‘We needed to do more’: The evolution of support in the aftermath of tragedy
How the NFFF sprang into action to serve New York City firefighters – and ultimately grew its mission
I started working at the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) on July 1, 2001, just two months before September 11. I had recently retired as fire chief from Prince George's County (Maryland) and was looking forward to serving the Foundation.
When I started with the Foundation, our offices were in Emmitsburg, Maryland, on the campus of the National Fire Academy (NFA). I was driving from Kent Island to Emmitsburg, each day back and forth, two hours one way.
On September 11, I got in early. I got situated, kind of like how the day starts at a firehouse – you get a cup of coffee, and you start talking with the staff.
Our main office was an old conference room on the campus that was used for some of the management meetings. There was a TV, and the news was on. And sure enough, the story broke that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers in New York City.
At first, everybody thought it was an aviation accident, that something went awry. Then the second plane hit. Immediately, everyone in that room, the five of us who were there, realized that this was not an accident, but an intentional attack. The news then broke about the Pentagon, and later about another plane in Pennsylvania. I was just sitting there, watching all of this unfold.
The memory is like a recurring dream for me. It's very vivid.
I remember that room and that TV and that image, and just thinking that it was a tragic day for our country. And I knew instinctively that the firefighters were going to do everything they could in New York and in Washington to protect lives and property.
And then, as we were watching the TV, the first tower fell. At that moment, I knew that there were firefighters in that building – firefighters who had been killed.
As we watched the Pentagon burn, I remember getting text messages that they were looking for ladder trucks and other equipment to be able to get inside the inner circle of the Pentagon to try to provide for rescues.
All of it brought back all those memories of the Council of Governments discussions that the fire chiefs in the metropolitan region had about mutual aid, and the need to share resources and share information and deal with catastrophic events. I'm familiar with disaster activities but never had I imagined the level of 9/11.
The NFFF’s role
As I watched the second tower fall, I knew that this moment signified even more firefighters who were not coming out. I said to my staff that we need to be prepared for mass casualties of firefighters, and we need to be looking at what we should be doing relative to the next memorial service because that was really the focus we had each year.
I had lunch in the NFA’s dining hall that day. Ken Burris, the COO of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), was there, too. I told him that we were putting together plans on how to deal with the large number of firefighter deaths for the Memorial Weekend in October.
That evening, Ken was on a plane to New York with FEMA Administrator Joe Allbaugh. And as the discussion turned to the fallen firefighters, Ken told Joe that we had discussed the Foundation putting together plans to assist the FDNY and families downstream. Joe looked at Ken and said, “This isn't downstream, I want them here – now.”
Ken called me and told me to put a team together to come to New York the next day. I thought to myself, “How do I make this happen?” So, I did what any fire chief would do: look at the resources available. I contacted the local fire departments – Prince George's, Montgomery, Fairfax, Alexandria and Prince William. All the chiefs that I knew from the Council of Governments. I told them that the Foundation has been deployed to New York, and I need help. I need some bodies. I need some vehicles. Every single chief offered support.
We convened on September 12, got everybody organized in a convoy, and drove to New York. That's how that happened. That’s when it began – a relationship that still exists to this day.
When we arrived in New York, the only resources we had was an NFFF credit card that had a $5,000 limit. I knew that there would be resources made available later, but that was all we had to go with then. I also knew that we would spend that amount quickly, so again I reached out to Chief Luther Fincher of the Charlotte Fire department to ask if he knew anyone at the Bank of America, which was headquartered in his city. I explained what I needed, and within a couple of hours, the NFFF credit card had an unlimited credit line. Luther knew the Bank of America president, and it only took one call to make this happen – another example of the power that fire service relationships have for all of us to get our jobs completed.
A couple of days after our arrival, we were added to the FEMA organizational chart as a family assistance unit. We began to provide support and assistance working with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and other groups to provide support for the FDNY.
Growth out of 9/11
When I joined the Foundation in 2001, there was just a staff of five working out of one room. Much of our work included a scholarship program, the Memorial Weekend and the Taking Care of Our Own program, which was funded by the Department of Justice to help fire departments prepare for and deal with a line-of duty-death.
