Once in a while, we have an opportunity to participate in something very special. An event that is not a celebration of our own personal accomplishments or those of other living beings, but one of remembrance on behalf of those no longer with us, a celebration of their lives, and a tribute to them and the loved ones they left behind. Such was the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Services held in Washington, D.C., Oct. 5 and 6, 2002. During my 32 years in the fire service, I've attended many events, but never one more respectful, touching or well done.
Thousands attended the services on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. There were members of Congress, leaders from throughout the fire service, our rank and file members, other elected officials, public officials, representatives of our industry associations, clergy, law enforcement, and others - but most importantly, there were the families and friends of the firefighters who died in the line of duty in the United States during 2001. As you know, in 2001 we lost a record number of our brothers and sisters in the line of duty.
It took hundreds of volunteers and others to make the events of the weekend a reality. More than 40 subdivisions of command were assigned within the organizational structure, each led by a fire chief or fire service association director. Two people deserve the much of the credit for leading these events to successful outcomes. They are Ron Siarnicki, the executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, and its chairman of the board, Hal Bruno (a Firehouse® contributing editor). If you don't know these guys and ever have the opportunity to meet them, don't pass it up. You'll be glad you did.
Ron and Hal would be the last people to take any of the credit for what transpired in Washington, D.C. on those two October days. They both pass all the kudos along to others, just as one would expect strong leaders to do. However, let me tell you, these two men are absolutely focused on preventing firefighter fatalities, caring for the families of firefighters who die in the line of duty, advocating for the resources we need to safely deliver quality services, and representing these issues wherever and whenever they can. I've known them for a number of years…they're incredible!
When I was in the Army in the 1960s, I heard a few of my leaders talk in terms of "acceptable losses" during war. Many years ago, an old fire chief told me that "firefighters are like soldiers, and sometimes soldiers have to die." I never accepted either of these premises. In addition to the opportunity the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation gave us to honor our dead and their survivors, I was reminded of something else that weekend. When I watched and listened to those families, they reminded me that there are no "acceptable losses" in our profession and our firefighters' loved ones never want us to believe that it's expected that we will lose firefighters. Those firefighters were their spouses, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and friends. I know that we all share their feelings after the fact, but do we (every day) act those feelings out in a way that (just as intensely) is geared to preventing firefighter injuries and fatalities? That weekend caused me, and I'm sure many others, to re-think that question and re-commit to firefighter safety and survival issues, especially in light of this much more complicated world we live in today…even if doing so is unpopular at times. As one positive example of my point, the executive board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) recently re-affirmed "Safety" as the primary "Content Value" in all IFSTA manuals. That's quite a statement, quite a reminder to all authors, teachers and others. As always, IFSTA is leading the way for the rest of the fire service by raising the bar regarding safety in the context of our training materials.
Each year, in Emmitsburg, MD, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation holds a memorial service in honor of those firefighters lost in the line of duty. The focus is on their loved ones, meeting their needs and thanking them for sacrificing "their firefighter" so that people and property are protected from harm and destruction. The foundation needs our help, financially and in other ways. We couldn't give to a better cause, so please do so.
I hope every firefighter (career or volunteer) gets to someday attend one of these memorial events (alive). It's quite an experience. I've been to several; this one topped them all. My thanks and appreciation go out to Ron, Hal and all the others who worked to make it happen. Take care of yourselves!
Dennis Compton, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of the When In Doubt, Lead! series of books, as well as many other articles and publications. He is also co-editor of the current edition of the ICMA textbook Managing Fire and Rescue Services. Compton was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and was assistant fire chief in the Phoenix Fire Department, where he served for 27 years. He is the past chair of the executive board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA), past chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute's National Advisory Committee, and serves on the board of directors of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).