Chief Ron Siarnicki gazed out from behind the stage at the sea of people seated underneath the bright mid-morning sunshine on the campus of the National Emergency Training Center, Sunday, October 3. “It’s a good crowd. It’s a good crowd,” the Executive Director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation said. “Let’s go.”
Following a year of reduced, postponed, and virtual events brought on by the COVID pandemic, the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend marked its 40th anniversary October 2-3 by returning to an in-person event in Emmitsburg, Maryland, honoring 215 firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2020 and 2019 and in previous years.
Looking at the crowd, Siarnicki had good reason to feel relieved. Up until nearly a month before the weekend, there was still some doubt as to whether the 2021 Memorial Weekend would happen at all. COVID cases from the Delta variant were increasing nationwide, guidance and protocols seemingly changed by the day, and uncertainty seemed to reign.
One by one, though, the hurdles were cleared, and by the beginning of September, the weekend was a “go,” complete with rigorous masking and safety protocols in place, and the requirement that all attendees to the Memorial Weekend be fully vaccinated. The ceremonies, typically opened to the general public and all the fire service was restricted to families of the fallen and members of the departments who were having a firefighter honored.
Of the 215 firefighters honored at the Memorial Weekend, 87 firefighters died in the line of duty in 2020, 82 firefighters died in the line of duty in 2019, and 46 firefighters died in the line of duty in previous years. COVID-related line-of-duty deaths were, for the first time, a factor in the weekend tribute.
Congress created the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) in 1992 to lead the official nationwide effort to honor America’s fallen firefighters. Since then, the organization has developed programs to fulfill that mandate, including ones that provide resources to assist their families in rebuilding their lives, and others in partnership within the fire service community to reduce firefighter deaths and injuries.
On Saturday, October 2, the families of America’s fallen firefighters arrived in Emmitsburg from across the country to tour the Memorial, meet fellow family members and share the stories of their Fire Heroes. The Foundation and corporate sponsors fund the travel, lodging, and meals for immediate family members of fallen firefighters being honored. This allows families to participate in Family Day sessions conducted by trained grief counselors and in the private and public tributes.
In the waning daylight, an emotional Candlelight Service offered music, prayers, and thoughtful reflection to the families. During the ceremony, the plaques from 2020 and 2019, bearing the names of the fallen, were unveiled and added to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial.
Heroes like firefighter Eric Morrison of Fort Smith, Arkansas. His wife, Amy Morrison, and her son Henry, walked up to the line of luminaria bags in front of the Memorial, each one representing a fallen hero; each one personally decorated by their surviving family. “This is Eric’s,” she said as Henry put his arm around her. A picture of the smiling Fort Smith, Arkansas, firefighter and his family, along with illustrations of his life adorned the white paper bag. “Hunting, fishing, and four-wheeling were some of his passions,” Amy said. “He was also handy with tools and owned his own construction company.”
Morrison was a 16-year veteran of the Fort Smith Fire Department when he died from complications of pancreatic cancer on November 21, 2019. His name would have been unveiled during the 2020 Memorial Weekend, but COVID postponed the event. “It’s good to finally be here so that we can celebrate what Eric meant to all of us,” Amy Morrison said.
The evening ceremony concluded with the lighting of the NFFF chapel in red in remembrance of the fallen firefighters. The Light the Night For Fallen Firefighters scene was repeated across the country from private homes, businesses, and firehouses to prominent landmarks, such as One World Trade Center in New York, Los Angeles City Hall, and the Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans all illuminated in red.
Sunday morning, Fire Hero Families returned to the NETC campus to participate in the annual National Memorial Service where the sacrifices of their loved ones were honored. An impressive line of color guard and pipes and drum corps led the service, which included comments from FEMA Administrator Dianne Criswell, a tribute reading by Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and several other dignitaries. The names of all 215 honored firefighters were read aloud as bells rang across the nation in tribute. The NFFF presented each family with an American flag flown over the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial and the U.S. Capitol, along with a badge and a single red rose.
NFFF Chairman Troy Markel said that every detail of the Memorial Weekend is designed and carried out to support and assist the families in rebuilding their lives. “I think that I would say that we always have them on our minds in how we transact business and how we continue to honor the fallen and serve them,” Markel said. “We want them to know they’re at the core of what we do.”
That process of hosting the National Memorial includes hundreds of volunteers who serve in many capacities during the weekend, including family escorts, logistics teams and those who work to carry out both the Candlelight Vigil and Memorial Service broadcasts.
As the music began for the Memorial Service, Chief Siarnicki looked out on the assembled gathering of Fire Hero Families and volunteers, a manifestation of two years of uncertainty, hard work, and determination. He nodded his head in satisfaction.
“It’s good to be back.”
Learn More About the Firefighters Honored
2021 Roll of Honor | 2020 Roll of Honor
Download the 2021 Remembrance Book
“I was there to honor my hero Todd Lanthrip this year. Very touching services. Thank you, NFFF, for what you do for us that’s left behind.”
“My son and I are in awe of what you and the people at the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation were able to accomplish for so many families.”
“This was an amazing experience and one that I will never forget, I wouldn’t change a thing. It made my heart very happy!!”
“I was deeply moved by the support and love from the firefighters at the airport when we arrived at the hotel and the wonderful staff of NFFF. Thank you for all you do.”
“Everyone made this the most impactful event of my life and I am so grateful.”
“Receiving the folded flag for my little brother was such an honor.”
“I couldn’t even ask for my beautiful service it was absolutely perfect, and the weather was perfect, and all the volunteers were awesome.”