A Much Needed Break

By Ron Kanterman

Welcome, brothers and sisters, to my journal. My hope for this journal is to bring you information you can use, that will make you think and make you laugh, and perhaps make you cry. While I’ll try to entertain you, this is no YouTube column! We’ll discuss real issues affecting the fire service today. Sometimes it will be a training lesson, sometimes a commentary on a particular event, and sometimes something controversial. If I see or hear of something you should know, I’ll let you know.

If you think it’s useful, share it. If it makes you laugh, enjoy it; and if it makes you cry, so be it. We’re all in this together.
My first entry is called “A Much Needed Break.” Take a read on it.
For those of you who have been to the National Fire Academy (NFA) for classes, meetings, or for the annual National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend, you’re intimately familiar with the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. If you haven’t been there yet (you all need to get there someday), the monument is surrounded by flags and headstones listing the names of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice since 1981, when Congress authorized the memorial. (Go to firehero.org, the Web site of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) for a photo tour and to see what the NFFF does for the families of our fallen.)
The backdrop consists of the flags of the following entities: the NFFF, the state of Maryland, the American flag (in the center), the Department of Homeland Security, and the NFA. These flags are placed at half staff for three days for every firefighter lost in the line of duty in the United States. With our recent average of 100 line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) per year (93 in 2009), the flags are hardly ever up to full staff. When they are up, the mood of those who work on the campus is a bit different. You can hear people passing each other in the halls of the NFA and the Emergency Management Institute saying, “Good morning. It’s a great day on the campus, isn’t it?” Any day that the flags are up is a great day on the campus–and a great day for all of us.
I got on campus Saturday, August 14, to prepare to teach a six-day class. I checked in at C-Building, got my stuff from the car to the room, and then took my traditional walk to the memorial. The flags were up. It was a great night on the campus. Class started the next morning. (School starts on Sunday for six-day courses and ends on Friday.) As my co-instructor and I settled the group in, I told the class that it was a great day on the campus and told them why. It put them on “flag watch” the rest of the week. Each day went by, and each day the flags remained up except for Thursday.
What happened? Did we lose someone? Thank God, no. The Memorial Weekend Honor Guard had come from Washington D.C. to retrieve the American flags that were flown over the Capitol Building. The honor guard would then spend a few hours, raising and lowering American flags at the memorial so the families could receive a flag and treasure it, holding on to the honor that had been bestowed on the flags and their fallen firefighters. That’s right. A detail in full Class A uniforms does this every year with little or no recognition or notice. The members do it to honor our fallen and for the honor of doing it. Most of us don’t know who they are, but they know who they are. After finding out why the flags were taken down, I relaxed a bit knowing there was a good reason for it. As the honor guard completed its mission, the members placed all the original flags back up to the top.
We graduated five classes of students on Friday afternoon in the Building E Auditorium. It was the usual honored ceremony. Superintendent Denis Onieal delivered an eloquent keynote address, and each group walked across the stage, received certificates, shook hands, and were congratulated for a job well done and complimented with heartfelt remarks from their instructors.
It was our turn to go up and graduate our class. My partner for the week, Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department Battalion Chief (Ret.) Clyde Pfister, took the podium. My job was to deliver the one-minute remarks. Clyde was to call the names. I talked briefly about the hard work the students did, their determination, their drive, and the promise to take it all home to their communities to make a difference. I always mention the memorial and ask all in the auditorium to do whatever they can to “do anything in their power to get in between their brothers and sisters and a tragedy and help to help us shrink the memorial and keep the flags up.” It then hit me like a freight train: I’ve been on the campus hundreds of times and had never seen the flags up around the memorial for eight days in a row. I was practically euphoric. I drove the point home that, in fact, they had been up the entire week. I told the graduates and staff that this was not only a special week for the students who met new people and received some great education but it was also special because they were there during what we might call an “anomaly.” But should this be an anomaly? Should this not be the norm? Shouldn’t the flags be up all the time? I charged the entire audience to go home and help the effort to achieve this goal.
I charge all of you as well. Help us keep the flags up in Emmitsburg. Do anything you can to help the effort. Buckle up, slow down, eat right, get some exercise, speak up when something doesn’t look right, and think. Stay well, stay safe.

Ron Kanterman is a 35-year veteran of the fire service. He holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees and is a career fire chief in southeast Connecticut. He is an advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and serves as chief of operations for the annual Memorial Weekend ceremonies each year in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He lectures on a variety of topics around the country.

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