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.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Fire prevention skills can save lives

A young girl came up to me with her parents and handed me her drawing of a female firefighter. Her parents explained that she searched for a female firefighter during our fire prevention event because she wanted her to have that. At the time I was one of four, but the only female there that night. She was as excited to find me as I was to receive her drawing.

Firefighters pride themselves on appearance of their uniform and the fire apparatus, and we waive to children when we pass them on the street. We see how happy it makes them. I like seeing how amazed children look when they see a female firefighter in the group, but it shows them that girls do it too. It wasn’t until fire prevention events when I heard the reactions of girls pointing me out as a female firefighter that I understood that we can make an impact on someone by how we look, even before we even share a safety message.

Firefighters have the potential of greatly impacting students during fire prevention assemblies in October. It may seem simple to teach children to not play with matchers or lighters, but many will do it without understanding the dangers of it. We recently assisted at an apartment building fire that investigators said began when a child played with a lighter under a bed.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Remembering 9/11

My parents had told me that something would happen in my lifetime that I would always remember. My teachers told me and my seventh-grade classmates that we would remember where we were on September 11, 2001.

When I first started reporting on Patriot Day’s ceremonies, a reflection on the loss of nearly 3,000 lives, the high school students could remember that day. When I reported on an inaugural 9/11 flag raising ceremony at an elementary school, I saw the first through fifth grade students pause to honor people who died before they were born. The ceremonies are as somber as that day was.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Lisa's Roses

Being compassionate is not something that you learn in journalism school, but I think it’s a necessary trait in a journalist. I’ve interviewed more than a dozen families that have lost a child, and some interviews have been harder than others. After reading one of my stories about someone’s loss and how I highlighted the efforts by the family to bring good out of their tragedy, my late mother always said the same thing to me, “You’re not supposed to bury your child.”

In handing out a dozen free roses every August 23 as a way of healing from their pain, the DePedro family began telling parents who have lost a child that “it does get better.” One of my friends told me that at my mom’s funeral and coming from him, it was something that I needed to hear. It was hope that I could cling on to so I could know I’d find a way to move forward.

“The hardest thing we have to tell moms and dads is that it does get better,” Greg DePedro said. “You might not feel fantastic, but you will feel better with time and prayers.”

Dorrie and Greg DePedro, Coatesville Flower Shop owners, are often asked how they came up with the idea of “Lisa’s Roses” and they tell them her legacy is to “do something nice for someone today.” But they ask again how that started. I had to ask that loaded question too for the article.
“Then we take a walk back in time that often starts as a painful memory, but ends bringing joy to our hearts,” Greg DePedro said. His daughter Lisa died five months after she was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. 

“It was a very devastating time,” Greg DePedro said. “And then it began – the outpouring of love and support from the community.”

Friday, August 11, 2017

InstaNews: Living in a world of instant news

When I studied journalism in college, we learned about the origins of newspapers, radio news and TV news, which were developed respectively. Now we live in a world of knowing about news instantly because of cellphones. When I was recently on vacation, I heard via text alerts about some of the news happening nationally and locally in the five-county region of Philadelphia.

After I heard that Downingtown Area School District Superintendent Lawrence Mussoline designated a time for district employees to “turn off to tune in to your family” during Thanksgiving, I reported about it because it was unique feel-good story. At his request, all 1,500 district employees were disconnected from the district email server during their week break. Mussoline noted that time was designated to be spent focusing on family, rather than being connected to their email on their smart phones while in a social setting, for example.

“The good is that we live in an instantaneous world, constantly connected to information,” Mussoline said. “The bad is that we live in an instantaneous world, constantly connected to information.”

Mussoline welcomes digital technology, which the Chester County school district uses for educational purposes in its 16 schools.

“We all embrace technology and this instantaneous digital world in which we reside. In many ways it’s much better than in the past being forced to find out information well after the fact. The educational information at our fingertips today is 1,000 times better than at any other time in the history of mankind,” Mussoline said. “All we hope to accomplish with this initiative is to educate our DASD family to the concept of everything in moderation.”

Living in a world where we can hear about news instantly sometimes makes it seems like more bad things are happening more often. We went from hearing the news on TV at certain hours or reading about it in the local newspaper the next day to now seeing it first on social media or receiving text alerts. Someone told me that it had been a long time since they heard about breaking news on TV because they heard about it via news alerts on their cellphone.

When I'm in the field covering breaking news, I can still hear the voice of my late editor, Jim Callahan, telling me to "drop a dime" when I had information that we could disseminate on the newspaper website and social media accounts. He was an old school editor and newspaperman who spent his days in the field before cell phones and found a payphone to call his editor with the information he gathered. The reason why news articles are written with the most important information first is because of such phone calls and telegraphs. Reporters would pass along the most important details first in case the call was disconnected and because lengthy telegraphs were costly.

One day I wrote up a brief story on my cellphone and emailed it to Callahan to review and post online. I called him to let him know that and it gave him a chance to ask questions if needed as he edited my story. "Oh have times changed and developed, Dunbar," he said with a laugh before our conversation ended.

Daily Local News photographer Pete Bannan and multimedia journalist Ginger Rae Dunbar reported on a fire in Downingtown Borough. 
I even tweeted about the incident while on-scene. The best advice I heard from an AP writer about social media was not worry about being the first to put the news out there. Strive to be the first to get it right because the most important aspect of reporting is to be accurate.