About This Episode
Retired Chief Ron Siarnicki, who actively serves as the Executive Director of the National Fallen Fire Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) in Maryland, and Joe Minogue, retired FDNY Lieutenant and lead advocate for the NFFF on Long Island, join Chief Keys to discuss how firefighters are coping with COVID-19 and how to organize a line of duty death funeral despite the current social challenges.
About Our Guests
Retired Chief Ronald Siarinicki began his fire service career in 1978 with the Prince George’s County Fire and EMS Department where he progressed through the ranks to ultimately becoming the Fire Chief. After retiring in 2001, Chief Siranicki became the Executive Director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Prior to joining the Prince George's County, he served as a volunteer firefighter with the Monessen VFD Hose House 2 and currently serves with the United Communities VFD in Stevensville, Maryland. Siarnicki is a member of the FireRescue1 and Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board.
Retired FDNY Lieutenant Joe Minogue started his Fire Service career in 1974, as a member of the Sound Beach Fire Department in New York. He currently serves in the Bethpage Fire Department, in Bethpage New York. Minogue is active with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) as a New York State NFFF Lead Advocate in Nassau and Suffolk counties in NY. He also serves as the liaison for FDNY and the Phoenix Society Burn Survivors.
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Rapid Fire Episode Transcript:
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to Rapid Fire, a podcast hosted by Fire-Dex, dedicated to sharing best practices and lessons learned in hopes of making firefighting a little bit safer. I'm your host, Bob keys, Retired Battalion Chief from FDNY. We are fortunate to be joined today by my friends, Ronald Siarnicki and Joe Minogue.
Chapter 1: Introductions
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:00:21] Siarnicki Ron retired as the Fire Chief of the Prince George's Fire County Fire and EMS Department and has been serving the fire service as the Executive Director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) since 2001.
Joe Minogue is a retired Lieutenant and past colleague of mine from FDNY. We both worked in three, nine battalion in East New York, Brooklyn, both before and after 9/11. He has been a leader in organizing ceremonial units for line of duty deaths. And we'll talk more about that later, Joe is the lead advocate for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation on Long Island and working with FDNY.
How are you gentlemen doing today, Ron?
Chief Ron Siarnicki, Prince George's County (retired): [00:00:57] Doing great Bob. And I really appreciate the opportunity to spend some time with you and Joe and talk about where our fire service community is and some of the things that are impacting those each and every day. It's great to be a part of this.
Lieutenant Joe Minogue, FDNY (retired): [00:01:11] I like to echo the Ron's comments. It's great that you asked us to talk about things today, and I hope that we can convey something that everybody can take home at the end of the day. Thanks for your time.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:01:23] I realize everybody's very busy and it's really appreciated, helps the service. And we appreciate that today. We're going to discuss how the N triple F (NFFF) is continuing to do the great work they do in this crazy COVID-19 era. We were all living in. We also want to talk about chief Sarchi's recent article and fire rescue one about how to have a dignified line of duty death funeral with the social challenges that we're dealing with first I'd like each of you guys to tell us a little bit about yourself, tell us your bio, how you fell in love with the fire service and what you've been doing since your first day as a firefighter. Joe?
Lieutenant Joe Minogue, FDNY (retired): [00:01:59] Well, starts back when I was a kid, I became a junior firefighter out on Long Island and then joined the air force and was a firefighter in the air force over in Washington state, doing crash rescue and structural firefighting. Also, a firefighter in Spanaway, Washington as a living over there for a while, and then came back into the corporate world back here in New York.
[00:02:22] From there joined a New York City fire department. And fell in love again. With the passion that firefighters have all over the country for their communities, whether they live in the communities or not. I started off in Corona Queens and got promoted, went to Brooklyn, 9/11 happened. I became one of the fire departments buglers and I think I played well over 400 funerals in ceremonies, probably even more than that, uh, later on, uh, 2003.
[00:02:53] Wind up running and creating the FDNY ceremonial unit at its current structure. The unit has expanded greatly after that. Unfortunately, due the amount of line of duty deaths and 9/11 deaths that the city faces. Now, I help out on Long Island as a past fire commissioner and Bethpage (Fire Department) also Long Island legislative committees and a bunch of other local projects that are affecting the fire service as a whole.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:03:22] So Joe, you're also a cancer survivor and a public speaker for firefighter cancer, support networks and different organizations that create an awareness amongst firefighters for the dangers of the environment that would go to work. And every day, can you share a little bit about your cancer, survival story? If you don't mind?
Lieutenant Joe Minogue, FDNY (retired): [00:03:38] Yeah, sure. I had a little lump in my neck when I was working in Brooklyn and it just got bigger. I went home at the end of my tour and had to go to the emergency room where they did emergency surgery and drain 40 CCs of fluid out of my neck. And from there, the short story is we did a PET scan after a second surgery, and they found out that I had cancer in my neck and tonsils, and I had to scrape my nerve down in my neck.
[00:04:04] I lost my voice for quite a long time, as Ron probably remembers, uh, and it's altered my family and my family loved the fact that I lost my voice. And then later on, I developed a little bladder cancer. So, both are being controlled right now. The neck cancer is in remission, but the bladder cancer is just constantly being monitored and will be monitored for, for the rest of my life every six months to a year.
