Supporting the families of the fallen

Posted at 10:40 AM, Jul 09, 2013
and last updated 2013-07-09 10:40:08-04

By Rebecca Angel Baer

(CNN) — The 19 “hotshot” firefighters killed in Arizona on June 30 were trained to get close to a blaze, dig barriers and clear out the brush that otherwise would fuel it. But a sudden shift in the Yarnell Hill Fire’s direction trapped the group.

The deaths are under investigation, but officials have said it appears the 19 were forced to lie down under blankets meant to protect against flames and heat as a last resort against an inferno that overwhelmed them. Just one member of the elite 20-man wildfire-fighting crew survived. It was the deadliest day for U.S. firefighters since the 9/11 attacks.

Now the firefighters’ families — many with small children — must figure out how to cope, as they mourn their losses.

There are organizations that assist the families of lost firefighters, and several are already mobilized for the families of the Prescott, Arizona-based crew. Rick Siarnicki is the executive director of one such group, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

“In general, needs end up being the same for fallen firefighters, no matter where it is in the country. The immediate needs are going to be some financial support to help them deal with costs associated with the death. Oftentimes the firefighter is the main breadwinner in the household, so you’ve got to worry about food on the table, shoes for the kids and those kinds of things,” Siarnicki says.

The foundation also helps with the necessary paperwork for each family as well as providing emotional support.

“We use survivors from other line-of-duty death incidents to be in our survivor support network, and we kind of match survivors up from previous events with the new families, so they have somebody to talk to. Sometimes they just need somebody who understands what they’re going through,” explains Siarnicki, who was a firefighter in Prince George’s County, Maryland, for 24 years.

Siarnicki’s group also helps the children of fallen firefighters cope with their loss, because they often don’t understand the spotlight such an event puts them under. There are also long-term needs for the entire family to help rebuild their lives. The foundation holds conferences to teach life skills and financial planning.

Siarnicki says the 19 firefighters lost in Arizona were a special breed — like many others who choose to be firefighters.

“The fire service is a very dangerous profession, whether you’re career or volunteer, wildlands or industrial or even military firefighters. We understand the risks to being a firefighter and we accept those. And we try to do everything humanly possible to prevent tragic occurrences, but unfortunately they do occur. And so our families kind of know that.”

“And so there is a bonding effect within the fire service,” Siarnicki continues. “There is that fire service family. And I think the uniqueness of that is we function as a team. A fire crew, you know, they live together, sleep together, eat together, laugh together, go home to their families, but when they’re at work, there’s a secondary family. And both of those have very special unique bonds.”

Additional groups also offering support to the families of the Prescott hotshots are:

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