As Firehouse Sees It: The Return to Emmitsburg to Honor Survivors

Nov. 14, 2022
Peter Matthews reflects on how important it is to him that he had the ability to show support to the firefighters who were honored at the Memorial Weekend.

A few days after returning home from Firehouse Expo, I was back at the airport, with a destination of Baltimore/Washington International Airport. I was headed to another gathering of the fire service, but this time it was a much more somber trip, to the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial Weekend, which is located on the grounds of the National Fire Academy (NFA) in Emmitsburg, MD.

As I boarded the flight, I ran into Curtis Dunne. He is a retired firefighter who now works with the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN). When I asked his travel plans to Emmitsburg, he said he was headed to a different memorial service, this one was for Trey Kelso, who was a deputy chief with the Beltsville, MD, Fire Department and the chief financial officer for the FCSN. He died way too young and unexpectedly at age 45. Kelso was my assistant chief during my brief time with the Laurel, MD, Volunteer Fire Department. Years later, he and I reconnected at a fire conference, as he had taken on the mission to educate firefighters on cancer prevention and to help them to navigate the challenging diagnosis of cancer.

After we landed, I met two groups of firefighters who were making their way to Emmitsburg: one was a couple of bagpipers who would join dozens of other musicians; the other group was going to take part in the honor guard and family escort duties. I later learned that the family of a fallen firefighter was on my flight, too.

I was late to arrive in Emmitsburg, but when I pulled onto grounds of the NFA Thursday night, it already was in full transition for Memorial Weekend. Tents were set up, chairs were set out, the stage was built out and wires were being run to ensure that firefighters and families all over could watch the service from anywhere.

An honor to assist

I returned to work with Team Brunswick, under the command of retired Cherry Hill, NJ, Battalion Chief Greg Collier. Our mission was to feed the families of the fallen and the volunteers. This year, 148 firefighters would be honored, and more than 700 family members of 108 firefighters would be on campus. In addition, hundreds of volunteers and staff would be scattered around to play their role.

Our group of roughly 20 had a few first-timers (that took the pressure off me), many who volunteered for years and one person who worked the event since the first memorial weekend. It was a great group: retired and active career, volunteer and military fire service personnel, people from support organizations and two spouses, all of whom were dedicated and caring.

I was introduced to a few others who have volunteered for 25-plus years, who have made the annual trek to the NFA grounds from near and far, to ensure that the families of the fallen know that they and their loved ones haven’t been forgotten.

I struck up a conversation with the family of a man who died battling a wildfire in the Pacific Northwest, and they explained that they never saw such a large gathering of firefighters.

What struck me most was that, despite the fact that this weekend is for firefighters all over, including contractors and forestry firefighters in the wildland realm plus military firefighters, many attendees weren’t accustomed to the funeral details and the turnouts that I was exposed to growing up in New York. They shared how some of the colleagues of their fallen loved ones were unable to attend their funeral, because they continued to work the front lines. As a result, these attendees were in awe of the support that they received on Memorial Weekend.

Sacrifices remembered

The families who go to Emmitsburg never will forget the tribute that’s paid to them, and we owe it to them to ensure that they know that their sacrifices never will be forgotten.

I hope to meet some of you at the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial Weekend next year, May 6–7, as you return to or attend for the first time.

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