Fallen Firefighter Memorial Project

Fallen Firefighter Memorial Project
Retired Firefighters Group Raising Money To Honor All Those Who Have Made The Ultimate Sacrifice

By Joshua Manning

The Retired Firefighters of Palm Beach County have a long history of projects that give back to the community, and that includes the nonprofit’s current effort toward creating a memorial to honor fallen firefighters.

The Fallen Firefighter Memorial Project will create a Fallen Firefighter Memorial Park at Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue headquarters on Pike Road. Included at the memorial park will be a statue honoring those who have given their lives in service to the community.

“We are always giving back to the community,” said Vicki Sheppard, president of the Retired Firefighters of Palm Beach County. “We looked at what would be our fundraiser this year, and we have decided to give back to our fallen firefighters, creating something local to honor them.”

This unique project serves two purposes: design and designate the Fallen Firefighter Memorial Park, which will contain a Fallen Firefighter statue, and to provide financial assistance for the families of fallen firefighters to attend national and state ceremonies honoring their heroes.

“The fallen firefighters’ statue in a memorial park seemed like a wonderful, lasting tribute to the fallen firefighter families,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard noted that many Palm Beach County firefighters have given the ultimate sacrifice while serving their community. To honor them, the Retired Firefighters of Palm Beach County partnered with the Professional Firefighters/Paramedics of Palm Beach County Local 2928 I.A.F.F. Inc. to create this memorial project, which will honor fallen firefighters from all departments in the county. The organizations have held fundraisers to bring this project to fruition but are also reaching out to the community for financial support.

Fallen firefighters are those who have died as a result of occupational injuries or diseases, including heart and lung issues, and specific types of cancers. The local Fallen Firefighter Memorial Park will provide a central venue for ceremonies where fallen firefighter families will be honored and recognized for their sacrifices.

Firefighting is recognized globally as one of the most dangerous professions. In the United States, about 45 percent of firefighters’ on-duty deaths are due to cardiovascular events.

In addition, firefighters have a nine percent higher risk of an occupational cancer diagnosis and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from an occupational cancer than the general population.

Meanwhile, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation estimates that there are between 100 and 200 firefighter deaths by suicide each year. While there has been a renewed emphasis on prevention, occupational deaths still occur at an alarming rate.

The Retired Firefighters of Palm Beach County acknowledge the dangers of firefighting and the unacceptably high rates that active and retired firefighters are passing away and believe that these sacrifices need to be memorialized locally.

“This project is important because the fallen firefighter families have given so much. Their spouses have given so much to serve the community. They lost their spouses at relatively young ages. The average age for our firefighter cancers deaths is 58 years old,” Sheppard said. “We try to make sure that they are remembered.”

Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue is the primary agency providing lifesaving services for residents here in the western communities. A number of local families have paid the ultimate sacrifice.

In 2008, PBCFR Capt. Butch Smith, who worked in The Acreage, was diagnosed with Stage 4 multiple myeloma and was initially given two years to live.

Smith took his cancer fight public, determined to raise awareness on firefighter cancers through fundraising events. For nearly nine years, he fought through stem cell therapy, hospital admissions and releases, rounds of chemotherapy and other procedures. Meanwhile, his annual fundraiser provided more than $250,000 to local charities. In 2017, Smith passed as valiantly as he lived.

In Royal Palm Beach, firefighters who merged into PBCFR from the village’s independent fire department in 1999 included Fire Marshal Tom Vreeland and Training Capt. Dave Haggerty. They passed away in 2011 and 2017, respectively, from occupational cancers.

In Wellington, fallen firefighters to heart disease and occupational cancers included Capt. Earl Wooten in 2019. Prior to his death, Wooten and his wife Mary donated the Fallen Firefighter Remembrance Table that the Retired Firefighters use at their gatherings to remember “those who have gone before us.” Mary Wooten is now supporting the Fallen Firefighter Memorial Project. “A lot of people don’t have contact with fire-rescue families and don’t know what has happened to these guys,” Wooten said.

She urged people from across the community to support this worthy project. “During their lives, the retired firefighters have given their all to help the community,” Wooten said. “They run in as people run out to help people and save lives. It is about time that everybody learns what these gentlemen did.”

