A Look Back at 2021 – Through Grief and Gratitude

Chief Ronald J. Siarnicki
Executive Director, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation

It’s been a year full of pandemic-induced challenges, on top of the line-of-duty deaths that unfortunately, we in the fire service see every single year. But at the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) – we not only witness the sadness; we also experience the beauty that emerges as communities, departments and the country come together to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice and support those families and departments left behind.

Amid our collective grief, we’ve also seen an incredible outpouring of support over this last year. These are the moments and events that I am grateful for in 2021.

A Safe, In-Person Memorial Weekend

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. It was the first in-person national firefighter or police memorial service held since 2019 and it wouldn’t have happened without the extraordinary effort of the American Fire Service and everyone who volunteered to make it a reality for the families of the nation’s fallen firefighters. The names of 215 firefighters became a permanent part of the National Memorial in honor of their sacrifices and we were grateful we could gather together for that special and important moment.

We’re already planning for the next Memorial Weekend which will take place October 7-9, 2022. There have been requests to move the event to the spring, and we are thrilled that we will be able to do that starting with the 2023 Memorial Weekend May 6-8, 2023.

The Second Year of America’s Tribute

Last year, when we had to hold Memorial Weekend virtually, we created a video tribute program in its place and it was so well received, we committed to continuing the tradition this year. I am thankful this year to all who have worked tirelessly on this beautiful project. I am also grateful to Norah O’Donnell, CBS Evening News anchor, who hosts and narrates it for us. We appreciate her time and recognition of this important tribute.

This program is about 1 hour. It includes a roll call of all those we lost this year, and it had its online premiere on December 19 at 4:00 pm PT/7:00 pm ET. Please join us in watching it on the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Facebook page or on the NFFF YouTube channel. This program is the Foundation’s way of spreading the remembrance of our nation’s fallen firefighters across the country. The wonderful thing about this is that it remains online – for people to see whenever they can or whenever they have time and that is very important to us and the families who lost fire heroes this year. It is a significant programmatic piece for us that says – we’re never going to forget the sacrifices that those firefighters have made in service to their communities.

Nearly a Half a Million Dollars in Scholarships for Children of Fallen Firefighters

2021-2022 Scholarship Awardees

Too often when a firefighter dies in the line of duty, surviving family members can be forced to postpone or abandon their educational goals due to limited financial resources. That’s why NFFF’s Sarbanes Scholarship Programs are so important. Since 1997, we have offered the loved ones of the fallen financial assistance to help them fulfill their educational dreams.

For the 2021-2022 academic year, 56 applicants received scholarship awards from the NFFF totaling $478,288.94. Awards were based upon an assessment of each applicant’s financial need and academic performance. We focused in particular on applicants (21 of them) who were studying subjects in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) and public safety. Applications for 2022 scholarships will open in January.

Connecting and Supporting Children of Fire Heroes Through Summer Camps

Hal Bruno Comfort Zone Camp 2021

Our Hal Bruno Comfort Zone Camp is for the children of fallen firefighters between the ages of 7-17 and age 18 if they’re attending high school. The camp is typically in-person, but this year because of the pandemic, it was virtual. The 5-hour Zoom event, held in June, was designed, as always, to empower children to grieve, heal, and grow in healthy ways. The camp day included icebreakers, arts and crafts, fun & games and interaction with a Big Buddy who shared his personal story of loss to demonstrate what it’s like. Campers then took part in a Healing Circle session in peer groups that were created by age. The virtual camp closed with a virtual bonfire and memorial service all via Zoom where stories of their deceased loved ones were shared.

This year 26 campers from 13 states took part. Each little camper received a special delivery in advance of the event, and a pre-camp online “unboxing” session with parents/guardians introducing the kid-centric items and shared tips for using them before, during, and after the online camp event. From animal masks to sidewalk chalk and stickers, the delightful assortment set the stage for FUN. Designed especially for children’s energy levels and attention spans, activities on camp day took place in 9-minute intervals. Interspersed throughout the session were stories and connections as children talked about their lost family member.

There was a lot of laughter but also some tears. Most important, the camp helped connect children to those with a shared experience. I’m grateful to all who made this event happen and for how meaningful it was to families. The surveys and evaluations we conducted after the event revealed that:

  • 95% of campers said they were inspired to one day help someone else with their grief.
  • 100% said it helped them with their own grief process.
  • 95% of the campers expressed that their grief felt more manageable after participating in the virtual camp.
  • 90% of the campers reported that they learned coping skills to help them with their grief.
  • We’re looking forward to returning to an in-person camp next year. Mark your calendars for an epic 2022 Camp in beautiful Colorado at the Golden Bell Camp and Conference Center June 24-26, 2022! “Camp HAL truly exceeded my wildest dreams,” said Stephanie Heitkemper, MA, the play therapist who led Camp HAL this year. “The kids were so respectful in listening to each other and they gently made connections about their daddies. Even though hundreds of miles apart, the children had the opportunity to realize they were not alone in their grief.”

    “We love your organization and all you do for our family,” one Camp HAL mother told us. “You all have been a bright spot in our lives.”

    A Renewed Focus on Line-of-Duty Deaths

    As we look to 2022, one of the first things that the NFFF will be doing is bringing the fire service community together to once again look at what we can do to reduce line-of-duty deaths. This is an important part of our mission and one that we have been dedicated to for decades. We held the first National Firefighter Life Safety Summit March 10-11, 2004 in Tampa, Florida, the Second National Firefighter Life Safety Summit in March 2007 in California and most recently, National Firefighter Life Safety Summit – TAMPA2 in March 2014. The intention was to revisit the recommendations coming out of these events every 5 years, but the pandemic interrupted that plan.

    That’s why I’m extremely grateful that we are planning the National Firefighter Life Safety Summit 2022 to be held in San Antonio, Texas, February 13-16, 2022. The goal of this national gathering is to identify focus areas to reduce firefighter line-of-duty deaths and injuries.

    Recommendations from previous summits have led to the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives in the Everyone Goes Home® Program. Those measures have been widely enacted across the country and we have seen a reduction in firefighter deaths and injuries as a result. But with COVID at play and becoming a leading cause of death among firefighters in 2021, it’s time we return to this important issue while also looking at cancer, on-the-job accidents and more so that we create new measures to meet this moment and help save lives.

    And finally, thank you to all of YOU – our fire service family, donors, sponsors, volunteers and more. You’ve made all of these events and programs possible in 2021. You are a true bright spot for our organization, and we are endlessly grateful to you.

    Chief Ronald Jon Siarnicki
    Chief Ronald J. Siarnicki is Executive Director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, whose mission is to honor and remember America’s fallen fire heroes, provide resources to assist their families in rebuilding their lives, and work within the fire service community to reduce firefighter line-of-duty deaths and injuries. He is also Executive Director of the First Responder Center for Excellence.