Memorial Weekend ICS: Coordinating the inspiring annual event
How the branches, groups and volunteers for the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend work together to support the families of fallen firefighters
During the weekend of May 5-7, 2023, the American fire service honored 144 dedicated servants who tragically lost their lives in the line of duty.
The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) Memorial Weekend has recognized these heroes and their families in Emmitsburg, Maryland, each year since 1981. This weekend provides an environment that allows families, friends, colleagues and all those connected to the fire service to express grief for our loss, comfort one another, and commemorate the lives of our fallen brothers and sisters.
To the amazement of most people who have attended this solemn event, the bustle of activities behind the scenes involves a significant amount of planning, coordination and realization by an amazing NFFF staff that’s supported by a dedicated group of fire service leaders from across the country. Countless hours are dedicated over the preceding 12 months to ensure that each honoree and family are provided the most respectful and consolatory weekend possible. These dedicated fire service members are not financially compensated for their time and often do not receive any accolades or recognition for their tireless efforts. But without their contributions to Memorial Weekend, our ceremony could not come close to meeting the high expectations associated with this event, namely to honor the fallen and support their loved ones.
Planning for Memorial Weekend
The Planning phase for the event begins immediately following the Sunday Memorial Service and continues for the next 12 months.
An After-Action Review meeting is conducted within two months post-Memorial Weekend to review the recent activities, identify opportunities for improvements, and assign tasks with deliverables. This progresses into a schedule of monthly meetings with the senior command staff, consisting of in-person meetings along with additional virtual consultations as a supplement to establish goals, tasks and deliverables for improving the upcoming ceremonies.
General staff in-person meetings are also held bi-monthly beginning six months before the May event. These meetings are typically hosted by our friends at the Vigilant Hose Company in Emmitsburg.
Attendees come from across the nation, taking time to travel and sacrificing time from their job and family to gather in Emmitsburg, Maryland. The entire group must be on the same page to guarantee a high level of success.
Incident Command System
As with most large-scale planned events managed by the fire service, our team coordinates all activities utilizing the principles of the Incident Command System (ICS).
The central point of communications and decision-making is directed through an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) located in one of the Campus buildings that the National Emergency Training Center (NETC) FEMA staff allows us to utilize each year.
We divide the areas by all the necessary command functions needed for the numerous activities beginning on the Wednesday before the Memorial Weekend activities begin. In addition to the essential five areas of Command, Operations, Finance, Logistics and Planning, we incorporate other mission-critical branches:
- Site Coordination
- Honor Guard
- Flag Presenters
- Security Safety & Traffic
Our branch directors have the immense responsibility to provide an environment that is entirely focused on service to the honoree and their families. From the moment the families begin their travel until their departure from Emmitsburg, we attempt to provide unconditional attention to every person attending the Weekend.
This begins with the development of a modified Incident Action Plan (IAP) by the Planning Group to outline the daily activities, the numerous associated tasks, and the documentation of happenings for future review. This critical playbook has evolved from the distribution of individual binders with paper to the use of software that allows the information to be more accessible in real time. This has proven to be extremely beneficial for the coordination of resource allocations for Operations and their work teams and supplemented by Logistics, ensuring that requested needs are met, and often exceeded. Much like emergency incidents, the remarkable collaboration between Operations and Logistics continues to be a cornerstone of the team’s accomplishments.
The branches address critical areas that are comprised of many moving parts, multiple jurisdictions, and an assorted corps of team members.
The Transportation Branch leader is tasked with acquiring the 12 commercial coach buses, ground transportation support from the Maryland Fire Chiefs Association, and coordination with local airport fire personnel to facilitate our tradition of meeting the families at the airline gates and escorting them to awaiting vehicles for transportation to hotels in nearby Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Our Site Coordination Branch director is constantly engaged with contractors that assist with stage assembly, audience chair placement, tent erections and other provisions to ensure the families are comfortable. They are also responsible for the contingency plans if the NETC Campus is not available, which is essentially another entire event plan and coordination with the NETC building and grounds staff.
The Escort Branch director ensures that each family is assigned an escort who is responsible for serving as an ambassador and personal guide throughout the entire weekend. Over 225 fire service personnel from across the nation donated their time and travel costs to serve as family supporters.
An additional 500-600 personnel travel to Emmitsburg to contribute to the awe-inspiring Honor Guard, Pipes & Drums Corps, and Flag Presenters. The Honor Guard Branch director and Flag Presenter Group leaders develop a finely tuned choreography that involves countless hours of preparation, meetings and rehearsals.
The Production Branch director oversees the full-scale production, which employs the assistance of scriptwriters, teleprompter experts, and broadcasting personnel while having complete responsibility for directing two distinct ceremonies: the Candlelight Vigil on Saturday evening and the Memorial Ceremony on Sunday morning. Both are filled with an incredible capacity for complex details and involve incredibly tight time schedules, which rival most professional productions.
These events and all activities are monitored by our Security, Safety & Traffic Branch director who works seamlessly with the incredible FEMA Campus staff to create a comfortable and protected environment.
Many duties are managed by our group supervisors who ensure that tasks are completed correctly and on time. These groups include coordinating apparatus, registering the numerous fire service personnel, providing nourishment by fire canteen units, radio communications, NFFF Store sales, and providing food to the families and volunteers. Specific to lunch and dinner, food that is donated by Mission BBQ (donating resources to feed over 800 people) is available under a large tent and served by the nation’s fire chiefs and major association representatives working alongside firefighters, volunteers and other staff.
An honor to serve
What starts each year with concepts, ideas and words on paper culminates in a moving experience attended by hundreds and viewed online by thousands worldwide. The event is ultimately structured by the ICS, directed by exemplary leaders, and executed with the assistance of over 800 of the best the fire service has to offer. The fire service’s display of teamwork, servant leadership, and comradery on this scale can only be found in May at Emmitsburg.
The Memorial Weekend is our ability to display our commitment to those who have fallen, their families, other firefighters and the world that we will always selflessly take care of our own. This promise represents all that is good in our fire service and embodies the American spirit in serving our fellow brothers and sisters.
Speaking on behalf of those of us who have served at Memorial Weekend, we are infinitely grateful for the privilege to be a part of this event and cannot think of any greater honor in the fire service than to be able to tell our fallen brothers and sisters that we miss you, we will remember you, and we will be here for your family. Every firefighter across the nation should take solace in knowing that their loved ones will not be left alone and that the NFFF is dedicated to fulfilling the firefighter promise of “Rest easy – we’ll take it from here.”
On behalf of the entire NFFF Memorial Weekend staff, we want to thank Executive Director Ron Siarnicki for his unwavering commitment and dedication to making the NFFF and Memorial Weekend a remarkable success. We wish newly installed CEO Victor Stagnaro our very best wishes and support in continuing this honored tradition.