Friday, July 26, 2019

SWAT: "If not us, then who?"

When I went to bed halfway through the week of SWAT training, I could still hear the gun fire. At first I thought insufficient hearing protection caused the ringing, but realized I’m not used to hearing so much gun fire. The ringing of gun fire continued the next night too as I tried to sleep when it would have otherwise been quiet.

“I can still hear the gunshots,” I heard the voice of someone who said that to me during an interview in his home, less than 72 hours after a shooting. “God was looking out for us.”

His neighbor shot six rounds into his East Caln home in the middle of the night, nearly striking him in the head and just missing his young daughter who was sitting on the couch next to him. I had reported on so many shootings and homicides, but my first interview with a victim of gun violence stuck with me. Every time I drive past his home, I hear his voice and I can see his hands shaking the way they did during the interview as he smoked a few cigarettes. There are just some things you don’t forget from your career, and sometimes you don’t know why you remember those little details.

“If not us, then who?”

We heard that throughout the basic SWAT School I had the honor of attending. An advantage I have over those who work in the media is my experience as a volunteer firefighter, and having that desire inside of me to push forward even when the odds are against you. When I first thought about joining the fire service, I told God I would follow Him where He leads me. For me personally, being a first-responder is a calling by God.

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me.” - Isaiah 6:8

Pictured are the 17 students who completed Basic SWAT School and several of their instructors. 

One of the SWAT instructors said that everyone should want to be that first person going through the door. “You won’t always be the first, but you should want to be,” he said.

I understood that because I’ve seen it on the fire ground. Whether you love engine work or truck work, firefighters want to be the one on the nozzle to extinguish the blaze, or searching for victims in a building, or ventilating the roof.

"You can’t train too much for a job that could kill you."

That was the first point the SWAT instructor made to the 17 of us in Basic SWAT School. It’s something that I completely agree with in the fire service, and it’s understandable why those in law enforcement need to live by that belief too.

Everyone had their own reasons for taking the training. The instructors noted that their SWAT training applies to their daily patrol. For me, as described by the lead instructor, to understand and write about the SWAT training offered to police, you can best write about it by going through it. If I had only watched them train, I wouldn’t have felt my adrenaline rushing or my heart pounding on the first day that we searched the Downingtown West High School.

I thought I’d have an advantage because I have been in that high school numerous times to cover events. I had walked the hallways and I had been in the library, several classrooms, and even the bathroom, but that didn’t help me as much as I thought it would. I had never been in that area thinking the way a police officer does. I have reported on active shooter drills, but this was my first time participating in it, and actively searching for suspects in the hallways and those hiding throughout the school. I hadn’t noticed the concealed spaces in a small classroom or the huge library, and what areas a police officer becomes the most vulnerable. The library never felt so large when our squad split into smaller groups in search of the instructors portraying the bad guys. I felt mad at myself for missing the bad guy, but it motivated me to do better. I imagined the others had similar feelings. We felt proud, and I also felt relieved, when we found the threats, but we knew better than to let our guard down as we continued our search.

It also gave me a greater appreciation for what the police may have to do or face during an active shooter situation. I found myself easily able to follow my partner down the hallway and into classrooms, but when it came time to search the bathroom, now with me in the lead, I hesitated. Several instructors who portrayed the bad guys had a simulation gun, similar to a BB gun, and in advanced they informed us that we would be shot if we missed finding the bad guys throughout the school, or took our eyes away from the area we were tasked with covering to protect the team. If we didn’t do our job, it affected the whole team. Those exercises forced us to fight against having tunnel vision, work as a team, and it required us to pay attention to detail because in those situations, your life depends on it.

The thought of getting shot with a BB gun made me nervous. That’s when it dawned on me, the others around me had taken an oath to risk their lives to save others. The risks we take are different in the fire service than law enforcement, but I understood being okay with risking your life for the greater good and for the people around you.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for another.” – John 15:13

In the media, we do face danger at times, but we are not typically risking our lives to tell a story and inform the public. We often follow first-responders to emergency scenes and go into some other situations that can be dangerous. We are often on the sidelines, behind the yellow crime scene tape, but we are right there too. Newspaper columnist Rod Dreher described it best in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He said, “There are three kinds of people who instinctively run toward danger - firefighters, police officers and journalists.”

“Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re finished.”

The course you do during your physical fitness test is intimidating because it’s designed to exhaust you and see if you can still finish at the point that you’re needed the most. The whole time you’re wearing a police vest, and halfway through the course, you put on a gas mask. You begin by climbing over a six-foot wall, doing two pull-ups then two dips, run 100 yards and then put on your gas mask. You continue by crawling 10 yards, then running 60 yards with a 40-pound ram and it ends when you drag a 250-pound dummy, wearing a police vest, to safety 20 yards away, all while still wearing your vest and gas mask. It tests if you can be counted on to save one of your own. Before I started, I visualized that the down SWAT member was a down firefighter and I was the one there to help them.

Not only are you timed and have to complete the course in 2 minutes and 30 seconds, but an instructor checks to ensure you completed the course with the gas mask properly sealed to your face or you fail. The gas mask cuts your oxygen level in half, and the harder you’re breathing, the more difficult it becomes to breathe.

Just like my classmates, I started the course with the mindset that I was going to complete the course in the time allotted. When I finished and worked to catch my breath, the instructor showed me the stop watch. Two minutes and 18 seconds. Oh thank God, I thought, and I couldn’t help but smile because I did it!

Everyone had successfully completed the course and some even finished it between 65 to 90 seconds. I was impressed. Everything we did that week, as our instructors would remind us, “you need to have the heart and mindset to complete each task.”

"Teamwork makes the dream work."

Despite all the sports I played growing up, being in the marching band taught me the most about being one unit. The movie Drumline explains it so well when the band director says they are one band with one sound, and “when one of us looks or sounds bad, we all look and sound bad.” It’s a team competition, not an individual one. It’s the same concept in SWAT because it’s all about the team working together. You succeed together, you fail together. When someone fails to do their job or does not perform it well, it affects the next person and the whole operation. All of that can apply to the fire ground.

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” - Proverbs 27:17

Ginger Rae Dunbar shoots at a threat during Basic SWAT School. 
We began the class as individuals, and came together as a team. Some of us had met before, while others were strangers. People began to offer help to one another, and I noticed it because many of them helped me load my magazines.
Together, we embraced everything we had to do, from being exposed to tear gas to running laps while wearing our gear and dealing with the heat. The instructors taught us teamwork and attention to detail by implementing a consequence for not following instructions and not completing a task as outlined, for example. In those cases, if one person messed up, we all paid the price as a team by running laps, doing push-ups or performing other exercises.

When I heard about everything we would be doing at SWAT school, I was excited and nervous about going into a room and firing live rounds with a partner, and then repeating the process with a team. Downingtown Police Chief Howard Holland, who graciously gave me permission to do the training as a reporter, told me if there was anything I was uncomfortable doing, or did not want to do, that I didn’t have to do it. I appreciated having that out, but I was also glad that I didn’t need to use it.

Making entries turned out to be my favorite part, and I would say many of the officers would agree. There was something intense, but gratifying about going into a room in search of the bad guys. Everything we learned throughout the week built us up to the exercises we faced on the last day, and all of our training came together.

Nicknamed Annie Oakley:

The younger generation in the firehouse refers to me as “April O’Neil,” the TV reporter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, while the senior members call me “Lois Lane,” the journalist featured in the Superman comics. Throughout the week of SWAT, the participants began receiving nicknames, and I had a suspicion that the police would find a creative nickname for me.

After we shot at moving threats with our rifles, one of the instructors first called me “deadeye” and later, “Annie Oakley,” an American sharpshooter and exhibition shooter. My proudest moment was being among those to earn a challenge coin for our skill level. I received a sniper coin for hitting five out of the six headshots on the moving threats. The instructors, who serve on the Chester County Regional Emergency Response Team, helped us hone our skills.