When 9/11 happened, we knew we needed to do more, obviously. The interesting piece that drove that was with the 343 firefighters who died that day in New York, plus the other 99 who died in that year from other fire service activities. We were faced with literally not having enough room for the names of the fallen firefighters at the memorial.
The first call was to build a bigger memorial. And while we did add space for more names, another discussion arose – that maybe we ought to be focusing more on preventing firefighter line-of-duty deaths and doing everything we can to lessen the impact on families from the traumatic loss of a firefighter.
Those discussions were really the catalyst for the Everyone Goes Home program, along with the whole line-of-duty death prevention activities that we include in our fire programs today. They also led directly to establishing some outside funding sources for a robust campaign with the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives to decrease the number of firefighter fatalities that occur in our country each year.
I could not have imagined then, where we are now. And I think about that from time to time, the amount of growth and expansion and addition of programs and services that have occurred.
Truly, I think the NFFF’s growth catapulted because of 9/11. I have to say that our corporate partners stepped up to the plate to provide the funding for our programs. We are an entity that was created by Congress, but we're not funded directly through the federal budget. We do have to apply for grants, and we apply for cooperative agreements. We have to do a lot of fundraising activities, whether it's the 9/11 stair climbs, golf tournaments or corporate partnerships.
Shortly after 9/11, some fire chiefs in Japan reached out to us early on and said they wanted to do something to help. They provided some of the financial support to help us do some of the initial programs that were needed to help the FDNY, and to develop the programs that continue to help other departments across the country.
We took the lessons learned from 9/11 and other major firefighter line-of-duty death incidents to fine tune our major group deployments, along with our individual responses. We have found efficient ways to help those fire departments recover quicker and, most importantly, to help the fire hero families get to a better place, whatever that new level of normalcy might be.
We have a phenomenal team here at the Foundation. We have a group of people, some from the fire service, some not. Each one of our team members works hard each day, because they're committed to the mission and purpose, which is to honor every firefighter that dies in line of duty, help those families rebuild their lives and, if possible, prevent death or injury from occurring. I'm blessed with the team that we have.
Twenty years after 9/11, the NFFF is still supporting the FDNY though its Peer Support Program at the Counseling Services Unit, plus programs provided to the department through our support of the FDNY Foundation. We have been here since the beginning and will continue to be there in support of the FDNY for as long as they need us, just like we do with every department that loses a fire hero in the line of duty.
SIDEBAR: Losing Chief Ganci
I often think about the last time I saw FDNY Chief Peter Ganci. It was in August 2001. I was attending Fire-Rescue International, the annual conference of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, in New Orleans. Pete was there by himself, and I was there by myself, so we kind of hung out a little bit together.
After one of the events, we went to have a beverage, just to sit down and catch up. We talked about family, we talked about work, and we talked about where things are going in our departments. We even talked a little bit about where we were going in our careers, where things are going next. Just two fire guys sharing ideas and thoughts.
A month later, I'm watching the towers fall and wondering where Pete is. Is he affected? Is he outside the building or in a command post in the lobby? I'm thinking to myself, he's probably right in the middle of things, as the chief would want to be there to ensure the well-being of his people and to make sure that the circumstances are addressed. I was worried that he could have been in that collapse and, unfortunately, I found out later that he was in the building – and that he was gone.
I remember that time we spent together. It's very special to me. It's a reminder to me that life is short. You never know what's around the next corner. And you've got to make the most of what you got when you get it. Pete knew that. He had a lot of great wisdom and a lot of ideas on where he wanted to see the department go. He was really in the prime of his career. Unfortunately, there were other plans.
And that’s what we see in our work with the Foundation. The firefighter doesn't say that “I'm about to go to work today and it could be my last day.” They know that there's a danger. They know there's a risk. But they're hoping that everybody goes home at the end of the day – and that's the reality of our business. It is a dangerous profession. It's an industry that has the need for best practices and strategies and tactics. That’s why the NFFF exists, and our mission to honor the fallen and prevent future line of duty tragedies will continue, in memory of our heroes.