Overcoming Adversity: A Fire Service Tradition

It has been difficult recently to focus on anything on the national political stage other than what is going on in Washington, DC, regarding the budget and related fiscal and policy issues. Many who support members of Congress on both sides of the aisle – as well as supporters of the President – are equally frustrated with the inability of our government to find ways to function, even at the most basic level.

Just when you think the House, Senate and Administration have reached the height of ridiculous behavior toward one another, they seem to find new reasons and ways to avoid making progress. As I write this column, our federal government is in a shutdown for the first time in many years. Discussions about solutions have yet to get past the “blame” stage.


Impact on fire service

The fire service was sure to be impacted by these political antics, and it didn’t take long to happen. The National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend was scheduled on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 5-6, in Emmitsburg, MD. The Memorial is on the grounds of the National Emergency Training Center (NETC), which is federal property. Therefore, access was closed as a result of the shutdown.

Moving the services would not be easy, but the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) made the decision on Sept. 30 to do just that. The Foundation had to make significant adjustments, including relocating the Saturday Candlelight Service and the National Memorial Service scheduled on Sunday. That’s not much time, but it was important to the fire service that the Foundation lead the way in making these changes happen.

Relocating these events created one set of challenges, and providing the logistical needs for conducting all of the events and activities proved to be complex. Even though it would take hard work and a great many resources, the Foundation and its partners (at every level) were committed to honoring the firefighters who died in the line of duty and their survivors.

The town of Emmitsburg let the NFFF relocate its offices to the Emmitsburg Volunteer Ambulance Company facility. Where to conduct the Candlelight Service and the National Memorial Service were next on the list of challenges. The Basilica of the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton had years ago been used for the Candlelight Service, and the Daughters of Charity were kind enough to offer this beautiful Basilica again.

As for the location of the National Memorial Service, Mount St. Mary’s University came through once again. Its arena was used by the NFFF as recently as 2012 for the Memorial Service due to inclement weather, and they made it available to the Foundation again this year. From the standpoint of facilities, things were coming into place, but there was still a huge issue yet to be resolved: It was critical that the families of the fallen firefighters had access to the National Memorial on the NETC grounds. However, that wasn’t going to be easy when the gates were locked and the facility was in shutdown mode. Thanks primarily to the leadership of Chief Ernest Mitchell, the U.S. Fire Administrator, Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the gates were opened on Saturday evening after the Candlelight Service concluded.

Foundation staff, sponsors, old and new partners, returning survivors, an army of volunteers, fire departments in and around the area all did whatever it took – and provided whatever they could. The federal government may have been shut down, but the fire service and the NFFF were not. Eighty-one firefighters were honored at this year’s service. This included 73 firefighters who died in 2012 and eight who died in previous years. Honoring them is not a political process, and the antics going on in Washington, DC, could not be allowed to dictate whether the National Memorial Weekend took place.

Our government could take a lesson from the way a diverse group from throughout the fire service – and outside as well – came together and quickly solved a boatload of problems. They overcame adversity, in the fire service tradition. We should be proud of all who were involved and grateful for their commitment to our fallen firefighters and the survivors.