[00:04:31] So that keeps me going. And with that story, I can have a conversation with other people around the country because cancer doesn't say, Hey, you're from New York. This is a New York cancer. Cancer is affecting everybody globally. And I'm happy that I can share my voice about my experiences with cancer and my recovery and the issues that I, and other people around me had to deal with. So, I'm very, very happy to do that. And part of that, I'm also able to help out the New York City fire departments, family assistance unit, because of that experience as well. So, my layers onto the FD and Y has become a valuable touchstone for them and the medical office in reaching all the firefighters locally.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:05:16] Yeah, I've seen firsthand. Your presentation is emotionally powerful. Joe, when you talk about how you were in denial and how family faced, the reality that cancer hits everybody, it doesn't discriminate and firefighters are being challenged with changing our whole work environment, our personal protection equipment as we're fighting fires and being aware of declining our gear and staying on air, the Boston Fire Department has done a great job of using cancer survivors, like you to get the message out to them members. And it's great work that you're doing. Thanks for that too.
[00:05:46] Ron, if you would please tell us your career path that started in Prince George's County as a firefighter back in the seventies, as I did. And I said, I think as Joe did.
Chief Ron Siarnicki, Prince George's County (retired): [00:05:55] Thanks Bob. Every time I hear Joe's story, it kind of makes me think about these journeys that we take in our introduction to the fire service. And you're correct. My career experiences in the fire service started in Prince George's County. But prior to that, I grew up in a small town just outside of Pittsburgh. And that community had a volunteer fire department that my dad was a charter member of. So, I like many members of the fire service grew up at the local firehouse.
[00:06:25] We were there constantly working on projects and it's an all-volunteer system. Then there was a lot of need for community support. And like in many jurisdictions, the firehouse really was the central point of the community. The social hall was where all the weddings were held, all the, all the funerals, all the christenings and other family related community activities.
[00:06:46] And so I kind of grew up in that environment. I always kind of knew I wanted to be a firefighter. And then unfortunately, when I finished high school, I went off to college for a couple of years. Like many people occupied time and space. Well, it didn't really go very far then had a great time in college and wanted to be a firefighter though.
[00:07:06] And Pittsburgh was not hiring. They were in the middle of the steel mill recession. So, I had an opportunity to apply at Prince George's. Applied for that position in 1976, way to two years on a list and got a call. Started January 3rd, 1978. And from there, it was just a heck of a ride finished 24 and a half years retired as chief of department held every rank in the, in the agency, spent a lot of time in stations and spend a lot of time in management. So, I had a good perspective.
[00:07:39] In 2001, I really got to a point where I was looking for what is that next thing in my life. I saw an advertisement in firehouse magazine. And they were advertising for an Executive Director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. And I knew that my tenure in Prince George's probably would be coming to an end, like in many large metro (metropolitan) departments, the chiefs of the fire department and police department change when there was an election, the change in the elected officials since we are appointed positions.
[00:08:13] So I knew that in two years from then our county executive would be out office and most likely a change would occur. So, I wanted to find something on my terms. So, it's funny because I threw that resume in for the foundation, just to be able to get some experience in reiterating the job market. I had not done it for 24 years. I'd been in the fire service. And it was interesting how Bruno, who's been on national fire service leader and a journalist was the chairman of the foundation. And about a week after I sent the application in, he called me up and asked me, why was I leaving Prince George's tonight? I gave him the whole routine. They said, well, if you want the job, it's yours. Just like that. No interview, no nothing. He and I had known each other in the fire service cause he was in Montgomery County, Maryland, which is adjacent to Prince George's. So that changed my world in step one. So, I took the job July 1st, 2001. And then of course everybody's world change was September 11th and the foundation just got significantly engaged in what was happening in New York and across the fire service community.
[00:09:21] When I retired from Prince George's, I did the move to the Eastern shore of Maryland. I got out of French George's, which it borders, the district of Columbia at one, a little bit more rural life. So, I moved over to Ken Island. It's a 22 square mile Island in the Chesapeake Bay.
[00:09:36] And lo and behold, it is serviced by two volunteer fire departments. And it didn't take long before they recruited me to come down and help. And so now I serve with the United Communities Volunteer Fire Department when I can, as I can and try to relay my career experiences to that volunteer service. But it's been a great journey for me.
[00:10:00] And then of course, everything that's been happening with the foundation, with the development of our programs, our outreach and our activities. We're trying to make a difference. We're trying to honor the fallen, help the families, build their lives and work with the fire service community to reduce firefighter deaths and injuries.
[00:10:19] And that's why I'm glad I'm on this call today because we're going to talk a little bit about that.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:10:23] That's awesome. Thank you, Ron, for sharing your life with the fire service and sharing your story. Learn a little bit more about you just now. Thank you very much for the great work you're still continuing to do with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. We're going to dive deeply into that in a little bit.
Chapter 2: How Firefighters are Coping with the COVID-19 Era
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief [00:10:38] But I would like to just get your personal experiences with firefighters and how they're handling this very traumatic COVID-19 era. I personally feel as if firefighters working in this pandemic are going to need more counseling than the firefighters like Joe and I, who responded on 9/11, because we were able to go home to our families after spending long hours, ground zero.
[00:11:05] These firefighters are afraid to go home to their families. Many of them are sleeping in their cars or in campers or staying away from their families and fear of bringing the virus home. Especially if they have immune challenged family members. I wonder if you guys have any firsthand stories you could share with us about how the fire service is bonding together and is counseling being taken advantage of. Joe?
Lieutenant Joe Minogue, FDNY (retired): [00:11:33] Here in New York City or immediately, the need to help out the firefighters and their families.
[00:11:39] And your story about young people sleeping in cars, is 100% accurate. The counseling services unit has heard many stories about that. The firehouses have lived that story and we changed the shift structure. So, there was even a greater expanse where somebody was not coming back to the firehouse right away.
