantly reminds us,“where tears are shed and prayers are heard for the fallen and the brave.”

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