I truly felt like a part of the team and I’m thankful to those in the SWAT class, as well as the instructors, who welcomed me as if I was one of them.

The following participated in Basic SWAT School:

Patrick Ehmann, East Pikeland Police Department; Michael Kinsman, Coatesville Police Department; Matthew Paris; East Pikeland Police Department; Michael Kopil, Caln Police Department; Tyler Neuhaus, Downingtown Police Department; Martin Lawson, Chester County Sheriff Office; Steven Price, Chester County Sheriff’s Office; Kevin Skymba, Chester County Sheriff Office; Francesco Grimaldi, Downingtown Police Department; Thomas Ralph, East Whiteland Police Department; Nick Ruggieri, Chester County Detectives intern; John Hoover, Chester County Detectives intern; Colin Vannicolo, Kennett Square Police Department; Lyndsay Taylor, Kennett Square Police Department; Chris Taylor, Downingtown Police Department; Scott Runge, Longwood Medic and Ginger Rae Dunbar, press.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Merge with Mercy: for Bianca Roberson

I often drive past the site where Bianca Roberson was killed in a road rage shooting in June 2017. I remember the way the news unfolded, and we initially thought it was a car accident during rush hour. Soon after, we heard it may have been a fatal crash.

I spoke with an officer from the West Goshen Police Department while my photographer drove past the area to get photos for the story. The officer described the deceased victim as a young motorist. For some reason, I just knew in my heart that the victim, only identified as 18-years-old, had just graduated from high school. Earlier that month, we had just reported on the high school graduations.

As the news developed, we learned that Bianca had just graduated from Bayard Rustin High School on June 6, 2017 and she was murdered on June 28, 2017. A week from the day she was killed, she had plans to attend freshman orientation at Jacksonville University on a full scholarship. But she never even made it home for dinner that night when she was driving home after a shopping spree for college.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

When one of us gets hurt

You don’t often hear the name of an injured firefighter when reporting on that story, but by including their name it humanizes what happened. I believe that’s true for the reader as well as the writer. I had heard that a Delaware firefighter had been injured in a house fire, and I planned to read about it when I finished another story I had been working on. But by that time, I received an email from my co-worker saying that the injured career firefighter is also a volunteer firefighter in Chester County.

For some reason that’s when it hit me and it was hard for me to follow up on this story. The whole time I searched for information, made phone calls and wrote the story, I had a knot in my stomach. I don’t know Dave Smiley personally, and while I have reported on firefighters getting injured during an incident, this felt different. I had even reported on firefighters I know who sustained an injury, but maybe this one was harder because it was the first story like this since Matthew LeTourneau died in the line of duty. Or maybe it hit closer to home because he has ties volunteering near where I live and work.

After I submitted my news story, I began talking to a few firefighters about it. One of them told me that when we say that we care when one of us gets hurt or killed, if we truly care, then he said it should affect us in some way. It made me realize it was normal to feel the way I did.

Some firefighters reached out to me when they saw I was on the story, and they told me about their experiences with Dave.

Friday, March 8, 2019

A legacy law for those lost to an impaired driver

The same day that Governor Tom Wolf signed DUI legislation into law, the snowfall seemed eerily familiar. As I picked up my cellphone to call a Downingtown family in attendance of the bill signing in Harrisburg, I wondered if they dreaded driving home in the snow.

Maggie and Paul Hannagan lost their two children, Charlotte and Miles, to a drunk driver on a snowy day, but police said the snowfall wasn’t a factor in the crash. Maggie and Paul were injured in the crash, but the impaired 25-year-old driver did not need so much as a Band-Aid, as they phrased it in an interview a year after the crash.

He did not have a criminal record before that day when he was arrested for his first DUI offense and two counts of vehicular homicide. A mom who lost her son to a drunk driver told a group of first-time offenders that she knows it wasn’t the first time they drove drunk, rather it was the first time they got caught. According to MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), people have driven impaired more than 80 times before their first arrest.

Gov. Wolf signed DUI legislation into law. 

