Chief Ron Kanterman-October 2013
That’s what Chief John McGrath (Raleigh, NC) the Memorial Weekend Incident Commander said as we convened in Emmitsburg, MD on Wednesday, October 2, 2013. The planning for the National Memorial Weekend ceremonies started in March. We had completed 7 months of planning with the last meeting being the week before the event. When we showed up that day, we knew we were already locked out of the NETC/National Fire Academy campus. The Executive Command Team started having conference calls on Friday September 27. Then twice day through Tuesday 10/1. At that point Executive Director of the NFFF, Chief Ron Siarnicki and Chairman of the Board Chief Dennis Compton had “pulled the trigger” making the decision to go off campus even of the campus re-opened. There were contracts to let out for things like tables and chairs, buses, catering and the like. At that moment, we put 7 months of planning aside and did another 7 months of planning in 4 days. Our “local agents” went to work earlier in the week. Battalion Chief Matt Tobia (Ann Arundel Co. FD), Deputy Chief (ret.) Vic Stagnaro (PG County FD) started meeting with people locally along with our Logistical Production Coordinator Battalion Chief (ret.) Lew Reader. They opened doors with the Daughters of Charity (next to the NFA campus), Mount St. Mary’s College, the Vigilant Hose Co. in Emmitsburg and Emmitsburg Ambulance. First they moved the NFFF offices from the campus chapel in to the second floor of the Emmitsburg Ambulance station in town. They opened their doors to the Foundation so they’d be able to operate not only through the weekend but continuously afterwards until the campus opened again. As the Memorial Weekend closed in, we realized that we had a monumental task in front of us but we also knew we had the right people in the right place for the right reasons. We (the Executive Command Team) have always believed that over the last 10 years, we had amassed a work team we like to call “The A Team.” This weekend would prove we were right.
The Daughters of Charity very graciously gave us 2 floors in an abandoned wing of their complex that we used for our Command Center. The teams went to work hauling furniture out of storage rooms and set up offices with desks, chairs, lamps and couches along with NFFF supplied computers, printers and other office equipment. Offices were set up for Incident Command, Operations, Logistics, NFFF Staff, Director’s Office, Weekend Escorts, Honor Guard, Work Teams Break Room and counseling session rooms for fire service survivors. We had a place to hang our helmets for the weekend. Was is optimal without all of us being in one EOC for the weekend? No. Did it work? Of course. Although separated by geography all over this huge building wing, we were held together by the common mission – to get the families in for the weekend and give them the best experience we can, in honoring their fallen heroes.
The work teams moved equipment, from the NFFF to the family hotels in Gettysburg. And from Gettysburg to the Basilica at the Daughters of Charity for the Saturday night candle light service. It’s not always boxes of stuff. Sometimes it’s 100 mums to adorn the stage. And from the Basilica back to the hotels. And from the hotels to the NFFF offices. As Saturday rolled around we found out that we would able to get the families on to the campus for two hours due to the diligent work of our US Fire Administrator Chief Ernie Mitchell and MD Congressman Steny Hoyer. They lobbied the White House and got special dispensation. A work detail was let on to the campus earlier in the day to set up a sound system, plant mums, set up chairs, set flowers in large Maltese crosses and other peripheral duties. (The campus was eerily quiet with no students or staff around.) After the candle light service in the Basilica, they opened the back gates and the families were able to gather around the memorial for a short service and the laying of the Presidential Wreath by the National Honor Guard. The staff was relieved that the families could visit the memorial knowing that most if not all of the families may never return to see it again. After their brief visit they were taken to the hotels in Gettysburg for dinner and a hopefully a restful night. We still had work to do.
We broke down the campus equipment, helped the TV/Satellite company move to the Mount St. Mary’s College PNC Sports Arena, moved ceremonial equipment, 5,000 memorial books and programs, the engraved plaques, flowers, the child care equipment and a few other truckloads of stuff. The families went back to the hotels at 7:00. We dismissed our teams much later. They were already beat up but knew Sunday was the main ceremony so they headed out, some to relax with an adult beverage, others to bed and yet others to close the local watering h*** but nonetheless, all to be on the fire ground by 0700 ready to work. And they were.
The main ceremonies went off without a hitch. There is truly nothing like seeing and hearing the National Honor Guard along with pipes and drums marching in to the arena all in sync. All 700 of them. Impressive to say the least. The families along with their fallen firefighters were honored and the names enshrined during the two hour program. As the families retreated in to the practice courts next door for lunch where we set up a dining room for 1,000 the day before, the work commenced again. Demob the arena and demob the Daughters of Charity offices. The work teams took care of the arena. A 30 person probie class from the Ann Arundel County FD took care of the DOC. We were completed by 2:30. It should also be noted that due to the lack of having the campus dining hall, the Vigilant Hose Company set up their firehouse like a dining hall and cooked for the staff all weekend. Yet another unplanned monumental task. No one asked. They simply stepped up.
We lived through a Presidential visit in 2007 and now this. We had the A Team then and again this time. We’re not sure what’s next but we think we’ll be able to handle it. The best way to sum it up: “The government was shut down, but you can’t shut down the brotherhood!” -- Battalion Chief (Ret.) Joe Wurtzbacher-Summit N.J.; Memorial Weekend Work Team Leader.
At the end of the day, it does appear that it was our finest hour.
Take care, be well and be safe,