By Chief Ronald Jon Siarnicki, Executive Director, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation
This year’s International Firefighters’ Day on May 4th comes at a somber time. Many of us are home, finding new ways through everyday life as a collective and increasingly personal sense of grief weighs in.
As a firefighter, former fire chief, and Executive Director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, I am proud to be a member of the fire service, grateful for the experiences and friendships it has given me. I write this thinking of our better days to come – a lifetime of responding to emergencies teaches you a lot about grief and hope. I know these emotions can somehow be both temporary and constant.
The Foundation’s charter is to support our Fire Hero Families, the loved ones of firefighters who have been lost in the line-of-duty. Despite our work to make sure Everyone Goes Home®, we honor close to 100 firefighters each year. We will add more names this year, as we are monitoring more than 40 first responders who have succumbed to COVID-19. We fear there will be more.
The names of over 4,300 firefighters grace the walls of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where we gather each October to honor their sacrifices. Last year’s Memorial Weekend honored 119 firefighters, hosting over 600 relatives of firefighters who died in 2018 and in previous years. Honor guards, pipe and drum bands, and firefighters from around the country attend to honor their lost brothers and sisters and to support their families.
With funerals and memorials now delayed, held virtually or at a distance, we worry about the impact on those grieving families. Traditional displays of honor and service give families, fellow firefighters, and the community the time and space to grieve and share in their loss. The loss or changes in these services is a difficult, searing experience that will leave long-term repercussions.
Our support for families continues throughout the year. Retreats, camps, and conferences give Fire Hero Families the opportunities to come together with others who understand their unique experience of loss. We are moving many of these events to a virtual footprint but the hugs, laughter and tears that accompany these events will be very much missed.
We also work to support the fire service in improving its safety, in the hopes that we see a day where no names are added to the Memorial. Being a firefighter is a difficult job, with far-reaching dangers to health and well-being. Exposures to carcinogens, psychological stress, and operating in unpredictable environments impact our safety.
Firefighters respond to the public’s call for help, and in doing so, they often put aside their own lives and personal safety to do what is needed to keep us safe. Sometimes what they see stays with them, affecting their lives and interactions with family and friends. The fire service, like our counterparts in law enforcement, have seen increases in suicide ideation, anxiety and depression. The worldwide pandemic reminds us of the extraordinary work firefighters do every day and on International Firefighters’Day is a great opportunity to express our thanks for their dedication to service, community and our common good.
Learn more about us at memorialweek.wpengine.com. If you can, please consider donating to our cause. No donation is too small to make a huge difference. Join with us on May 4th, to honor our firefighters for what they do each day for all of us.