[00:12:01] So they needed someplace to go. So, with that partnership started with the FDNY foundation and hotels around the city to give the firefighter and EMS workers a place that they could go and feel comfortable, not bringing home, potentially, any illness to their family. As we all know, we all have someone in our life story that may not be the best of health, so that weighs heavily on people.
[00:12:35] And there is a lot of concern about that, especially when we all know that COVID-19 virus has taken the lives of the elderly, people with underlying conditions. So, when you can't go home and your family is worried about you because of the job that we have, at least the family has a little respite saying, "All right, I know you're safe.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:13:00] I know you're taking care of us. I know you're taking care of yourself, you know, and Godspeed, and we'll see you when this is all over."
[00:13:08] Ron. I know you have friends and colleagues all across North America because of the great work the foundation does. Can you share with everybody some of the feedback you're hearing about how the stress of feeling isolated as a firefighter is being dealt with?
Chief Ron Siarnicki, Prince George's County (retired): [00:13:26] So the, this national pandemic has really redefined. The risk that we are taking as firefighters and the entire first respondent community. I think everyone who's on the job understands it's a dangerous business. And now with this pandemic, we have a virus that you don't know you have. That you may have for a couple of days before any symptoms surface. And we know that that has a mental effect on all of us. But I got to say, first and foremost, I am proud of the fire service community because they're still going in and dealing with it because they know that citizens need served, communities need protected, and they're doing the best they can.
[00:14:19] Now, granted there is responsibilities on the organizational structures to provide the PPE and the other tools and equipment. That are critical for the safety of those firefighters. And we've heard all the news stories in some places, where it didn't happen as well, and we had firefighters wearing, you know, 55 gallon, trash bags as gowns because there were no medical gowns available for some of these calls, wearing SCBAs when they didn't have face mask and all of that. And that adds to the stress. That adds to the negative experience. And unfortunately, it does sometimes affect the morale of the individuals. But the one thing I've learned in my career is that the, the value of a solid peer, somebody who's walked in the same shoes you have and that ability for that discussion, whether it's at the kitchen table or the back step of the pumper, or out back behind the firehouse at the basketball hoop has a huge healing power among the men and women that make up our service and with the appropriate intervention at counseling components such as the great example that the counseling services unit FDNY has the work that Frank Lido does beforehand. Maliki, Corrigan, phenomenal work related to peer intervention and peer support. And they've done a phenomenal job of setting the gold bar standard for organizations across the country.
[00:15:59] And a lot of the things they've done. We share things that we've learned along the way and Charleston and West Texas, and other places that had large catastrophic deaths of firefighters we've shared with them. And that's really developed that new, normal of behavioral health intervention. But you have to add the physical components to this, and Joe's talking about it and you were talking about it, you know, that the stressors of not being able to go home, physically, not getting the rest we need. Not knowing where we're going to spend the next night. I've seen some pretty ingenuities’ things, you know, groups of firefighters working with their leadership to get hotel rooms. Although, I don’t know, I lived in a fraternity house for a while, I'm not sure I want to go back there, but that may be a little entertaining, no different than the bunk room at one o'clock in the morning when somebody has had too much caffeine and he still wants to have some pranks and some fun, but that's the nature of the industry we're in, that's the nature of the fire service that fraternal instinct and yeah, there is the need for that humor a little bit, because it helps us deal with the worst in our communities that we as first responders see every day. And so, the programs that are out there for behavioral health intervention are available. There's even some self-help components that are available. One of the foundations partners is the First Responder Center for Excellence, working with the counseling services unit of FDNY and other departments have developed a program, called Stress First Aid. It's a program that helps people deal with the stressors that are out there. It has a self-help and a self-assessment component as well. And I guess the bottom line to this whole component is the fire service is going to do whatever they have to do to get through this. They're going to be pretty ingenuitive in their approaches.
[00:17:56] It may not be as Orthodox as chiefs of department may like, but they're going to make it work and they're going to serve their communities. The piece that concerns me now, though, is this whole issue of what's happening with the civil disturbances and that adding the whole new twist. And I know we're talking about COVID-19, but I got to say it adds a whole new twist of risk to all of our first responder community. And that's where we really got to be prepared for response to violent incidents as well.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:18:24] Yeah, sharing lessons learned and best practices is what this whole podcast is about. Hopefully we can pass on good advice as to where firefighters can reach out to when feeling overwhelmed by the challenges that we're facing and seeing all across the country right now.
Chapter 3: Upholding Dignity and Paying Proper Respects to Fallen Firefighters During COVID-19
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:18:39] I'd like to segue a little bit and to very stressful time, having a line of duty death in a fire department and trying to organize a funeral, Joe, you were fantastic in evolving the FDNY ceremonial unit, unfortunately as kind of one of those two edged swords, you really don't the more line of duty funerals you hold the better you get at doing them so, you really don't want to be very good at it, but, unfortunately what, the hand we were dealt post 9/11, you guys really advanced the dignity and quality of paying last respects to a fallen hero. Can you share a little bit about the changes we made as, we were totally overwhelmed from having four and five and six line of duty funerals a day. Moving forward to making the ceremonial group a much bigger talent pool so that we had resources when needed.
Lieutenant Joe Minogue, FDNY (retired): [00:19:32] Yeah. Sure. So, before 9/11, the, if we had a line of duty deaths, we would have two gentlemen from the fire academy, pulled together the instructors and a few other people and put together a funeral.
[00:19:45] And as you just stated, when 9/11 happened, we were having four or five funerals a day, sometimes a funeral twice for someone. And that just went on. So, we created a pool of people that had a talent to handle a funeral and after everything's slowed down a bit, John Burns was the captain of the unit and we started putting together a ceremonial unit. And those are comprised of a few people that were on the original team. You know, obviously not everybody is cut out to have a certain job, but everybody deserves credit for everything they did for all the families that were affected. From there, we created a good cadre of senior people that their passion was to take care of others at a level way above an ordinary firefighter or first responder. And I say that with full pride in everybody that was on a team. When I went to the senior staff, that was with me when I created the ceremonial unit component when I took over, I said, "All right, what are we going to do?"
