Every day, firefighters answer calls for help and rush toward the danger, knowing they are putting their own lives on the line.
To honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, firefighters and fire department honor guards from across the state gathered Thursday for the annual Florida Fallen Firefighter Memorial Service.
"It's not only support for the fire families, but for our community,” Villages Public Safety Department Fire Chief Edmund Cain said. "It's a somber event, but it's important to remember those who have given their lives to protect others.”
Two flames in black torches flickered in the wind with bagpipes playing the national anthem as men and women marched through the Florida Fallen Firefighter Memorial at the Florida State Fire College in Ocala to remember their comrades who died in the line of duty.
VPSD Deputy Chief James Goodworth also attended the event, along with Lt. Adelisa Luciano and Ryan Lavender from the department's honor guard.
"It's important that we all show our support and remember those who have fallen," Goodworth said. "It's very humbling to see everyone here."
The State Fire Marshals and the Florida Joint Council of Fire and Emergency Service Organizations host the memorial service every year at the Florida State Fire College.
The event started off with a prayer breakfast and welcome from Chief Mark Harper, of the Division of State Fire Marshals. Following the breakfast, everyone gathered for the main memorial service.
During the ceremony, honor guard members posted the colors, raising the American, state and fire college flags, and placed a wreath on the memorial. Everyone heard the somber sound of taps, then honor guard members ended the ceremony by marching out as "Amazing Grace" played.
"It means a lot (to be here representing the VPSD),” Lavender said. "A select few from every fire department have the opportunity to represent our brothers and sisters and put on a show for their families.”
The memorial honored 18 Florida firefighters who died in the line of duty, none of whom were VPSD personnel.
"This is my 13th year having the honor (of presenting opening remarks), and never have we ever bestowed the honor on so many names,” said Julius Halas, director of the State Fire Marshals. "Let us all work together to prevent fires, to reduce the exposure to cancer-causing carcinogens that firefighters face and prevent future pandemics.”
Families and a member from each fire station represented the 18 firefighters, whose names became a permanent part of the memorial. Halas handed each family a flag and medallion in honor of their loved one.
"This year we pause on this hallowed ground to embrace the families of these fallen heroes whose names have been permanently etched into granite tablets,” Harper said. "By adding their names to this list of heroes, it's our sincerest desire to have their lives live on in the firefighters who come behind them.”
The event concluded with a parade on Thursday evening in downtown Ocala, said Mary Ann Benson, administrative assistant for the Florida State Fire College.
Looking towards the future, Dalton Zink, another VPSD honor guard member, said he hopes the honor guard can expand as the department and The Villages grows. To address The Villages' growing community and unique demographics, the county is working toward establishing an independent fire district.
A fire control district that is independent of county control would allow The Villages to tailor its resources to the unique needs of the community that stretches beyond Sumter County.
The new district's boundaries would include all of The Villages in Sumter, Lake and Marion counties, while continuing to cover areas outside the community but within The Villages Public Safety Department's service area. The district would be governed by an elected board and able to raise its own funding and determine its own spending, so Villages residents would know precisely where every penny was spent.
Staff Writer Veronica Wernicke can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5307, or firstname.lastname@example.org.