Sunday, April 15, 2018

Serving in Puerto Rico as a family

I slept at the firehouse overnight during a snowstorm and spent part of my day at my house and the gym without any power before going on a week-long mission trip to Puerto Rico. Our power outage lasted two days and theirs has lasted six months in some areas. One area we served in had its power restored two weeks before our trip.

Five youths at Bethany Evangelism Presbyterian Church initiated the mission trip because they wanted to assist with the hurricane relief efforts. It finished with 38 people helping with repairs at a camp, a rehab center, the American School and visiting residents at the Elderly Center. We had signed up by January and we later learned that we were an answer to their prayers. Many of the owners and directors became emotional when they told us that they did not have the money for the necessary repairs, the materials needed or the labor to fix it. They had prayed faithfully, asking God for help. They were amazed at what strangers did for them. We each had our reasons for giving up a week of vacation time from work or a school spring break; it was a calling to serve.

The owners worked alongside of us as the restoration began. Some cried when they saw the amount of work that we had completed in a few days. The electricians and carpenters among our group said the workload could have taken up to 10 days. We learned that the camp, which will house future groups like ours to serve in other areas, was on the verge of being shut down. The owner had little money and no help to restore the buildings and replace the roofs. We were touched by his emotional reaction to seeing the restored camp because we had not expected to receive such gratitude from someone who was incredibly thankful for us.

Photo by Ginger Rae Dunbar - Pictured is the camp site after the church members helped restore the roofs of the buildings and clear the debris from the yard. 

The church services had been relocated to the school because our sister church was damaged by Hurricane Maria. We attended the outdoor Palm Sunday service with a beautiful view of a palm tree. We helped restore the auditorium in the school where the Holy Thursday service was held, the first indoor service since the hurricane. It was nice to attend that service where we could see our finished work of replacing tiles in the ceiling and the floor. We didn’t feel like workers, we felt like we were a part of their community because they welcomed us in like family.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Honoring fallen firefighter Dave Good

I wanted to see the memorial set up for David J. Good at Lionville Fire Company in his gear locker. Despite how often I drive past the firehouse on the job, I had never stopped. I saw it on the 20-year anniversary of his line of duty death.

Photo by Ginger Rae Dunbar - Daily Local News
A memorial for fallen firefighter David J. Good is set-up in his  gear locker at Lionville Fire Company. 

I reported on the plaque dedication and memorial service in the area overlooking the Pennsylvania Turnpike where a tractor trailer lost control, struck and killed him and injured nine other first-responders who were assisting at a vehicle accident on March 9, 1998.

“This memorial plaque will help remind us and help educate younger generations of what a real sacrifice is. Being a firefighter has inherent dangers,” Lionville Fire Chief William Minahan said. “Until 1998 we weren’t really aware of the dangers on the highways. We had no idea this could happen, and to have 10 guys get run over, (including) one guy killed, it was just horrific.”

Photo by Ginger Rae Dunbar
A plaque honoring fallen Lionville firefighter David J. Good was dedicated on the 20-year anniversary on March 9, 2018. 

While I was there on the anniversary as a journalist, I felt like I was there for so much more than that to honor him because of his sacrifice and because of the pain that followed. When first-responders go out to help, we want to go home too.

Friday, February 23, 2018

This could happen to our community

With the most recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida claiming the lives of 17 people, we can’t help but think about those who have been lost to such violence. After each of the shootings in the United States, our local community showed support to the survivors. My colleagues and I have often reported on vigils remembering the victims and protests from both sides of gun control.

A radio host said the shooting hit home for her because she was picking her children up from school when she heard about the Florida school shooting. She said she wanted to protect every child that she saw, and I later heard many of my friends who are teachers share similar thoughts. My friends have become prepared to hide their students and risk their lives to save their students from an intruder. 

It’s scary that we have to realize that this could happen in our own communities and our own schools. I can’t help but think about that every time we hear about mass shootings on the news. Downingtown Borough Councilman Phil Dague summed up what I think about every time I’m in the newsroom watching the TV news and reading breaking news alerts about such shootings.

“As I’ve watched the news reports on the aftermath of what happened in Sandy Hook and most recently in Florida,” Dague said, “the one thing that strikes me the most is, I look at the people, the parents, the survivors and it just reminds me that this could be our community. It scares the hell out of me.”

