COVID-19 & LODDs: How to honor the fallen during a pandemic

Social distancing creates unique challenges for honoring first responders and supporting their families

By Ronald J. Siarnicki

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on almost every facet of our lives, and it appears this will continue for some time. As we navigate these already difficult times, we will, unfortunately, continue to experience officer line-of-duty deaths (LODDs), both from COVID-19 and other causes.

The ability to honor fallen heroes becomes more challenging in light of current CDC recommendations and individual state and local restrictions. While some areas have completely outlawed funeral gatherings, others have allowed them to continue with groups consisting of fewer than 10 people. Some families are choosing to delay services until restrictions ease and traditional protocols can be followed.

The ability to honor fallen heroes becomes more challenging in light of current CDC recommendations and individual state and local restrictions.
The ability to honor fallen heroes becomes more challenging in light of current CDC recommendations and individual state and local restrictions. (Photo/PSOB)

For those families that choose to continue with services, below are some considerations to honor an officer who has died as a result of COVID-19 or other line-of-duty cause, as well as suggestions for how to support a fallen officer’s family and your members.

How to hold a memorial service during COVID-19

The initial consideration is the planning for the funeral. Generally, this can still be done in person with a limited number of individuals (fewer than 10). In accordance with CDC recommendations, individuals can wear facemasks to protect themselves and others, and maintain social distancing of at least six feet apart. In the event more individuals need to be involved in this process, a virtual meeting can be set up and others can participate remotely on their computer or mobile device.

Visitation can be accommodated with some attention to occupancy and scheduling. If the family is willing to limit the number of members who greet individuals, a schedule can be developed to permit a limited number of visitors. For example, if three family members are present during the visitation, groups of seven can rotate through the funeral home to pay their respects. This should be pre-arranged so individuals have an assigned time to enter the funeral home. Appropriate social distancing must be maintained inside, and a mask can be worn by all individuals as recommended by the CDC.

Organization is key to this process, and time frames must be adhered to for success. Individuals are encouraged to stay in their vehicles until their assigned time frame to ensure appropriate social distancing. Should the family desire a casket watch, one member can provide this next to the casket. As an alternative, an honor guard member or two can be stationed outside the structure so as not to be part of the maximum occupancy.

Because funerals, where permitted, are limited to fewer than 10 people, this generally restricts participation to immediate family and eliminates agency involvement. Clergy are generally limited to one individual. Honor guard functions are not typically included in these services due to the occupancy restrictions. If the family approves, the funeral can be broadcast online using a variety of free programs. 

The procession of vehicles from the funeral home to the gravesite escorting the officer's body typically includes family members, police vehicles and others who wish to pay their respects. This can still be accomplished as designed with some slight alternations. It might be a good idea to limit the vehicles entering the cemetery to those who will participate in the graveside service.

One thought is to revise the typical order of vehicles in the procession and have those who will be entering the cemetery at the rear of the procession, allowing all other vehicles to proceed past the cemetery. Some agencies are foregoing the traditional procession and having all police vehicles stage along the route, and personnel remain inside the vehicles as the procession passes.

Like funerals, graveside services are limited to fewer than 10 people. For areas that permit these services, they are generally restricted to immediate family members to meet maximum group size requirements. Some services have developed a small rotation system to allow multiple groups of family members to participate in the graveside service. This system, similar to the visitation option, has small groups of individuals rotate through the graveside to pay their final respects. All personnel should maintain appropriate social distancing and can wear masks based on CDC recommendations. Depending on the geography of the gravesite, individuals could watch from inside their vehicles or apparatus.

There are options to transmit over FM radio that could be explored so those watching from their vehicles could hear the service as well. As with the funeral, if the family approves, the graveside service can be broadcast online using a variety of free programs. This gives the agency and others an opportunity to participate in the graveside service.

Other auxiliary functions during the graveside service can be performed with accommodations. A single bagpiper can be stationed at a distance so as not to be part of the maximum group size and still be heard.

