Since 1976, families of fallen North American firefighters have been attending the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) memorial service in Memorial Park, Colorado Springs. Two Saturdays ago, 5,000 family members gathered to honor the 154 firefighters that died in line of duty this year. It is the same ritual every year.
Days before the ceremony, family members and friends begin arriving in Colorado Springs. IAFF relies on volunteers, such as Colorado College’s Gretchen Wardell, who works in the Career Center, to host them.
“This is the most important thing I do,” said Wardell. “To honor and celebrate the lives of so many people that sacrificed their lives to save the common man, it’s inspiring. It’s truly my honor to help these families and the hundreds of other firefighters that come to Colorado Springs every year to remember their brothers and sisters.”
On the day of the ceremony, there are motorcycle and fire truck brigades, pipe and drum bands, the Air Force chorale. After the fanfare, the most poignant part of the ceremony occurs: Families of firefighters line up as an Honor Guard official reads the firefighters’ names.
After each deceased firefighter’s name was mentioned, another Honor Guard member rang a bell once, a sound that marked the start and finish of a firefighter’s day. After all the names were read, the Honor Guard Commander, Jay Bishop, ended the ceremony.
“His duties well done, he has given his best,” said Bishop. “For our fallen brother, his last alarm. He has gone home.”
Every year, he cries through his final words and the bell rings three times, signifying the firefighters’ final call.
The 2,410 names of all the U.S. and Canadian firefighters who have died in line of duty since 1976 can be found on a granite wall in Memorial Park. After the ceremony, family members held a paper to their etched firefighter’s name and use charcoal pencils to make an etching.
Though it is a tearful occasion, the IAFF memorial service is above all, a healing ceremony.
Luke Wardell, Gretchen Wardell’s husband and Colorado Springs firefighter paramedic, describes the interaction that takes place.
“As is cultural with the firefighting family, we are one big family with many stories to share, and all bonded together with our camaraderie,” said Luke Wardell.
Immediately after the ceremony, family members exchanged stories around the wall. Saturday night, the mood changed to become fun. Pipes and Drums march down Tejon St. as family members crowd the bars and drink in the firefighters’ honor.
Despite the immensity of the Waldo Canyon fire this year, there were no firefighter fatalities from Colorado Springs. In fact, since 1976, only two Colorado Springs firefighters, Donny Heckers and Pamela Butler, have ever died in service.
Luke Wardell attributes the safety record “to this being a progressive and well trained department.”
“We are highly skilled and well trained in our profession, and follow our standard operating procedures on every incident we go on,” he said.