[00:20:55] I'm like, well, you tell us what you want. And we have your back 100%. And these are people with 20, 25 years, 30 years on the fire department giving me a junior lieutenant, the right to do anything I wanted to do. And we laughed and we had a good time. But when it was game time, everybody pulled together and had different ideas and how we could make next service, the next ceremony for someone that we knew it was going to come, better and more respectful. And we just kept evolving and evolving and evolving.
[00:21:32] The goal was to have a ceremonial unit that could handle the multiple facets that the city can give to us, whether it be a promotion ceremony, graduation, ceremony, and funerals all at the same time without interrupting. The function of the New York City Fire Department and have any negative impact on the families that were trying to honor their loved one.
[00:21:59] So my goal with my staff was to be able to handle losing six people at the same time. And that was the goal. Unfortunately, you know, you have to plan for, and right after I retired, Joel, the point who now runs a ceremonial unit was faced with that. I wasn't six people from the same company, but it was six people who died of world trade center illnesses all in the same week. So, it was basically losing a company at the same time, but with the added stresses of multiple companies, multiple locations, and they pulled it off. So my hats off to everyone that is part of the ceremonial unit, because their passion is there. It's not a job it's truly, truly an inspiring passion to watch.
[00:22:50] And if you have the chance to really look at some, some funerals that are going on in the city and you sit back and watch. It's a masterpiece and it's an honor to watch people, honor someone that they may have known and give that respect back to the family and friends.
[00:23:08] And we all have to include the friends in that too, because we just don't live in a house. It's a mom and dad, brothers and sisters, husband, and wife. You know, we have our friends that make us laugh and have the barbecue at the end of the day with us. So my hats off to the ceremonial unit.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:23:27] Well, I want to thank you personally, Joe, because you are key cog in moving that level of expertise and professionalism forward. Nothing that I can think of made me more proud of being an FDN firefighter than standing with my brothers and sisters shoulder to shoulder and paying last respects and honoring a fallen colleague in the amazingly dignified way that the FDNY ceremony. And it did day after day after day. So, thank you so much for all you have done.
Chapter 4: The Challenges of Planning a Firefighter's Funeral During COVID-19
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:23:57] Ron. I'd like you to take us to the next chapter. I'd like to thank you for writing this amazing piece that you just published in FireRescue1, called "COVID-19 In Line of Duty Deaths; How to Honor the Fallen During a Pandemic" it's available for any of our listeners to just do a Google search and it pulls up by you don't have to subscribe, but you can learn some really great perspectives from a tremendously experienced team of people that have been dealing with this.
[00:24:23] Could you expand on these lessons learned of how do we do what Joe just talked about with dignity and honor a fallen hero. When we can't get together in groups of more than 10 and don't have to stay six feet apart from each other.
[00:24:38] Chief Ron Siarnicki, Prince George's County (retired): [00:24:38] The article was really designed as a catalyst to talk about what we need to do to make sure that we didn't ever forget the fallen.
[00:24:46] And I have to say that the ceremony, unit FDNY was the epidous for creating The Local Assistance State Teams, which is a program of the fallen firefighters foundation, where we built in essence, a ceremony unit in every state in the country. And their mission is to respond. When a line of duty death is reported.
[00:25:14] And have boots on the ground within six hours of the death to provide support and systems. If, and I say if, the department wishes it. We're not there to take over that. We're not there to bulldoze our way in. We're a resource and we have many departments. That unfortunately have been through line of duty deaths significantly that don't necessarily need our help, but are always talking to us about what's new and what's different in this article is one of those, but we also have departments across the country that never had a line of duty deaths and are completely traumatized.
[00:25:49] And the problem is the departments still have to respond to 9/11 calls to provide support in the systems. So the last teams were designed to help each state with boots on the ground, through the course of the funeral, the activities related to that long-term help with an introduction, to our programs for our fire hero families, and also paperwork related to all of the federal and state death benefits.
[00:26:16] But as we talked about the COVID-19 effect, it's a game changer from what we normally would do when there is a line of duty death. However, we sat back and looked at it. There are still ways to do all of the traditional aspects of that line of duty death funeral, but just understanding that you're going to need to do social distancing.
[00:26:41] As you said, reduce the number of people that are, together as a group at any one time. And I'll try to explain that here in a minute. But, what I want to also say is that the other piece that's driving this, that as of today, we have 55 fire and EMS department members across the United States who have succumbed to COVID-19 and those are above and beyond the traditional criteria line of duty deaths that we've had this year.
[00:27:11] And for 2019, we are scheduled to honor 78 brothers and sisters of the fire service community this October for a memorial service that we're not sure what it's going to look like, because we're probably going to have to apply some of the elements in this very article to that. And so, the first element with any line of duty death funeral is to have a discussion with the family, just to make sure we know what their wishes are.
[00:27:42] Sometimes we in the fire service tend to make decisions and move forward relative to line of duty death funerals because of the needs of our individual members and our agencies. But we got to make sure it's what the family wants. They should have the ultimate say on the level and capacity of the event.
[00:28:04] The second piece is that there needs to be that planning session involving the member of the clergy, the funeral home, and you have to find out what the funeral home in that specific community is allowed to do. Some funeral homes are allowed to have viewings with no more than 10 people in a room spread out.
