Author(s): James Pauley. Published on November 1, 2017.

Honoring the Fallen


Firefighters don’t like the word “hero.” They see what they do as their profession: helping people, saving lives. But to the public, hero is a fitting term for a person with the courage to run toward danger when everyone else runs away from it.

In October, I had the honor and privilege of attending the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend in Emmitsburg, Maryland. The weekend is sponsored by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), which Congress established in 1982 to develop programs to honor fallen firefighters and assist their families and coworkers. It is not just an event to honor the heroes who have fallen; it’s an opportunity for survivors to gather and find support in a network of caring individuals who have suffered similar losses.

The National Fallen Firefighter Memorial is on the grounds of the National Fire Academy. The names of 3,500 firefighters who have died in the line of duty since 1981 are enshrined on plaques on the memorial. This year, 95 names were added, 75 of which were for firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2016.

I was honored to read a tribute entitled “Passion” during the service, focusing on the passion that these fallen firefighters had for their work, families, communities, and country. It was a humbling experience.

For NFPA, the memorial reminds us that we have much more work to do to help keep additional names off of those plaques. The safety of our first responder community is a critical part of our mission. We realize that firefighting is a dangerous occupation, but we also know that information and knowledge are powerful tools in decision making on the fireground. At NFPA, we continue to work diligently to further bring together the collective wisdom and learning from thousands of experts in the fire community and turn it into actionable information. We are aware of the toll that firefighter cancer is taking on the community, and we will dedicate more time and resources to this topic while working with concerned others such as NFFF on ways to reduce the instances of firefighter cancer. NFPA is committed to the first responder community—to the heroes.

I often think of the insightful words that Chief Dennis Compton, chairman of NFFF’s board of directors, said to the families and colleagues of the firefighters we honored at the memorial. “Your firefighter didn’t become a hero when they died,” he said. “They became a hero when they signed up for the job.”

I couldn’t agree more.