Photo by Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP - Maria Creed is overcome with emotion as she crouches in front of one of the memorial crosses at Pine Trails Park in Parkland, Fla., Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, that were placed for the victims of the Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Creed's son, Michael Creed, is a sophomore at the school. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Remembering Lt. Matthew LeTourneau

I had loved when my two passions of writing and firefighting would overlap at work, but this time the best of both worlds collided in the worst way. I sat down with a cup of coffee to finish a story on my day off when I received a message from a friend who also works in the media. I thought he was asking for a tip on a story, but then he warned me that a few Philadelphia firefighters from my friend’s platoon had been injured battling a fire that morning.

I stopped writing my story and instead turned to media outlets to find out what was happening. I read a few of the news stories about a civilian dying and that a few firefighters had been injured. I didn’t get a bad feeling about the fire and I didn’t think my friend Matt was hurt. He was so well trained and experienced that I never would have imagined what unfolded happening to him. It was a scary reminder that it could happen to anyone.

There were conflicting news reports that a firefighter, who was critically injured, had died. Some stories said a firefighter and a civilian had died, while one posted an editor’s note that officials said a firefighter had died but were no longer confirming that. I started thinking about the importance of accuracy in reporting so that people are informed. About an hour later I learned from my journalism friend and another firefighter that Matthew LeTourneau was the critically injured firefighter and he had passed away. My journalism friend heard from two sources. Hearing information from your trusted source is like hearing a secret from your best friend, you know what they are saying is true. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Springfield firefighting community pays tribute to Lt. Matthew LeTourneau

Fallen firefighter Matthew LeTourneau always wanted to be a firefighter and he encouraged his fellow firefighters to “never stop training.”

On Sunday black bunting was displayed over the engine bay at Springfield Fire Company to commemorate LeTourneau. A longtime volunteer with the company, LeTourneau, 42, died Saturday in the line of duty in while battling a row house fire as a Philadelphia firefighter.

LeTourneau began his time in the fire service at Springfield Fire Company when he joined in July of 1991 at 16. He was attending Cardinal O’Hara High School at the time and graduated in 1993. A life member at Springfield, LeTourneau became interested in the fire service because his grandfather served as a firefighter in Chester.

“This is where he started, what put him on the path to be a career firefighter,” Springfield Fire acting Deputy Chief Thomas Foran said at the firehouse. “His dream was to become a career firefighter in Philadelphia. He achieved it. He was absolutely a leader and just a super knowledgeable firefighter.”

Springfield firefighter Bill Lavery said LeTourneau gravitated toward training and firefighting became “second-nature” to him, noting that over the years LeTourneau encouraged firefighters to build up their muscle memory of firefighting skills. He described LeTourneau as a driven student.

“He was like a sponge,” Lavery said.

LeTourneau passed on that knowledge as an instructor at the Delaware County Emergency Services Training Center, where he taught several classes including fire behavior. Delaware County Emergency Services Training Center Deputy Director Kerby Kerber said LeTourneau spent time talking to and learning from the engineers at Underwriters Laboratories Firefighter Safety Research Institute and the National Institute of Standards and Technology during testing at the training center.

“Matt incorporated much of the information from the research into his programs so his students had the best and most current information,” Kerby said. “Matt took every advantage to expand his knowledge. He attended programs and courses as well as instructor workshops and train the trainer sessions.”

Kerby said LeTourneau focused on ways to better the fire service and to train firefighters.

“Not only did we lose a dedicated firefighter, but Matt was also a teacher and mentor, passing his knowledge and experience to the current and next generation of firefighters,” Kerber said. “He saw it as his duty to make sure that those serving with him and following him in the service were better trained and educated so they would go home after each call. His legacy will be in lives not lost and injuries avoided, both firefighter and civilian (and) saved by those who he spent countless hours training to be the best firefighters they could be.”

LeTourneau became trapped during a structural collapse while battling a fire in a North Philadelphia row home on Saturday morning, Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said. Firefighters extricated him 30 minutes later and he was rushed to Temple University Hospital, where he died.

Two other Philadelphia firefighters were injured as well as a civilian from a neighboring home, and a civilian from the home had perished, according to Thiel. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

LeTourneau was promoted to lieutenant in 2015 with the Philadelphia Fire Department Engine 45/ Platoon A. He served with the Philadelphia Fire Department for 11 years, his dream job. 

Pictured is the front page of the Delaware County Daily Times on Monday, honoring fallen firefighter Lt. Matthew LeTourneau who died in the line of duty on Jan. 6, 2018. 

“From the first day he walked into Springfield (Fire Company), he knew he wanted to be a fireman,” said Springfield firefighter Scott Pomante. “He learned as much as he could as quick as he could. He kept training and he preached to people to never stop training. You can never learn too much in the fire service. Matt preached that you should keep training and that you always have more to learn.”