[00:28:24] Other funeral homes are completely shut down. And so, there is then a delay relative to a viewing or even a public gathering to show that respect with the casket present. What we're seeing is at some funeral homes are not even having the ability to bury because of cemeteries. Are not working. So, there are some cases where we've been told the remains are in cold storage until they could figure out when they could open up and do those activities.
[00:28:56] Other families have made decisions relative to cremation, and that makes it a little bit easier relative to the physical aspects of the body, but not the ceremonial piece. So once you know what your jurisdiction is allowed to do now, at least in Maryland, we are in stage two of the COVID recovery. So, we are seeing more relaxation of gatherings.
[00:29:21] Matter of fact, Governor Hogan just sent out his newest executive order yesterday. Still a 10-person gathering in social style events, but larger gatherings are being allowed, with social distancing, six feet spacing face masks in that up to a hundred people. In governmental activities, some of those other essential funerals, things like that.
[00:29:46] Once you have a clear idea of what the funeral home and the clergy and the family want, then it's just a matter of control. If you're going to have a viewing, you know, you have people wait outside in your cars and then allow, you know, one in one out, you may have no physical viewing, but you may have a procession just saw some video from the Chicago Fire Department, they've had several firefighters that have died as a result of COVID and they lined the streets from the funeral home where the body was cared for, all the way to the, to the cemetery with firefighters and apparatus a sea of blue, if I could use that term.
[00:30:30] And that was the viewing that occurred. And then a cemetery was a small family group that gathered graveside in order to bury the remains of that firefighter. If you could work that out, this is a great way because a lot of people in your organization are going to want to be involved. So give them duties such as ushers and a person for flow control, keeping tabs on the number of individuals, reducing the direct involvement of Honor Guard, such as a casket watch to just two people at any one given time or want it the most, depending upon how many people are in the room. The other piece is going to single pipers and also having a single person and distance, maybe ringing the bell, moving the trumpet, or further away from the grave site.
[00:31:18] All those things are really possible with the intention of limiting interaction with direct contact and we've got, got to be cognizant that people that are most susceptible to this pandemic are those over 60 (years) with underlying conditions. So it would be more than appropriate to lay out some participation guidelines, print them up, make sure they're distributed, post them on the web, email them out to everybody, have them there so that as people pull up to the facility and wait in their cars. They're given a sheet of paper that says the do's and don'ts, and who is and isn't having the opportunity just to be there, even if we're just in the car in the parking lot is a way of showing respect and the idea is to stress we don't want to have the spread of the pandemic in any fashion for the family members or other members of the fire service.
[00:32:14] And then the big piece though, is the immediate and long term support to the family, because they're the ones that are struggling, not only because of the traumatic loss of the firefighter, but also because of the circumstances of the pandemic, whether the firefighter died as a result of the virus, or maybe a non-virus line of duty death, but either way everybody's world is different and everybody has certain expectations within the fire industry on how a funeral was on or should be. So, you got to try to make it as close to what will be considered normal as possible, but maintaining the CDC (Center for Disease Control) recommendations because it doesn't help the family. If someone in their family gets sick, then strain.
[00:33:00] And that's one of the things the fallen firefighters foundation is experiencing right now. A lot of our families of fallen firefighters who've been honored in the past and died previously to now are struggling because they had the traumatic loss of their firefighter. And now they're worried about another family member dying as a result of the COVID.
[00:33:22] And it's something that a lot of people aren't thinking about, but all those fire hero family members from the beginning of time that are still alive and out there. Had their very worst day when their firefighter didn't come home. And now they're struggling because of this virus and pandemic in somebody else being affected.
[00:33:43] And the last piece is supporting the departments. Bob and Joe, you guys have been talking about behavioral health and counseling services. There is some really great intervention tools out there. There are things on the FDNY counseling services, unit sites. The IAFF (The International Association of Firefighters) has some great pieces, the National Volunteer Fire Council has pieces, the International Association of Fire Chiefs has pieces.
[00:34:08] Then of course, I have a little preference to The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation programs and our First Responder Center of Excellence, but all of those have best practices. And components because actually we're all working together. It's been phenomenal that the national fire service organizations in the field of behavioral health have served on task forces together. And I've really looked at what is science telling us as the best possible treatment and care.
[00:34:40] And I know that the VA (The Veterans Affairs) and the military has been beat up over their support in time over our, our returning veterans. But actually it was the VA who developed the components of what was called Psychological First Aid.
[00:34:55] Dr. Patricia Watson was hired by the military to develop a program for that small unit leadership component, which really is the basis of peers and peer programs. And that psychological first day was developed in the stress first aid for the fire service, and now has been changed or developed into one for EMS and law enforcement.
[00:35:18] And all that information is available on the sites that foundation and the FRC has; firehero.org or FRC. And all of that is pretty phenomenal stuff. And so there has to be a plan of support to department and looking at all of those CDC requirements along the way.
[00:35:38] I know that was a lot, but this is a meaty subject. There's a lot of moving parts to that. And I hope Bob that I've given you a kind of, a little bit of an overview.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:35:47] Tons of deep delve in there. Ron. Thank you very much for sharing and educating all of us. I would encourage all of our listeners to go to firerescue1.com and read Ron's article. It has lots of links for support groups, for firefighters everywhere to get more information and help.
Chapter 5: New York legislation for Public Safety Officer Benefits (POSB) and COVID-19
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:36:04] I'd like you to touch on one more thing, Ron. I'm very encouraged to hear that New York state legislators just passed a bill saying that we have a presumptive COVID-19 bill for first responders who die of COVID-19. It is presumed that they were exposed while working. And so, we'll be classified as line of duty deaths. The PSOB (Public Safety Officer's Benefits) legislation I believe is close to being passed, so that fallen firefighters from COVID will be able to benefit from those claims. Can you give us an update on that, Ron?