Carrying on the family legacy, Wooten’s son, Earl II, is the fire chief at Okeechobee County Fire Rescue, while another son, John, works as a firefighter at Highlands County Fire Rescue.

Heart disease and cancers can affect all firefighters, regardless of department. In 2012, Eric Patrie from Delray Beach Fire Rescue passed away at age 37 from brain cancer. In 2023, Capt. Brian Wolnewitz passed away at the age of 44 from lung cancer, even though he never smoked.

Wolnewitz, a father of four, was a 20-year veteran of Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue and was told by his doctors that his cancer came from breathing in toxins while on the job as a firefighter. During his two-year battle with cancer, he raised awareness of firefighter cancers and fought to advance treatments so that others might benefit from his journey.

“These heroes selflessly gave everything they had to protect us and our neighbors,” his widow Julie Wolnewitz said. “By building a memorial here in Palm Beach County, we ensure that no one forgets the courage, bravery and dedication of our firefighters. It also gives the families and friends of the fallen a place to honor their loved ones. Many of these firefighters have young children, including mine. A local memorial is something that our children can be proud of, knowing that their dad or mom was a true hero that the community respects and will never forget.”

PBCFR’s Battalion 2 covers the western communities and is led by District Chief Amanda Vomero.

“The Fallen Firefighter Memorial Project is unlike any other memorial we have in our area,” Vomero said. “The lifelike statue holding a folded flag over the kneeling or fallen firefighter is a constant reminder of the sacrifices made by those who chose to serve their community. They chose to put the safety and needs of their neighbors over their own.”

She believes this is a great way to honor those who gave their lives.

“Every time the family, friends and co-workers of the fallen look at the memorial, they will feel pride and gratitude, knowing the community they served supported them and are thankful for the sacrifices made,” Vomero said.

In 2014, PBCFR took the lead on firefighter cancer prevention by organizing a new cancer prevention and research team called FACE (Firefighters Attacking the Cancer Epidemic). FACE formed a successful partnership with the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami.

Departments from all over South Florida came on board, and the first Florida firefighter cancer study was launched, known as the Firefighter Cancer Initiative (FCI). FCI was the catalyst to what is now the Firefighter Cancer Law, adopted in 2019 to provide assistance to firefighters with specific cancers. Firefighter cancer prevention now includes standard procedures such as post-fire decontamination, fireground air monitoring and annual medical screenings.

Firefighter occupational cancer deaths are now recognized on the state and I.A.F.F. fallen firefighter memorials, resulting in approximately eight firefighter names a year being added to the wall from Palm Beach County fire departments.

There is a national fallen firefighter memorial statue in Emmitsburg, Maryland, at the National Fire Academy, as well as a fallen firefighter memorial statue in Ocala at the Florida State Fire College and in Tallahassee at the Florida State Capitol. The I.A.F.F. Inc. has a fallen firefighter memorial statue in Colorado Springs. But there is currently no statue or memorial park in Palm Beach County to honor the sacrifices of fallen firefighters and their families.

The Retired Firefighters and Local 2928 plan to donate a fallen firefighter memorial statue to Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue, the county’s largest fire department. To accomplish this, they worked with Art in Public Places to design the Fallen Firefighter Memorial Park with a bronze statue at the entrance to PBCFR headquarters at 405 Pike Road, located at the roundabout in front of the Chief Herman Brice Headquarters and Regional Training Center.

“We thought that was a great spot with so many people coming to it. They can see the dangers of firefighting and pay tribute to those who have already fallen,” Sheppard said.

The Fallen Firefighter Memorial Park will provide a centerpiece and visual reminder to the fallen firefighter families, current fire service members and the community to recognize the dangers of firefighting, strive for health and wellness prevention, and reinforce the solemn oath to never forget those who have been lost.

Sheppard noted that Florida Power & Light, the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and Baptist Health South Florida are key supporters of the project, and she invited others from the community to get involved as well.

“The firefighters are there to protect everyone in their time of need, and I think it is nice when the community can support firefighters in their time of need,” she said. “This is a great opportunity to support your firefighters and the community.”

The project is expected to be complete in the last quarter of 2024 or the first quarter of 2025. Donations to support the project are being accepted through the Retired Firefighters of Palm Beach County, a nonprofit organization.

To learn more about the Fallen Firefighter Memorial Park and how you can become involved, visit www.ffmemorial.com.