My firefighting friends in California had a great question for me. Here are my thoughts.
What a tragedy to lose a fellow firefighter, emergency medic, or law enforcement officer, let alone a member of the armed forces. However, it does happen and all too often. Since we know that death comes to us all and that it is just a matter of when, it is a good idea to be as prepared as possible. We will concentrate on the earthly traditions following a death, although each individual must give a thought to his everlasting soul before time runs out.
Tradition holds that warriors are draped with the colors under which they fought. That is why our US military service members and veterans have flag-draped caskets. Whether or not one believes, as Marine Corps Major General Smedley D. Butler once said, “War is a racket”, is not the issue, the issue is about rendering respect. Your politics, my politics have zero to do with the situation. This is also why we stand at the appropriate time.
1 Peter 2:17 Show proper respect to everyone.
Romans 13:7 Give to everyone what you owe them: if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
First responders are also “in the fight” in the form of serving the public safety interest on a daily basis. Again, good/bad are not the issue.
Members of the US military receive the American flag. First responders have a choice. If the deceased individual has not made a choice, the family is then asked. If they do not have a preference, the American flag is the default. The choices for first responders are their state and city flags.
NOTE: check your local guidance for any special flag fold procedures. Some states have them, most do not. For any state/municipality without guidance, the rectangle fold is standard, keeping the triangle fold reserved for the American flag. Yes, guidance can dictate the triangle fold.
The question then becomes, when does the body of the deceased get draped with the flag?
Tragedy struck the Arizona firefighting community a few years ago and it reverberated with firefighters throughout the world. Nineteen firefighters fighting wildfires lost their lives in unimaginable circumstances. This picture is from an unknown source. Some, were horrified that the picture was posted on social media. Read more about that by clicking here. I’m using this photo as an educational example.
Once the dead first responder is discovered, the remains must be moved to a staging area for transportation preparations. At that point, it would be appropriate to cover the remains with a flag. It would also be appropriate to begin Casket Watch at this time.
The deceased do not care, it’s about the family, both relatives and beyond. Showing the utmost care and respect are the best things one can do in these terrible situations. Carrying one or two interment flags (5′ x 9 1/2′) in a vehicle or apparatus is part of preparing for the worst.
There are two types of material for flags, plastic-based and cotton. I highly suggest never giving anything other than a large-star cotton flag to the family. In the field, there is a possibility of the flag becoming soiled. Dry cleaning is perfectly acceptable. If a rayon-type flag is used it is slippery, does not fold well and is quite light. Cotton is heavier. It may be necessary to tuck the flag underneath the body bag or maybe to weight it down with a couple of stones while in the field to prevent it from leaving the remains. While it is not the best situation, I will leave that decision up to those who have to deal with losing a brother- or sister-in-arms: do you even place the flag at that moment and does it need weighting down or do you simply wait until the body is in the coroner’s vehicle.