Chief Ron Siarnicki, Prince George's County (retired): [00:36:36] Absolutely. There has been a great deal of discussion about.
[00:36:42] Presumptive components related to COVID-19 at the federal level, at the state level and at the local level. You are correct. There are several pieces of legislation that have been introduced at the congressional level to include COVID-19 cases in the federal death benefit as part of the Public Safety Officer's Benefit program.
[00:37:06] The biggest dilemma with that is when PSOB was originally established under the department of justice, the legislation Congress use said that the death had to be a direct and proximal result of an incident, meaning singular. And that is why there's been such a battle over cancer being a national line of duty death recognition because the criteria is a single incident, but 9/11, you know, you've got to find the good things that come out of tragedy.
[00:37:38] 9/11 changed that in the work that Dr. Howard did with the World Trade Center disease. And because of his certification process, the saying these individuals got that cancer at 9/11. PSOB is now recognizing some cancers, even though the legislation is still in place to say it has to be a direct and proximal result.
[00:38:04] And we are seeing a FDNY members and others being approved for PSOB because of the world trade center disease. And how that fits, is that, PSOB is now exposed to the presumptive piece with the World Trade Center Disease. And if the legislature, the federal level worms, the language correctly, and right now, I think it's anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 within 45 days of a response, then they would be covered.
[00:38:31] And that's a pretty good window of exposure opportunity. And so that is out of the house. Senate has a companion bill, and of course, once they're done wrangling back and forth, it still wants to go to the White House for signature. But PSOB is issued a couple of documents through the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
[00:38:51] The first document was a little bit more stringent relative to COVID-19 and then they revised that and basically said that if there is a report of an incident in which a member responded, and then that member is diagnosed, that they are inclined to approve it as opposed to disapprove. Now you got to understand that PSOB has thousands of lawyers down there and you know what happens when you get more than two lawyers in a room, you get 27 different views.
[00:39:27] But I have to say that the PSOB has been working very hard, at least hoping that the staff I've been working really hard to make this work for the fire service, but it still has to go through all those legal steps. Having the states declare the presumptive is phenomenal. And that is something that many states have done relative to cancer, but it doesn't meet the national criteria yet.
[00:39:50] And that's why this federal legislation has to get passed, but we're seeing different versions of the legislation. And we're seeing different criteria. And that's one of the issues with state legislation for cancer. I think the current numbers like 38 or 39 states have cancer presumptive legislation, but the legislation is all over the board.
[00:40:11] You know, in some states they only cover career firefighters or not the volunteers, some in other states, they only cover certain types of cancers. There are other states that have 40, 50 different cancers listed. So, there's some work underway to try and get a national criteria relative to cancer.
[00:40:28] But I think that this COVID process that's going to be another opportunity out of a tragedy. This COVID legislative process is going to bring more scrutiny on how we recognize the health effects of our industry and the importance of supporting the families when a firefighter succumbs to a health-related non traumatic death in the fire service.
[00:40:55] But it's also going to put the pressure on the fire service to properly use personal protective equipment. Remaining, as you'd said in the beginning remaining on air and all those other steps that we know are elements that will help reduce exposures and reduce the components of a occupational illness.
[00:41:20] Cause some of that responsibility is on us as first responders. And so it's going to be interesting to see how this all plays out and we all know that lobbying and legislation has its own pathway to finalization. But I'm just hoping that this is an opportunity for the fire service to get some advantages relative to the care for our families, because they're the ones that have to go on after we succumb to an illness or a line of duty death.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:41:48] Thank you, Ronnie. Both for your insight and for your knowledge in this very complicated topic.
Chapter 6: Evaluation of the Fallen Firefighter Foundation
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief [00:41:55] I'd like to move on towards a topic that you two guys are extremely knowledgeable about, the evolution of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
[00:42:04] Joe, you talked with me earlier about the early beginnings of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
[00:42:09] I just want to say that I've seen in my career, a tremendous evolution of an organization that started, it seemed just to help out families of fallen firefighters, but has evolved almost entirely into a double faceted organization that not only, helps families but helps prevent fallen firefighters. Through education and sharing, support groups, lessons learned everything we're all about here on this podcast, to prevent injuries and deaths of firefighters.
[00:42:39] So if you don't mind, Joe, could you repair your perspective on the very beginnings of the organization and how it has evolved in the years since you got involved?
Lieutenant Joe Minogue, FDNY (retired): [00:42:48] Yeah, I think I'm going to give it up for Ron. And then I'll add my experience and comments on top of that. So, Ron, if you would, could you just, you know, share with Bob how the foundation was created?
Chief Ron Siarnicki, Prince George's County (retired): [00:43:01] Absolutely. And Joe, thanks for that tee up. Although you probably know just about as much as I do so. We all live it, but the foundation was created back in 1992, when Congress realized that there was no entity out there really caring for the families when the line of duty death within the fire service occurred.
[00:43:30] And this is not a, a negative comment, but the United States Fire Administration was charged with running the annual memorial in Emmetsburg at the National Fire Academy prior to the foundation being created. But they were, they're a governmental entity and, the, the support that was needed for the families, the ability to fund-raise, to get resources, to support the families just isn't there in a federal agency.
[00:44:02] So Senator Paul Sarbanes from Maryland introduced legislation and created the foundation as a 501C3 nonprofit in a state of Maryland with a national mandate to honor every firefighter who dies in the line of duty in our country. So honor those firefighters with a national memorial service and to help the families of those fallen firefighters to rebuild their lives and to work with the fire service community, to reduce injuries and deaths within the industry.
