When local firefighter Christopher Koretski travels to the National Fire Academy this weekend to serve as a family liaison to relatives of a fallen firefighter, he will be able to bring with him a commitment from nearly a dozen police, fire, EMS and civic organizations to make sure those killed in the line of duty are never forgotten.
First responders from Westerly, Stonington and Charlestown will light their headquarters up red on Saturday as part of the annual Light the Night for Fallen Firefighters. The celebration is part of a larger national effort this weekend to pay tribute to fallen heroes during the 29th annual memorial weekend at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md.
It’s a show of support that has meant everything to these families, said Koretski, who serves as the secretary for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League, and the unified show of support from regional police, fire and EMS provides invaluable comfort for those who have lost a loved one to a line-of-duty death.
“For these families, it is their firefighter who was lost. These are people who made the ultimate sacrifice for their profession,” said Koretski, a member of the Rhode Island Local Assistance State Team for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. “It’s an honor to be able to volunteer and provide support for these families, and with our community I am able to show them that no matter where they are, there are others in the world who remember the sacrifice their loved one made.”
Koretski is one of nine Rhode Island firefighters who will make the journey this year to serve as a liaison. He is the only local resident to make the trip in 2021 after a pause last year — there was no live event due to COVID-19 concerns, but a memorial service was held online — although Westerly has had other volunteer firefighters serve as representatives in past years, including Dunn’s Corners Fire Capt. Hannah Schilke, Dunn’s Corners Lt. Rachel Schilke and Watch Hill firefighter Rees Harold.
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, according to the organization’s website.
“It’s an amazing experience, to see everyone coming together for such a wonderful display of unity,” Koretski said.
For the first time in 2020, all four fire departments in Westerly, fire and ambulance agencies in both Stonington and Charlestown, and governments in all three towns collaborated in a regional show of support. Koretski and Hannah Schilke said that with commitments from approximately a dozen local departments and town officials, they expect the show of support to grow.
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.
Others including Stonington Borough Deputy Fire Chief Theresa Hersh, who also serves as both an EMT and police sergeant in Stonington, Westerly’s Interim Town Manager and Police Chief Shawn Lacey and Charlestown Ambulance Rescue Service Chief Andrew Kettle, a volunteer firefighter, have also committed to getting others involved as well.
"As a local volunteer firefighter serving outside my full-time duties as a law enforcement officer, it is a really great feeling to know that my local police department supports me personally in my volunteer duties," Hersh said.
"This is truly a community that comes together often to support the safety of our residents," she continued. "Volunteers in this community tend to belong to more than one department as volunteerism is not what it used to be, and to know the volunteer has the support of their full-time job shows their commitment to the betterment of the community as a whole."
Schilke also said the support from fire and EMS has been crucial to morale, helping local firefighters to know their service is not going unrecognized.
“This has gotten a whole lot bigger in the last few years, and it really is an encouraging thing for local volunteers to see. Participation shows they have the support of the community, and it’s a chance to show their support for fallen firefighters far and wide.”
It’s also an important message to send to families of fallen firefighters that even thousands of miles away, there are people honoring them, she said. On a previous trip where she served as liaison to the family of deceased Montazuma, Ga., firefighter Darrell Plank, she said the family thanked her repeatedly.
Firefighters have also been encouraged to gather for the Sunday morning memorial service, Schilke said, although the Sunday program will be smaller as several local firefighters take part in the Tunnels to Towers 9/11 Memorial fundraiser in Newport.
With 215 names to honor this year, which represents line-of-duty deaths in 2019 and 2020 as well as a few others who had not been previously recognized, the annual event will be adding more names to the wall of honor than in any previous year. The names include those killed after contracting COVID-19 while on the job.
Residents and business owners throughout the region are encouraged to take part by installing red lights outside their homes or buildings, and they can show their support by sharing pictures on social media using the hashtag #nffflightthenight2021.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/.