Caring for Families
When a public servant makes the ultimate sacrifice he or she leaves behind a family that needs support. And it is up to their agency and work family to provide that.
The first thing is the unfortunate burden of notifying the public servant’s next of kin; this may be a spouse, a grown child, or a parent. If at all possible, it is important that a counselor or the department chaplain accompany the chief that has been designated to break the news. It also might be helpful to have medical personnel on standby in the event the family needs medical intervention.
Notifying the Family
Before notifying the family or next of kin, compile all critical information and verify that it is accurate. Obtain any known facts surrounding the incident.
• If the Chief does not personally know the surviving family member(s) or
significant other, locate an individual, preferably someone in the department, who
does to accompany the Chief and Chaplain when notification is made.
• Ensure that the individual that is being notified is the appropriate person to
receive the notification. If your members have filled out Personal Information
Packets, this should help verify this information.
• Have a Chaplain available for emotional support. Have an ambulance available
on standby, approximately a 1/8 of a mile from the place of notification.
• Use the fallen's first name during the notification.
• Take a direct approach when notifying the family. Be straightforward. Don’t be
afraid to use the words “your husband was killed” or “because of injuries she
sustained, Name has died.”
• Console the best you can. This is where the Chaplain comes in to assist. Be
prepared to face different types of response behavior- anger, denial, even physical
violence is possible. If physical violence does erupt, do not hesitate to contact a law
enforcement officer. Notify the dispatcher of the situation and to request an officer
that is going to act compassionately. Some individuals will have physical reactions,
this is the reason for having medical back up available.
• Be specific and tactful. Be prepared to answer any questions the family might
• Gradually increase the level of distressing information, according to your
perception of the individual’s tolerance to what has already been stated.
• Make sure the information that you give is clear and to the point. If the firefighter
has died, relay that information. Make sure that you do not give the family any false
sense of hope.
• Whenever possible, honor the wishes of the family to view the body, go to the
hospital, the medical examiners office (morgue) etc.
Family members may live far from the department. If the next of kin’s location is far from the department, request another agency to assist in making the notification. Contact the police department and have an officer either make the notification, or have the
police department contact the local fire or police department. The Chief might be able to make the notification. When relying on outside agencies to make a notification, request that the assisting agency conform as much as possible to your guidelines. Provide the agency with as
much information about the incident as possible. Also, assure the agency and family that your department will be sending its
own personnel as soon as it is possible.
If the first responder is injured, or if the deceased was brought to a hospital, special needs have got to be met while the firefighter is in the hospital. Activate or assign a Hospital Coordinator. If possible have a Public Information Officer available to handle all media and press relations. It is the job of the PIO and Hospital Coordinator to shield the family from the press.
Here are other duties that need to be performed by the Hospital Coordinator
• Meet with hospital personnel to arrange for the appropriate reception of family
members. Arrange for a waiting facility for family and arriving department members. If
needed arrange for refreshments to be brought to the waiting room
• If the first responder has not yet died, the family has the right to visit the individual
prior to death. It is psychologically beneficial for surviving family members, especially
older children to be able to do so. Whether the first responder has died at the incident, in route
to the hospital, or at the hospital, immediate family members should be allowed to see
their loved one if they desire.
• Transportation to the hospital should be provided for the family members. While
it is recommended that family members not drive themselves, some will wish to have
their vehicle available. In that case, provide a driver to take them in their own vehicle. If
transporting in a department vehicle, avoid allowing family members to overhear radio
transmissions. Transportation Coordinator(s) should always notify the Hospital
Coordinator prior to transporting family members. If needed ask for police escorts. If the
firefighter has not yet deceased, it is appropriate to drive the vehicle with lights. Do not
use sirens, this could increase the anxiety of the family member.
• The Hospital Coordinator should provide information regarding the status of the
firefighter, as well information regarding the incident to the family as soon as they arrive
at the hospital. The Hospital Coordinator should remain with the family the entire time at
the hospital. A Clergy member, and other family peers should also be with the family.
• The Hospital Coordinator should ensure that all medical bills are sent to the fire
department, not the family.
• Decisions should not be made for the family. Families need to make all decisions
regarding the care of the deceased. Provide the family with the needed information and
support will enable them to make the necessary decisions themselves.
After the initial notification, it is often very helpful to offer to make the first telephone contact with other relatives. You should be prepared to explain the circumstances of the death and answer any questions. The general circumstances of death should be explained without going into too much detail. The person notifying next of kin and/or the Chaplain should stay with the family member until the Family Coordinator and other support people arrive. Support people may be family, friends, church members or fellow first responder and/or their spouses.
The Funeral Coordinator should contact the Family Coordinator to establish the family’s desires as to department's participation in the funeral. The family’s wishes are to be paramount and they should be given options:
1. A formal service at home, funeral home, church or cemetery, which may include the use of an
engine, fire department pallbearers, honorary pallbearers and color guard.
2. A semi-formal service at home, funeral home, church or cemetery, which may involve active
pallbearers, honorary pallbearers, and color guard.
3. A non-formal service at home, funeral home, church or cemetery, without active
department involvement, other than members attending the viewing and/or funeral service.
4. A private service at home, church or cemetery; respecting the family’s wishes to have no
department participation at the funeral.
If the family wishes the department to be involved, the Funeral Coordinator should designated an individual or business to take care of food after the service. It is also helpful to provide a map of the areas involved should be prepared assist out-of-town guests and others that may need it. For funeral guidelines, please check out our Funeral SOG's page for several examples.
After Funeral Care
After the funeral, when the family is ready, the Benefits Coordinator should be available to go over death benefits, pension, and any other financial help that is needed.
Support will be needed with practical things as well. Help with things such as changing oil in the car, cleaning the house, and childcare are essential for recovery from a devastating loss.
Most importantly, the family will need help through the grieving process. Formal grief counseling should be offered to the family. If they do not wish this, then make sure there is someone available to talk when they need to. Most of us are uncomfortable with the grieving process. When faced with someone’s raw pain, we attempt to shield ourselves from it. We often try to change the subject or distract the person to shield ourselves from feeling pain. But that will do more harm then good. A person must be allowed to express their pain. Encourage them to talk about their loved one. Share stories about the person, don’t be afraid to talk about him or her.
Make sure that the family knows that they are still part of the extended fire department family. Don’t be afraid to invite them to department events, picnics, etc. They need to know that they and their loved on have not been forgotten.
The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and C.O.P.S. has several resources for people who have lost someone in the line of duty. This includes a quarterly newsletter for survivors and a Survivor’s Support Network. The Survivors Support Network consists of a group of “experienced”
survivors who can lend emotional support to survivors in the difficult months after a death. Network participants are matched with survivors of similar experiences and circumstances who can relate on a personal level to the loss of a loved one. Their website can be viewed at
www.firehero.org or www.nationalcops.org. They can also provide departments with guidelines for dealing with line of duty deaths.