[00:44:35] And so that's our charge and we've been doing it since 1992. We have our main offices in Emmetsburg. It's a small shop. We have a satellite office in Crofton, Maryland, which is in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D. C. because we do interact with our partners at the other national fire service organizations and Congress on a regular basis.
[00:44:58] But the whole intent of the foundation was to provide a program to support a national memorial service, which is held every October at the monument, in Emmitsburg, at the fire academy to help the families of those fallen firefighters as "far hero families" as we called them. With things like scholarships and behavioral health.
[00:45:20] Grief intervention, financial planning, a remembrance components, psychological support, all those elements that are critical, really putting their lives back together in an effort to help them find whatever their new level of normalcy is going to be. It's also working with the fire service, both when there is a line of duty death which is what the last teams do. Helping departments prepare for a line of duty. Should they have one prior to the event actually happening? And that's things like important things like beneficiary forms and all the entrapments that occur within the legal systems of our country and getting those benefits to the families, those next of kin are those firefighters who've died. Along with the fire programs of supporting departments after they've lost one of their members to working with the 16 firefighter life safety initiatives, and the Everyone Goes Home campaign to reduce those deaths and injuries across the country.
[00:46:25] And then you have the administrative behind the scenes functions of the foundation. You know, we have a marketing shop that tries to promote who we are, what we do; a development shop, that's our fundraising; a finance shop that's paying all the bills; and managing resources and revenues. And all of that is managed by a Board of Directors who are appointed by the United States Fire Administrator, Keith Bryant, who is the administrator who serves on our board.
[00:46:52] Ex-officio but has, 12 appointees that represent the fire service community industry and our fire hero family community they're appointed for our six year term and their job is to manage the foundation's overall policy and direction and then that allows staff, myself, and my team to run the day to day operations.
[00:47:18] We also have an advisory committee to the board. It's made up of additional family members, some fire chiefs and some industry partners. And that gives those perspectives to all the decision making that occurs within the foundation. And those individuals help us vet projects and plans and programs that are intended to support the mission and services of the foundation.
[00:47:46] The foundation truly was a mom and pop shop prior to 9/11. When I got hired on January, first of 2001, we had six employees and I made seven and that was it. And we did a lot of things with scholarships and all that was a condre of volunteers, members of the fire service who want to help, but we still have a lot of them out there.
[00:48:12] We're now at 28 employees because of the additional programs and activities. And I'm very happy to say that during this COVID 19 pandemic, we have been able to maintain all of our staff. We truly understand that the importance of fiscal responsibility and transparency, we have a four star rating with Charity Navigator, which is the leading nonprofit evaluation mechanism out there. And four stars is the highest rating you can get. We've maintained that for five years now. And we, we want to ensure that for every single dollar we are given that it is used for the best possible application to the families and the departments of our fallen firefighters and through our efforts to reduce deaths and injuries, and we have a minimal overhead. I like to brag about that, that it's 14% is our total overhead. The industry standard for nonprofits is 25%. That means that 86 cents on every dollar we raised is going right out into the communities. I mean, we do, and I say this, we do have to, you know, we don't get electricity for free and we don't get phones for free and we don't get the paper for the copy machines for free, you know, pens and pencils all that stuff has to be purchased somehow. And there was some staff salary. Absolutely. But we have one of the lowest percentiles for overhead and costs that includes our fundraising costs. You know, we don't use professional solicitors. We don't do telephone marketing. We don't do any of that stuff because all of that is money out the door, going somewhere else, other than programming.
[00:49:58] As I mentioned, I'm going to say we use a large variety of members of the fire service to support us in a volunteer capacity. And at us out, Joe Manolo came to us as our involvement with FDNY and 9/11 crew. We needed some liaisons and Joe has been serving in that capacity, he's been an advocate for the Everyone Goes Home program, a council relative to our last teams and dealing with line of duty deaths from his level professional experience.
[00:50:27] But all that really involves around a great team. They work hard. Our staff works hard and our volunteer supporters for a hard to carry out our mission. And if somebody wants to learn more about the foundation, firehero.org is the place to go to learn about who we are, what we do. You'll find all of our financials there, all of our programmatic pieces.
[00:50:47] They're a complete explanation of who we are, what we do. That's a little bit about the foundation. I could talk for hours. I don't want to occupy the whole podcast on that, but there's a ton of stuff about us that is really great moving forward.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:51:01] Thank you, Ron. It's really been a privilege for me to be associated with both you and Joe and the foundation staff that are privileged to be able to do some recordings for the Everyone Goes Home project a I know Joe keeps putting his arm on me to help out more and more with the stair climbs that are a tremendous Memorial for the 343 FDNY firefighters.
[00:51:22] I enjoy attending those and speaking to the participants and then talk to them about who they're climbing in memory of. If they're one of my friends, I noticed that they're wearing the ID card of, fantastic memorial stuff that you guys are doing. I realize you'll be challenged to hold these kinds of organizations and fundraisers in this COVID-19 era, I know that a stop drop rock and roll will live on next year at FDIC. I'm sure we will move on and become better.
Lieutenant Joe Minogue, FDNY (retired): [00:51:53] I just want to add the first time I went down to Emmitsburg to support the FD and Y for the memorial, it was an amazing experience to watch everybody volunteer to help others and that commitment.
[00:52:08] It will stay with me for the rest of my life, though, if anybody does get a chance to come down and others at the national memorial come down and see what it's all about and you'll see a whole bunch of people, men and women supporting others. Like you've never seen anything else before. And that was what hooked me into the foundation.
