‘It’s good to be back’: NFFF Memorial Weekend again honors fallen firefighters
With the 2020 event canceled due to COVID, the 2021 return to Emmitsburg recognized two years of American fire service LODDs
By Susan Proels
Ron Siarnicki gazed out from behind the stage at the sea of people seated underneath the bright mid-morning sunshine on the campus of the National Emergency Training Center (NETC), on Sunday, Oct. 3.
“It’s a good crowd. It’s a good crowd,” the executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) said. “Let’s go.”
Following a year of reduced, postponed and virtual events brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend marked its 40th anniversary Oct. 2-3 by returning to an in-person event in Emmitsburg, Maryland, to honor 215 firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2020 and 2019 and in previous years.
Together again – safely
As he looked out over the crowd, Siarnicki had good reason to feel relieved. Even just one month before the weekend, there was still some doubt as to whether the 2021 Memorial Weekend would happen at all. COVID cases from the Delta variant were increasing nationwide, guidance and protocols seemingly changed by the day, and uncertainty seemed to reign.
One by one, the NFFF and its partner, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), addressed the health and safety issues, and by the beginning of September, the Foundation had a plan in place, complete with rigorous masking and safety protocols, and the requirement that all attendees to the Memorial Weekend be fully vaccinated.
The vaccine requirement was not a decision made lightly. NFFF Chairman Troy Markel noted that without a mask mandate, there were concerns that permission to hold the Memorial Weekend might not be granted.
Foundation officials knew that the decision to require vaccination would be controversial. “But it was one that we made with the safety and welfare of our Fire Hero Families, staff, volunteers and other attendees in mind,” Markel said. “The vaccine requirement resulted in our ability to hold the weekend on the federal property where the Memorial is located.”
Markel noted that keeping the Fire Hero Families as their focus made the decision-making process clearer, but “that doesn’t mean they [the decisions] were easy,” he added. In addition to the vaccine requirement, there were other tough decisions. “Among them, excluding the public from memorial services and limiting fire service attendance to only those closest to the firefighters being honored,” Markel said.
Honoring the fallen
Of the 215 firefighters honored at the Memorial Weekend, 87 firefighters died in the line of duty in 2020, and 82 firefighters died in the line of duty in 2019. Forty-six firefighters who died in the line of duty in previous years were also honored. COVID-related LODDs were, for the first time, a factor in the weekend tribute.
On Saturday, Oct. 2, the families of America’s fallen firefighters arrived in Emmitsburg to tour the Memorial, meet fellow family members, and share the stories of their Fire Heroes. All travel and weekend expenses for the families were funded by the NFFF and its supporters.
In the waning daylight, an emotional candlelight service offered music, prayers, and thoughtful reflection to the families. During the ceremony, the plaques from 2020 and 2019, bearing the names of the fallen, were unveiled and added to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial.
Heroes like firefighter Eric Morrison of Fort Smith, Arkansas. His wife, Amy Morrison, and their son, Henry, walked up to the line of luminaria bags in front of the Memorial, each one representing a fallen hero; each one personally decorated by their surviving family.
“This is Eric’s,” she said as Henry put his arm around her. A picture of the smiling Fort Smith, Arkansas, firefighter and his family, along with illustrations of his life adorned the white paper bag. Hunting, fishing, and four-wheeling were some of his passions, Amy said. He was also handy with tools and owned his own construction company.
Morrison was a 16-year veteran of the Fort Smith Fire Department when he died from complications of pancreatic cancer on Nov. 21, 2019. His name would have been unveiled during the 2020 Memorial Weekend, but COVID postponed the event.
“It’s good to finally be here so that we can celebrate what Eric meant to all of us,” Amy said.
The evening ceremony concluded with the lighting of the NFFF chapel in red in remembrance of the fallen firefighters. The Light the Night for Fallen Firefighters scene was repeated across the country from private homes, businesses, and firehouses to prominent landmarks, such as One World Trade Center in New York, Los Angeles City Hall, and the Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans, all illuminated in red.
Sunday morning, Fire Hero Families returned to the NETC campus to participate in the annual National Memorial Service where the sacrifices of their loved ones were honored. An impressive line of color guard and pipes and drum corps led the service, which included comments from FEMA Administrator Dianne Criswell, a tribute reading by Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and several other dignitaries. The names of all 215 honored firefighters were read aloud as bells rang across the nation in tribute. The NFFF presented each family with an American flag flown over the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial and the U.S. Capitol, along with a single red rose.
A singular mission
Congress created the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in 1992 to lead the official nationwide effort to honor America’s fallen firefighters. Since then, the organization has developed programs to fulfill that mandate, including ones that provide resources to assist their families in rebuilding their lives, and others in partnership within the fire service community to reduce firefighter deaths and injuries.
Markel emphasized that every detail of the Memorial Weekend is designed and carried out to support and assist the families in rebuilding their lives: “I think that I would say that we always have them on our minds in how we transact business and how we continue to honor the fallen and serve them. We want them to know they’re a part of the process.”
That process includes hundreds of volunteers who serve in many capacities during the weekend, including family escorts, logistics teams and those who work to carry out both the Candlelight Vigil and Memorial Service broadcasts.
In the end, Markel said, it was a safe and meaningful Memorial Weekend, thanks in large part to those volunteers. “I am extremely proud of everyone’s contributions,” he said. “They all rolled with the punches and adapted to overcome each challenge. Most importantly, they were there for the families.”
As the music began for the Memorial Service, Siarnicki looked out on the assembled gathering of Fire Hero Families and volunteers, a manifestation of two years of uncertainty, hard work and determination. He nodded his head in satisfaction.
“It’s good to be back.”
About the author
Susan Proels is the director of marketing for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.