Monday, December 17, 2018

The gift of a Christmas experience

The best gift you could give someone doesn’t come from a store, but rather from an experience or tradition that may otherwise be discontinued. That was the lesson Coatesville Area Senior Center Executive Director Bill Pierce shared with me for my holiday story.

One of the volunteers at Coatesville recently lost her husband and she was also recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. She said the one thing she had wished that she had done after her husband passed away was to continue the traditions they did together around the holidays.

Pierce said the woman explained that it was emotionally difficult for her at the time to continue those traditions on her own. They always went to get a live Christmas tree, but after he died, she bought a pre-cut tree from a local store. As time went on, things also become more physically difficult for her to do things on her own. Now she decorates her home with a ceramic tree, rather than getting a tree to decorate with lights and ornaments.

“You know the ceramic trees, I’m talking about right? Your mom probably made them when you were growing up.”

I had to laugh because he was right. My mom painted ceramic decorations for every holiday, but she especially loved Christmas. In past years, hearing something like that may have been a reminder of my mom’s passing, but with time, those reminders of her are what make a lasting legacy. 
Pictured is Santa's workshop, made of ceramics painted by Ginger Rae Dunbar's mother. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

More than a Thanksgiving meal

The annual West Chester Area Senior Center Community Thanksgiving dinner provides more than a free meal to those who seek company with family and new friends.

I offered to work the Thanksgiving holiday when I found out about the community event, run by volunteers. The event organizers started cooking about 20 to 30 donated turkeys at 4 a.m. to serve the meal complete with all of the sides you would expect at a Thanksgiving dinner. The event offers fellowship in addition to a turkey dinner. When I arrived and introduced myself as a reporter, the event organizers welcomed me to talk to the volunteers and guests about their experience.

Event organizer Angel Connelly encouraged the volunteer servers to converse with the guests because she said “that’s more important than the food.” She added that is what late event founder Herb Balian believed.

“Make people feel at home,” Connelly said to volunteers. “That’s what it’s all about – family, community and fellowship.”

I didn’t realize at first that my role as a newspaper reporter could provide fellowship by interviewing volunteers and guests. My journalism professor told us that interviews should be more like a conversation than a Q&A. When I talked to people about why they decided to volunteer on Thanksgiving Day or why they attended the dinner, many of them also asked about my life. They wanted to know how I knew I wanted to be a reporter, where I went to college and about my career path. We talked as if we had known each other before that event. I heard a reporter share advice that she wished she had opened up earlier in her career to her interviewees when she could relate to them. It’s why I engage in such conversations.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Living on as a hero forever: Captain LeTourneau Memorial Scholarship

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said that it is suiting for a “sister in the Philadelphia Fire Department” to receive the Captain Matthew LeTourneau Memorial Scholarship to Delaware County Community College, and I agree. The student, Philadelphia Fire Department EMT Bethany DeLoach, who is in the college’s paramedic program, is the first recipient of the scholarship, created in honor of the fallen firefighter.

Photo by Ginger Rae Dunbar - John Moss presented the Wong Moss Outstanding Alumni Award, which was bestowed on the LeToureau family in honor of the late Philadelphia Fire Captain Matthew LeTourneau, a 1995 graduate of Delaware County Community College. Pictured from left to right are: Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam K. Thiel, President Dr. L. Joy Gates Black, brother Luke LeTourneau, sister Michelle LeTourneau, mother Janice LeTourneau and John Moss. The  LeTourneau family then presented Captain Matthew LeTourneau scholarship to a DCCC student. 

She applied for the scholarship named for the first Philadelphia line-of-duty death during her career. It was a first for me, too.

When she talked about seeing thousands of first-responders paying their respects at LeTourneau’s funeral, I could visually recall it myself, as I was among the firefighters in uniform standing at attention outside the Cathedral where his services were held.

She recalled the rainy day and the slight chill in the air, but it wasn’t cold for January. It was “perfect golfing weather,” as Matt’s golfing buddies and fellow firefighters described it.