A ‘commitment to remember’: How our monthly stair climbs evolved into an essential event to honor the 343
We are thankful that the 9/11 stair climb events serve as a vehicle for firefighters across the country to gather and remember their fallen brothers
By Oren Bersagel-Briese
It was early in 2005, and a small group of firefighters from all over the Denver metro area had been gathering monthly for fire talk, family talk, comradery, training and physical fitness. Because there was a particular interest in the subject of high-rise firefighting, we met on the first Saturday of each month, threw on our gear, packed some hose, and climbed stairs in a building in downtown Denver. We used it as a job-centered way of working out.
As the fourth anniversary of September 11 neared, we decided to meet on the 11th to climb the stairs. As we began our routine, we decided that instead of an arbitrary number of flights, we’d climb the equivalent of the height of the World Trade Center.
We pushed each other, and it wasn’t particularly easy, but as we finished the 110th flight of stairs, deep in our thoughts and reflections, we knew that we had to share that experience.
There were five of us that first day – three from the Denver Fire Department and two from the Castle Rock Fire and Rescue Department.
Chief Dave McGrail had a personal tie to one of the FDNY members killed on 9/11 – he lost a close friend. The rest of us had ties through other connections, and all of us shared a fraternal connection by our devotion to the profession and the long-standing positions as firefighters.
Twelve months later, we gathered in the back of a spare rescue company and made our way to a building to climb again. This time, there were 12 of us that piled out of the back of that rescue and made our way twice through the 55 floors of our building. After that day, word spread pretty quickly around our close-knit region. Our third year saw about 250 firefighters join us.
Honoring the 343 and building connections
As the climb grew roots, we realized that we weren’t going to be able to allow an unlimited number of firefighters to climb with us. The building simply couldn’t handle it. So, we had to find a place to limit the participation, and 343 made perfect sense. We also knew that because we were going to limit the number of climbers to that meaningful number, we had to get a commitment from those who signed up. For a few bucks, they got a T-shirt and a spot in the climb.
It was on that third year that we started carrying photos of each of the 343 up the stairs with us. We laid out individual photo tags of each of the FDNY members, and as climbers began their first trip up the building, they’d pick one up and carry it with them. The symbolism of climbing for, with and on behalf of somebody has become one of the most endearing and important parts of the stair climb events.
We ask each climber to learn about the FDNY member whose tag they carried and to reach out to their family to let them know that they aren’t forgotten. These tags evolved to badges, and have become a vehicle for conversation and remembrance. Throughout the year, you’ll see them on helmets, in lockers, at desks, at workspaces, as part of uniforms and more. Climbers have reached out to families, and life-long friendships have been made. Recently, I’ve been carrying the photo of Lt. Kevin Dowdell with me on my fire department uniform.
Because of the climbs, I’ve had the honor of getting to know some of Lt. Dowdell’s family. I’ve been inspired by the stories of him as a kid, as a brother, as a family member and as a firefighter. Each year, his family participates in the stair climb at Red Rocks Amphitheater, and I’ve had the opportunity to join his family on the evening of September 11, making a toast while drinking merlot.
We reached our capacity of 343 firefighters on the fourth time that we gathered to climb, and it has filled to capacity every single year since.
We open registration annually on July 1, and sometimes it takes only 15 minutes to fill. Having 343 firefighters sign up to spend the day together climbing 110 flights of stairs in remembrance … well, it never gets old. We get the opportunity to time with like-minded sisters and brothers from across the country, and we are constantly humbled by the commitment of so many, with the promise to do so much.
While the Denver stair climb is limited to firefighters only, 2009 saw the first expansion of the climb events. A few firefighters from the West Metro Fire Protection District started a climb at the Red Rocks Amphitheater and opened it up to any participant. Following the same model of climbing the equivalent of 110 floors with a badge of one of the 343, the Red Rocks event has skyrocketed in popularity in Denver, with some years seeing more than 5,000 climbers.
After the Red Rocks climb became established, reports of the climbs circulated around local news media and through some fire profession channels. That’s when a firefighter from Tennessee reached out to talk about establishing a climb in Nashville. It was clear: The climb concept had the opportunity to unite firefighters and citizens from all over the country in a special way of remembering.
The NFFF partnership and official events
I am proud to be in a family that has been firefighting since 1903, and I am even more proud to be the son of Garry Briese, who has influenced and changed the American fire service for almost 50 years. Through his introductions, we met with the leadership of the National Fallen Firefighter’s Foundation (NFFF), and in late 2009 set a plan in motion to bring the stair climb program nationally.
We formed a steering committee and worked with the NFFF to create an event plan that would guide potential organizers as they looked for ways to hold a climb in their city.
In 2012, we met with FDNY leadership at Randall’s Island, solidified the program direction, and began discussions about eventually having a climb in New York City. Through their guidance, we held the first officially sanctioned event at Citi Field in 2015.
Reflecting on the climbs’ evolution, mission and success
While the program has evolved over the years, four of us – Shawn Duncan, Josh Smith, Scott Eckels and myself – have been involved on the steering committee since the inception of the program. We’ve all had incredible opportunities to meet and work with firefighters from around the country as they create climbs. We’ve been humbled to stand with and listen to families that lost someone on 9/11 or due to illness in the years after. We’ve all been on a journey that has permanently altered our personal and professional lives.
Climbs have been held at every major fire service conference, internationally, and in almost every state from Florida to Alaska. And each year, coordinators from across the country gather at the National Fire Academy to share best practices, new ideas, and to help each other make events that stay mission-driven.
The primary goal of the stair climbs has never been about raising money – it has been about doing our part to fulfill the promise to Never Forget. But we’ve been able to be part of a program that has raised more than $7.1 million since the partnership with the NFFF began, and we are proud that the funds are used in several crucial ways: supporting the FDNY Counseling Services Unit, and bringing families of FDNY members that have died due to 9/11-related illness to the NFFF Memorial Weekend.
The infrastructure of a firefighter climb in a building is, in and of itself, an interesting merger of professional priorities. Training meets physical fitness meets incident command meets automatic aide. In Denver, we put our climbers into teams (think: company-level) and assign each team an officer. We have a lobby control, accountability, safety officers, a RIT and an IC. We set up radio repeaters and have designated stairwells – not all that dissimilar to the construct of an actual incident. Firefighters representing more than 50 fire departments work together to ensure that the task is accomplished, which in this case is carrying the 343 badges to the end of the climb.
A commitment to remember
As we reflect on the 20th anniversary from a climb perspective, we are thankful that the events serve as a vehicle for firefighters across the country to gather and remember. And we are just as appreciative that the climbs allow community members a method for talking about 9/11 to those that might not have been alive in 2001 – and to keep it in the social conscience for those that were.
Most importantly, the climbs are the physical representation of an individual’s commitment to remember, to share the story of that day with a new generation of people, and to pass on the stories of heroism and sacrifice to anyone that will listen.
[Read next: 6 things to know about 9/11 memorial stair climbs]
About the Author
Oren Bersagel-Briese is a 27-year member of the fire service and is currently the Division Chief of Training with the Castle Rock (Colorado) Fire and Rescue Department. He has extensive teaching experience, is one of the founders of the Denver 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb, and is a member of the NFFF 9/11 Stair Climb Steering Committee.