For the first time since it was founded in 1992, the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend will not be held in person as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. First responders in Westerly, Stonington and Charlestown are doing their part to make sure those who died in the line of service are not forgotten.
Multiple police, fire and EMS services across the region will be lighting their buildings up in red over the weekend to honor 103 firefighters nationwide who died in the line of the duty, including 82 who were killed in 2019. The effort is part of the annual Light the Night for Fallen Firefighters, which first began as a candlelight vigil held on the first Saturday in October during the annual memorial weekend hosted at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md.
Although individual firefighters and agencies took part locally last year, Watch Hill Fire Lt. Christopher Koretski said 2020 marks the first time regional departments have teamed up to host a coordinated, multi-agency show of support.
"This is just one way of showing support to the firefighter families nationwide who have given so much for their communities," said Koretski, secretary of the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and a member of the Rhode Island Local Assistance State Team for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. "Many departments have started to shine a red light already and it will culminate in a national effort across the nation on Saturday night."
The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation sponsors the memorial weekend every October as an official national tribute to those firefighters who died in the line of duty during the previous year. In honor of the program's 25th anniversary in 2017, the Foundation created Light the Night for Fallen Firefighters to recognize those being honored.
The Light the Night event has since expanded with nearly 150 agencies and U.S. landmarks, including One World Trade Center, lighting up red in 2019. With the restrictions this year, however, the organization said hundreds of additional agencies and individuals nationwide have already confirmed they will be taking part.
Among those confirmed to be participating in the weekend display of support locally are Westerly's four fire departments, Westerly and Stonington police, Charlestown Ambulance Rescue Service, Stonington Ambulance and Central Baptist Church. Additional organizations have expressed interest as well, Koretski said, including officials representing town government in each of the three communities.
The show of support comes at a time when families, for the first time, are unable to attend the annual event in person due to restrictions as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The academy is currently closed to the public, and members of the foundation are keeping the annual tradition alive by hosting a digital weekend-long program that will culminate in a public Zoom ceremony that will be streamed online Sunday morning.
Koretski said both the Watch Hill and Dunn's Corners fire departments will host a volunteer breakfast and bring members of the department together to watch the stream and take part in local recognition as well. This year's memorial ceremony will include recognition for Bristol Deputy Fire Chief Frank J. Sousa, who died in 2015.
Dunn's Corners Fire Lt. Hannah Schilke, one of four firefighters who has worked directly with families of fallen firefighters as a liaison during previous memorial weekends, said the effort is a chance for local firefighters to show their support and honor those who came before. Koretski, Dunn's Corners Fire Lt. Rachel Schilke and Watch Hill firefighter Rees Harold have also served as liaisons at past events.
"I have had the opportunity to work with two families now, each with very different backgrounds and stories, and it has been amazing to see the impact it can have and what it means for those who have lost their loved ones," she said.
Schilke said for those involved, whether as liaisons or family members of those lost, seeing so many members of the fire service come together to recognize those who gave their lives in the line of duty is a heartwarming experience.
"The pandemic has been a difficult time for everyone," she said. "To be able to show these families that we are still coming together or a common cause, it's a special way to make sure they know their loved ones are not forgotten."
Charlestown Ambulance Rescue Chief Andrew Kettle, who is also a volunteer firefighter and members of the Local Assistance State Team, said the event hits home for many local volunteers. Both Kettle and Koretski said the event also serves as reminder of the importance to continue to improve safety protocols in response to assure everyone returns home safe after every call.
"Taking part, turning on our lights, is the least we can do for the sacrifice these guys have made," Kettle said.
Residents and business owners throughout the region are encouraged to take part as well by installing red lights outside their homes or buildings, and they can show their support by sharing pictures on social media using the hashtag #nffflightthenight2020.
For more information on Light the Night and the annual memorial, plus links to Sunday's broadcast, visit https://www.firehero.org/events/memorial-weekend/.