Fire service's extended family helps survivors

In the face of a government shutdown, volunteers gave the survivors of fallen firefighters a special weekend

The days leading up to the 2013 National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend were extraordinary in many ways. As you know, the government shutdown forced the closing of the National Emergency Training Center.

This meant the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation lost access to its offices along with the space it had reserved for lodging, meals, meetings and programs for the memorial weekend. Most important and frustrating was that the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, the site for the candlelight and memorial services, was off limits to the survivors coming in from across the country.

Everything had to change. It involved strategic thinking, creative planning, precise coordination and an abundance of resilience. And it all had to be accomplished in four days.

These challenges, at times, seemed insurmountable given the short amount of time we had to adjust. Our priority was to the survivors of the fallen and we had no choice but to rise to the occasion.

Fortunately, we received an outpouring of assistance from our neighbors in Emmitsburg, Md., regional fire and EMS departments, and our friends in the U.S. Fire Administration, FEMA and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Survivor focus
Every organization that came to assist us wanted to ensure that the survivors of the fallen had the experiences they needed and deserved. As it turned out, the survivors were able to go to the memorial on Saturday evening to see where their loved ones names would be placed.

The assistance from so many was unprecedented, and deeply appreciated.

But what wasn't extraordinary and didn't surprise me was the commitment of individuals from every level of the fire service who signed up months before to help during the weekend. These selfless, dedicated people never wavered.

They made a promise to come to Emmitsburg and help care for the survivors of those firefighters who died in the line of duty. And they came through.

Over the course of a few days, I witnessed the spirit of compassion and placing others before self in its truest and finest form. Every year, the men and women who give their time to the memorial weekend come from all around the country. They help in every capacity — from operations, transportation, registration and logistics, to security, family escorts, honor guard, pipe and drummer and everything in between.

But they don't come for praise or glory. They come out of genuine concern and respect for the survivors.

They're not paid for their assistance. They're not reimbursed for their travel or meals. Everything they do is out of their own pocket. It's a small sacrifice compared to what the survivors must endure.

Under the shutdown's strain
This year we had 169 escorts from 36 states and Washington, D.C. Of those, 26 were from departments representing 23 fallen firefighters.

When they were notified that we were not going to be able to provide housing due to the federal government shutdown, we anticipated that some would have to cancel. But no one did.

That's right – none. Zero. All of the escorts kept their commitment to supporting the families and fulfilling their mission. And the reaction was similar within the other areas.

On Saturday morning during breakfast at the Vigilant Hose Company someone suggested passing a collection plate to help Vigilant Hose Company cover its costs for feeding everyone. In just 10 minutes, nearly $600 was raised and given to the company.   

Why do these men and women do what they do? It's in their nature. They are caregivers. They have integrity.

They embody what I believe all of us in the fire service aspire to — service above self. It's part of our tradition, our heritage and our culture.

An escort's story
After the memorial service ended and everyone returned to their lives, I heard about one family escort who drove home after completing her duties on Saturday evening so that she could be with her grandmother as she passed away in the middle of the night.

She returned the next morning and completed her assignment as an escort. What greater tribute can there possibly be?

Before your next shift, I hope you will pause for a moment and think of the survivors of all our fallen. And then think of the extraordinary men and women who came to Emmitsburg a few weeks ago to make sure their lives were celebrated and their survivors were honored. 

For me, they embody the fire service as an extended family. We should all be proud to call them brothers and sisters. 

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