[00:52:31] The passion that everyone in the organization, whether it be staff or volunteer or whatever the function you play with the foundation, we're all there to support others. And that commitment will stay with me for the rest of my life. And I'm happy to share any knowledge I have about the foundation with anybody that has an ear and wants to spend a few hours of me regurgitating information on how I am blessed to be part of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the Everyone Goes Home program.
Chapter 7: How Will the Fire Industry Change Post COVID-19?
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:53:05] Fantastic. Thank you, Joe. Last question I have for you guys, cause I'd love your perspective on how you think the world and the fire industry will be different after this is over. We're definitely going to be better for it, but what do you see as the key components that will change the way firefighters live and do their job? Next year and beyond, Joe?
Lieutenant Joe Minogue, FDNY (retired): [00:53:29] Thanks, Bob. I think firefighters both here and around the country that I've been speaking to, they're looking at firefighting as a passion and vocally saying they want to increase their knowledge of the different aspects of safety. And that was brought on, I truly believe, by the, the pandemic that there's a people's eyes are opening to the amount of information that is out there online and also in texts.
[00:54:02] Well, when we get together on different conference calls, we, we speak about the knowledge that we all have and that we all can share with each other. We just had a conference call this morning about sharing information through social media. And the fire service here on Long Island has seen a definite uptick on wanting computer-based information.
[00:54:30] And we all know that not everybody in the country has access to the internet, but if we can reach out to a majority of the people that are in this country and abroad with information that we've learned. We all become better firefighters, we all become better first responders, and we all become better people to all the people around us because, Bob and Ron, I know have experienced this we're firefighters, we're first responders so we have the answers that they think they don't have.
[00:55:05] When we can take the knowledge that we're all gaining from each other, from our departments, from our organizations. And we share it with each other. We're helping our communities. We're helping our families. And I think the fire service as a whole will become more ethical, more strategic and we'll have a better fire service as a whole going forward.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:55:30] Couldn't agree more Joe. Well said. Ron, how do you think the fire service is going to change?
Chief Ron Siarnicki, Prince George's County (retired): [00:55:36] I think that, it's, it's going to be an interesting perspective that question, because we're still going to have the fire service, pushing the traditions, the service, the commitment to community, and one of the aspects that's going to affect that is the response of the community and how they are going to interact.
[00:56:01] And I don't mean that for anything more than we are going to have to be more cognizant of our surroundings and our environment. I often talk about the fire service is an entity that charges in and enters structures when there is perceived emergency, but we also see firefighters coming under fire now.
[00:56:24] It wasn't even before COVID, a good friend and a firefighter from Prince George's that responded to an EMS call was, was shot on the porch of a house from a gentleman that was locked in and his brother thought he was in a medical emergency and the fire service was on the front door trying to get his attention and the gentleman put a couple of rounds through the door and it killed the firefighter.
[00:56:49] So I think that environment, that, from what I've seen from the seventies, starting in the fire service. So now is going to change that more cognizance of the violence that's out there. But I also believe that the fire service is going to have to do more, to interact with the community and continue that relationship with the, with the community. And that's one of the biggest lessons I learned in, in Prince George's County. Prince George's County converted from a bedroom community in a district of Columbia where a lot of federal workers were to a predominantly minority populated community. It's 500 square miles, it's a huge area, 47 stations. And the stations that had the most success are the ones that interacted with the communities and did things with the communities and had that trust factor and the ones that didn't, had issues and had problems. And so I think that's going to be an element we're going to have to address in our community relations. And I think that the fire service is up to it. But getting relationships with those local community leaders is critical.
[00:58:00] And trying to keep the politics, if there's one thing I am so tired of watching the news is everything has been politicized now. It doesn't matter what it is, what, what subject you want to talk about. Everything is politics, and we've got to get away from that. We've got to get what's best for our communities. What's best for our nation and what's best for our fire service. And that is only through communications and dialogue.
[00:58:26] Are we going to be doing staff meetings via the Internet? Probably doing less personal interactions downstream. I see the interjection of technology as a critical piece in the manufacturing of products and tools and equipment, but somebody's still going to have to, as we like to say, somebody is still going to have to go down that hallway with that hose line. And then that is physical and that is personal and that is truly representative of what we in this industry sign up for when we become a firefighter or first responder.
[00:59:00] So we got a lot of head, but I think, I feel, I know we're going to make it work well.
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:59:07] I share your confidence, Ron. Firefighters have always been able to overcome challenges. That's what we pride ourselves in. I don't think this challenge will be insurmountable for us. We will adapt and overcome just like we always do. I just can't personally, can't wait to get back on an airplane and visit some firehouse kitchens because that's probably one of the most enjoyable experiences I have in my life.
Chapter 8: Closure
Bob Keys, Retired FDNY Battalion Chief: [00:59:31] I want the world to get back to, the new normal so that I can continue to, interact and meet new people and share the wisdom that I learned from people like both of you guys, tremendously proud to call you both my friend and appreciate the time and effort you put in today to help share these lessons learned and best practices and your perspectives so that we can make firefighting a little bit safer.
So thank you guys very much. Really enjoyed having you on here. Yeah, it's been a pleasure. And anytime you need, please just holler. I echo that as well. Bob, and you're always welcome in a kitchen near me, but we'll make a good spread for you and bring some people in. We'll have a bunch of laughs and we'll tell some stories and we'll all get something good out of it.
Well, you can bet Joe, that I will remember what I learned when I was a probie in 48 engines in the Bronx. When I come to your house, I will knock with my elbows because my hands will be full. Well, this time with probably donuts or, or some fruit.
Thank you guys. Have an awesome day. Thank you.
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