Rules for Life

In October of each year, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) ( host on the campus of the National Fire Academy and the home of the U.S. Fire Administration, the annual Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service in Emmitsburg, MD. image

It is a touching and memorable three days. During the event a candlelight service is held on Friday evening to the firefighters who have died in the line of duty during the past year. They conduct the main memorial event on Sunday morning to honor and read the names of fallen firefighters.

To quote from their web site: “The lives of 80 firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2017 and 23 who died in previous years were remembered and their names officially added to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. Through music, tribute readings and cherished fire service traditions, the families and friends of these courageous men and women were reassured that they — and their firefighters — would never be forgotten.”

This year was the 35th year of the event. The NFFF has been doing it for 26 years and every year it gets better.

There are many people who make this event work smoothly. Much of the credit must go to the NFFF Executive Director Ron Siarnicki and his wonderful and caring staff. I need to mention everyone but the list is very long. I am blessed to count many of the staff as friends for many years.

The event is attended by over 5,000 people each year including the families and guests.  If you have never attended, I would highly recommend it as a sobering and life changing event. To watch the 2018 service on line, follow this link:

One group that makes a big difference is the honor guard and command staff. The operation has been run using the time proven Incident Command System. For many years, Raleigh Fire Chief John McGrath has served as the Incident Commander for 14 years. He stepped down for this slot in 2017 and was replaced by his Deputy IC Chief Ron Kanterman. He is currently chief of the Wilton (CT) Fire Department a full career fire department in Western Connecticut, and serves as Wilton’s Deputy Emergency Management Director.

The staff that support the Memorial behind the scenes is over 1,000 people. The Honor Guard and Pipes and Drums account for almost 700 people alone. Nothing is more stirring and impressive as watching these two corps march and play before and after the memorial service.

This year Chief Kanterman made a short and significant speech to the Honor Guard and Command Staff before the event kicked off on Saturday morning. He wanted them to know there were only 10 things that really mattered for the weekend. I was fortunate to be in the back of the room during his speech. I found his words very moving and a very good summary of life and how we should approach things in the crazy world of emergency services and life in general. He graciously gave me a copy of his remarks. Here are his words in Bold with a few comments from my humble perspective. They make a great statement for each of us to live by each day.

  1. 1. Family First, No Matter What
    There is not a lot anyone can add to this statement. Did you kiss your kids and family and tell them you loved them before you left today? Do you remember why we come to work and why we come home? Your family may include your fire service family as well as your extended family. No matter what, make them first.
  2. Focus On the Mission — It’s Not About Us
    For two days, this event is about one thing – to honor the fallen firefighters and their families. It not about the procession, the colors, the music, the flags and the event.  What is your mission going out the door on a call? To save lives and prevent property typically but remember to always focus on getting the mission done. It’s not about grandstanding, making yourself into a hero, or a celebrity.
  3. It’s an Honor For You To Be Here as It Is For All Of Us
    The staff do some amazing work during the memorial. I have seen them work all hours of the night and day to make a change and get things right. We all should consider our job an honor. It is an honor we are allowed to serve in our chosen profession in the emergency services.  Remember that the proud tradition and why you are here. You make a difference in people lives each day.
  4. Dignity and Respect Must Be Showed at Every Turn and at All Times
    The staff here understands why they are here and that each step they take, everyone is watching them closely. It is their job to display dignity and show respect to everyone they met. They all do this very well during the event. You should remember that when you go into someone’s house on a bad day for them. Show the person and people in the place the respect you need to show. Maybe you may think they don’t deserve that respect but it’s our job to show them.
  5. Behave Like It’s Your Family Being Honored
    This is a simple statement but delivers a deep message. Put yourself in the shoes of the families being honored. How would you want a person to act if you were in the audience? The same holds true on any call or in life. You always represent your department regardless of where you are or what you are doing. Act like it!
  6. Remember You Are On Federal Property. There Are No Exceptions To the Rules.
    As we hold the event here on campus, rules must be followed. As a friend one told me, “A rule is a rule” regardless of whether it make sense. Our job is to follow the rules or suggest a better way to get it done in life.
  7. You Are Representing Yourself, Your Hometown, Your Department And Your Family
    Think twice about taking any action that would look terrible on the six o’clock news. Make your mama proud!  This makes a good statement for anytime in your life. We have all seen the reality show on TV and hope that we don’t recognize any of the people as family or friends! Obviously in this new world of cell phones and social media, think about many times before you perform a “watch this!” move! As a member of the department, you really don’t want your career to be marked by some video all the rookies see at their orientation class for the next few years!
  8. Remember Who You Are And Why You Are Here, At All Times
    Again, simple language but very powerful. Its good advice at all times. I can think of many times I would have done things different if I had taken a moment to realize what I was doing. Hindsight does not do a lot of good in most cases.
  9. Create Good Memories for Those Who Are With Us This Weekend.
    If you take a minute to think about this guideline, it fits our daily lives.  What memories do you want to create with your co-workers, your friends, your family and others in our life? We can all wish things had turned out different and we probably all share some type of painful memories in life. I know that I have many. The real question you need to ask is what type of memory do you want to create? The good ones are the best.
  10.  Smile a Lot
    These folks are being reminded of the worst day of their lives. The saddest part of the memorial has to be the flood of memories that must be passing over these families of the fallen firefighters. These are memories we cannot fix or replace. For most of them less than two years have passed since the sudden loss of their family member.  We all should try to smile more. Your own life is probably rough and I am sure you are carrying a lot of worries and concerns as an extra burden. We all need to be reminded that most everyone has a special burden they carry that you often have no idea they are dealing with each day. Smile as everyone will be wondering what you are so happy about today!

In closing, Chief Kanterman is a smart guy and I think he summarized a lot about life in general in these short 10 rules. Take a moment to read these over during a quiet time you have. Consider putting the guidelines somewhere you can read over them each day. Put a copy on the visor of your vehicle; in a folder or use it as a bookmark.  It will make your life much better and you will smile more I guarantee!

And by the way, each and every member who serve as staff do it as a volunteer and do not get any pay except the recognition from a grateful nation.

Contact Chief Kanterman at

For more information on him, visit:

Ken Farmer is Section Chief, Leadership and Fire Risk Reduction at the National Fire Academy, United States Fire Administration in Maryland. Email him at

Contact Us

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.