Springfield firefighter Pat Gallagher said LeTourneau was “always pushing people to learn and then teach. He played hard and he worked hard.”

“Professionally he was a master at his craft,” Gallagher said. “You can never have enough training. He was always looking to train and he would train others at the station.”

He described LeTourneau as a caring, supportive person who will be missed by so many agencies across Pennsylvania because of how he impacted others.

“When that alarm sounds, he’s going to keep a lot of people safe,” Gallagher said about LeTourneau being a guardian angel. “Every time we put that gear on, there’s no guarantee that we’re coming back. He led the fight. There should be more people like him, we would be better for it.”

J.J. Bonsall, a member of the Philadelphia Fire Department and Springfield volunteer firefighter, said LeTourneau enjoyed training and he would help firefighters with equipment and skills because he was passionate about “always bettering the fire service.”

“No matter how long it took, he was going to help you learn and keep doing it until you understood. He loved training. It didn’t matter what time of day it was or what the weather was like,” Bonsall said. “It was the most joyous moment for him because someone wanted to learn. He loved to teach and pass on knowledge to newer members.”

He added that LeTourneau enjoyed being involved, whether it was helping firefighters practice pulling a hoseline and repacking it, or helping the company with decisions about replacing apparatus.

“We took a big loss in the fire service,” Bonsall said of LeTourneau’s tragic death. “He was one of the greatest firefighters.”

Timothy Boyce, director of Delaware County’s Department of Emergency Services, said LeTourneau served as a leader by training people in emergency services and he was “one of the best-trained officers we have.

“Matt was a leader in the community and his last act was leading firefighters in to save someone else,” Boyce said. “I’m proud of him.”

Monday, December 18, 2017

Parents encouraged to talk to children about school threats

As my friends talked about our upcoming ten-year high school reunion, I heard radio hosts encouraging parents to talk to their children about what to do if they encounter an active-shooter in their school. The hosts expanded that conversation to include shootings at churches, in movie theaters, at concerts, during a road rage incident – scenarios that have become real life scenarios.

Times seem different than when I was in school not long ago. I don’t think my classmates and I felt that it could become a reality in our school district because we live in a safe area. But I’m sure that’s how other students and parents felt before gunfire interrupted a peaceful school day that forever changed the students and the history of the school.

I recall three bomb scares during my years of education including one during my freshman year at West Chester University. I don’t even recall being evacuated during the first bomb scare when I was in middle school and bomb sniffing canines checked the school after a handwritten letter was found claiming a bomb was in the school. The second time occurred in high school and K-9 units searched the building before the school day began. We all had to enter through the gym where metal detectors were set-up with police officers overseeing it. The search was so thorough they even searched my brown paper bag lunch.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Communities come together during hardships

My sister works in an assisted living facility and occasionally she talks about the monthly fire drills. The staff follows procedures and during an emergency it seems like they would have to move fast to safely evacuate all of the residents because some cannot walk on their own or depend on a wheelchair. It would be a difficult task, one that they hope they never have to find the hard way.

The Barclay Friends Senior Living Community residents and staff in West Chester experienced that last Thursday during what the media called an inferno after the fire rapidly ripped through the building and destroyed a majority of the building. Some of the exterior walls are standing and the roof is burnt off. As I watched the breaking news footage on TV, I hoped that everyone had gotten out because by that point the conditions were not survivable.

Photo by Daily Local News photographer Pete Bannan - A fire destroyed the Barclay Friends Senior Living Community on Thursday, Nov. 16. 

In developing stories, details are reported as they unfold and sometimes information changes. Initially they knew that there were more than 100 residents and staff members collectively inside the building when the fire broke out at about 10:45 p.m. last Thursday. They later announced that more than 140 residents and staff made it out and that four people who are unaccounted for are believed to be dead.

West Chester Police Chief Scott Bohn said it’s a “small miracle that we only have four people unaccounted for” while 133 residents and 15 staff were safely evacuated during the five-alarm blaze. The ATF later found the four victims in the rumble.

Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan said he would have expected more grim news of up to 50 residents who perished but most were saved “mainly because of actions of the first responders” who had “minutes to get those residents to safety.”

People often credit firefighters with running toward danger as everyone else runs away. It’s something that the media members have in common with first-responders, but to serve a different purpose. When I saw a photograph of the media circus, taken by one of my firefighting friends, it reminded me of why I do both. As a journalist covering breaking news I feel like a bystander at times even though I go to emergency scenes in Chester County with a job to do, but reporting on the news led me to join the fire service back home to help others.