The flag folding and presentation can be accomplished in several ways. The first is to limit the flag folders to two personnel if the appropriate maximum group size is maintained. Another option is to have the flag folding process a distance away from the immediate graveside and conduct the actual presentation at a later time. It is still recommended that only two flag folders are utilized to limit interaction. And the last option is to remove the flag-folding portion of the ceremony and conduct the presentation at a separate time and location.

One last consideration is the personnel who participate in all of the above processes and events. COVID-19 has proven to be more lethal to those over 60 and those with underlying health conditions. It is advisable to limit the interaction of this vulnerable population with others during this time and use personnel who are not members of this more at-risk group.

As you can see, there are many options to continue to honor officers in locations that permit such functions. We need to be very flexible during these times and adapt traditional protocols to meet requirements in the current environment. Such flexibility is also needed in how we support fallen officers’ families and departments.

Supporting families

Supporting the family after a police officer's death is a critical need and can be accomplished with a few considerations in the current environment.

A family liaison should be appointed so as to have a single point of contact between the family and all others (department, media, etc.). The family liaison can form a team of personnel to support the needs of the family. This team can acquire items the family may need and deliver outside the front door to reduce exposure. 

In-person meetings with the family are still possible by limiting the participation to the family liaison and maintaining social distancing and other CDC recommendations. If the family feels comfortable, video conferencing can be utilized for some meetings to include additional individuals. 

Supporting departments

It becomes more challenging to support the department during these events, as officers tend to congregate together to grieve and show their respect. Peer support is very important during these times and can also be accomplished with some accommodations.

There should be no gatherings of more than 10 people, so several individual or small groups can be assembled if necessary for peer support. It would be preferable to hold these meetings outside, if possible, and it is important to maintain social distancing and follow other CDC recommendations during any of these activities. Peer support activities can also be held virtually by phone or video conferencing if all parties feel comfortable with the medium.

Department members may wish to plan for a memorial service to be conducted at a later date when larger groups can be accommodated. This enables members to feel comfortable that the officer will be honored appropriately, and all will be able to pay their respects in accordance with their tradition.

PSOB classification of LODDs

One last note with respect to officer LODDs is the application of the U.S. Department of Justice Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) program.

The PSOB program provides death, disability and education benefits to survivors of fallen officers catastrophically injured in the line of duty. Currently, the PSOB Office is reviewing the laws and how a COVID-19 exposure claim would be handled and will distribute guidance when available.

The DOJ released an initial statement last month, noting that, “Under the current PSOB Act and its implementing regulations, conditions caused by infectious diseases, viruses, and bacteria may be found to be an injury sustained in the line of duty.”

The update explained that in order to establish eligibility for a public safety officer’s death or disability due to COVID-19, the PSOB Act and regulations require that the evidence show that it is more likely than not that the virus resulted from the first responder’s exposure while performing a line-of-duty activity or action. It pointed out that while some states have laws that presume a public safety officer’s infectious disease resulted from their employment, eliminating the need for evidence of when the transmission of a disease or infection occurred, the PSOB Program has no such presumption. In Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder’s article “COVID-19: Are police, correctional officer deaths considered LODDs?” he emphasizes the importance of documenting every run.

Thank you to Chief Ian Bennett, National Coordinator of the Local Assistant State Teams, NFFF, for his work on this article.

About the author

Chief Ronald Siarnicki began his fire service career with the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department in 1978 and progressed through the ranks to chief. In July 2001, Chief Siarnicki retired from the Prince George’s County to become the executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. He is a graduate of the master’s program, school of management and technology at the University of Maryland, University College and has a bachelor's degree in fire science management from UMUC. Prior to joining the Prince George's County, he served as a volunteer firefighter with the Monessen VFD Hose House 2 and currently serves with the United Communities VFD in Stevensville, Maryland. Siarnicki is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Siarnicki on LinkedIn

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