Each October in Emmitsburg, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation sponsors the nation’s official tribute to firefighters killed in the line of duty the previous year. The annual National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend features special programs for family members and coworkers, along with moving public ceremonies, rich in fire service tradition. Members of Congress, Administration officials, other dignitaries, members of the fire service, and families of these fire heroes, attend.
This year marked the 36th annual Memorial Weekend, with between 4,000 and 6,000 in attendance, and over 1,200 fire service volunteers contributing their time. Hundreds of firefighter honor guard and pipes and drums units from across the country participated in the Weekend. According to Chief Ron Kanterman, 2017 Memorial Weekend Incident Commander, ninety-five firefighters were honored, seventy-five of which were line-of-duty deaths occurring in 2016, and twenty from previous years. Half of the firefighters from previous years died from illnesses related to the 9-11 tragedy.
The annual Memorial Weekend began on Thursday, October 5, 2017, with a ceremony held in the Rayburn Building in Washington, D.C. Members of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus presented ninety-five American flags, previously flown over the U.S. Capitol, to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. These flags were also flown over the National Fallen Firefighters Monument in Emmitsburg. During the Memorial Service on Sunday, October 8, these flags were presented to each family, along with a red rose (the symbol of the fire service) and a customized badge imprinted with their firefighter’s name and year of death.
Also on Thursday, members of the fire service placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Family members of firefighters previously honored arrived, ready to assist the new families and just “be there” for support. New families arrived on Friday, October 6, and were welcomed by these empathetic volunteers. Additionally, each family was assigned a fire service escort from their loved one’s department to accompany them to all Weekend events.
Saturday, October 7, was Family Day. Events included small group sessions, various family activities, a silent vigil in the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Chapel, and the annual Red Helmets Motorcycle Ride and wreath-laying ceremony. Family Day concluded with the Candlelight Service. Earlier in the day, children decorated luminary bags in honor of their special firefighter. These keepsakes were placed at the Monument. Right before dusk, families lit the candles, signaling the beginning of the Candlelight Service.
This year, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation observed its 25th anniversary. To commemorate both this event and the Memorial Weekend, it created Light the Night for Fallen Firefighters. As dusk turned to dark at the end of the Candlelight Service, the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Chapel, along with more than thirty iconic buildings and landmarks across the country, were illuminated in respect for the fallen firefighters and their survivors.
On Sunday, October 8, as part of fire service tradition, the families walked through a “Sea of Blue” of uniformed fire service personnel, standing at attention. Once seated, Dennis Compton, the chairman of the Board of Directors, called the Memorial Service to order. At that moment, the honor guard and pipes and drums began their procession.
The Memorial Service is typically held outdoors at the site of the National Fallen Firefighters Monument. This year, however, the weather did not cooperate. Mount Saint Mary’s University graciously offered its sports complex as the venue. The Memorial Service is the final event held during the annual Memorial Weekend. After the Service, and as part of Bells Across America, bells rang out from coast to coast as a grateful nation paused to honor these fallen firefighters.
Congress created the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation to lead a nationwide effort to honor America’s fallen firefighters. Since 1992, the non-profit Foundation has developed and expanded programs that fulfill that mandate. The mission of the Foundation is to honor and remember America’s fallen fire heroes, to provide resources to assist their survivors in rebuilding their lives, and to work within the fire service community to reduce firefighter deaths and injuries. For additional information about the Foundation, visit www.firehero.org.
Photo by Coral Ruggiero for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation