By Troy Markel
Chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Board of Directors
Thank you!!! Thank you to the American Fire Service and everyone who volunteered to make the 2021 National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend a reality for the families of the nation’s fallen firefighters. It was the first in-person national firefighter or police memorial service held since 2019!
The pandemic created enormous challenges. During the planning, and as late as September, the National Memorial again faced the possibility of being postponed. At each of those moments, the hundreds of Memorial Weekend volunteers, NFFF staff, and our partners at the U.S. Fire Administration found ways to overcome these obstacles. This allowed the fallen to be appropriately honored and their families to see the gratitude of our nation.
Throughout the entire planning process there was just one goal in mind – do everything possible to safely hold the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. None of us wanted to miss another year and further delay our Fire Hero Families from coming to Emmitsburg to honor their loved ones. The many comments we received from families who attended in person, and those who viewed our live telecasts, show how grateful they are that this momentous event was held this year.
By keeping the families as our priority, the difficult decisions became clearer. That doesn’t mean they were easy. Among them, excluding the public from Memorial Services and even limiting fire service attendance to only those closest to the firefighters being honored.
The one decision we heard most about, was that all those working the event had to be fully vaccinated for Covid-19. We were very concerned, without that requirement, our safety plan would not be approved.
Our job was to make the practical and necessary decisions to give us the best chance of getting that approval. Was it a controversial decision? YES! But it was one we made with the safety and welfare of our families and attendees in mind. It gave us the best opportunity to hold the ceremonies on federal property, where the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial is located.
Our team knew that taking any stand based on an individual’s choices, likely would result in further delays for our Fire Hero Families. Something we could not accept. When faced with the responsibility of ensuring a safe gathering, our Memorial Weekend Command Staff – a group of fire service professionals from all over the country – unanimously advised and urged Executive Director Ron Siarnicki to require vaccinations. This became a central part of our plan to protect the families. Final approval came from the Secretary of Homeland Security. Along the way it went through USFA, FEMA and DHS safety committees, including medical experts at each level.
The safety plan involved the placement of large tents to feed the families attending the ceremonies. These tents allowed each family to be seated separately to keep proper social distancing during meals. Similarly, we had to rearrange seating during the Memorial Service and Candlelight Service, both held outdoors. It was a vast undertaking that our volunteers handled flawlessly.
We had a few missing faces among our Memorial Weekend volunteers. Some told us the vaccine requirement was the reason. Those are personal decisions we respect. A lot of those people have provided dedicated service to our families over many years. They have been integral to our prior success, and they will always be welcomed back.
In the end, it was a safe and meaningful Fallen Firefighters Memorial. I am immensely proud of everyone’s contributions. They all rolled with the punches and adapted to overcome each challenge. They supported each other and, most important, they were there for the families.
Our focus now is on Memorial Weekend 2022. The lessons learned from this year will go a long way in guiding our planning. I’m confident the key lesson from 2021 is an important reminder that being true to NFFF’s mission must always be our guiding principle – honor the fallen and take care of their families.