It’s never expected.
The fire that takes a home. The death that shakes a family. The car accident that leaves the occupants injured.
People don’t plan for events like this because everyone believes, “it won’t happen to me.”
But then it does. And in the moment of shock and disarray, the victims are not sure what steps to take next.
But since 1997, Champaign-Urbana Emergency Services Support (ESST) team has not missed a call for help.
Founded in 1996 by now-retired Champaign Fire Department Lieutenant Lon Pitcher, the volunteers set out to directly support people whose lives were turned upside down while firefighters, coroners or law enforcement completed the necessary tasks.
Pitcher retired from the Champaign Fire Department in October 2014.
“Before (the ESST), people would come up after the fire and say thank you, but then they would turn around and their house was gone,” Pitcher said.
Pitcher said sometimes the Red Cross would come out to the site and sometimes they wouldn’t. Or that many times it would take three or four hours for help to get to the site.
“Finally, I went to the fire chief and said, ‘Isn’t there something we can do to help?’”
Working with the Champaign and Urbana fire and police departments, a fund was started to ensure that victims had a place to stay for a night or two, clothes to wear and food to eat before emergency management organizations or insurance kicks in.
Pitcher said today they have arrangements with some hotel chains that will allow fire victims to stay for free for the first 24 hours.
ESST volunteers are trained to know the procedures of emergency agencies, are able to reach out to resources and help walk victims through the next steps.
“We are there to help them get over that hump a little bit,” Pitcher said. “ We stay with them while the coroner is there. We’ve done dishes for people. And helped them get medicine lined up.”
The ESST also helps to take care of animals after a disaster by giving them an oxygen mask and taking them to an animal hospital or emergency animal shelter for care.
“Animal hospitals won’t take money from us, they just want to take care of the animals,” Pitcher said.
But Pitcher said all of this help is possible because of volunteers who put time aside to respond at a moment’s notice.
They come from a variety of backgrounds: people who are hairdressers, teachers, retired, business owners or ministers.
“These people on the team, they have the heart and the knowledge,” Pitcher said.
“How would you want to be treated after a fire? How would you want your brother, sister or mother treated? That’s how we do it.”
No matter what hour of the day, Pitcher takes the emergency call, then contacts the volunteer who is on call during that day. As the volunteer is en route, Pitcher gets the necessary information so the volunteer can take care of the client upon arrival.
“I keep an eye on our people,” Pitcher said. “I call halfway through to see how things are going. And our volunteer will not leave the victim while support is still in the house.”
With six Mahomet volunteers, including team leader Jim Hampton, former teacher Cheryl Mitchell and dispatcher Dave Parsons, the ESST has received more calls in 2017 than they have in the past. Most years ESST answers 40-50 calls. In May alone, ESST answered four calls in Mahomet. Pitcher said in years past, four calls may have come from Mahomet within two years time.
One call involved an accident on I-74.
Another call responded to a suicide where the mother needed to talk to her therapist.
“We got a call back within 10 minutes,” Pitcher said. “He was just moving off the golf course, he talked to the mother and set up an appointment for the next day.”
“Not that you can make anyone feel better after you lose a loved one, but what he did made her feel somewhat better at that point.”
Cheryl Mitchell said she often hears, “there were these people there and we didn’t know who they were, but they helped so much,” from victims.
“People, in times of crisis don’t know what they need and being there, quietly many times, gives them guidance or a sense of strength to keep moving forward.”
“I see it as helping them stabilize the situation as they are processing the tragedy. If they can stabilize until their support network comes, that is reassuring to them.”
Police Chief Jon Koller, who was involved with ESST when he worked on the Champaign Fire Department, said while the help ESST gives to the victims is vital, it also helps the emergency personnel.
“I’m honed in on the fact that I have people in the building; there’s an active fire and it’s dangerous,” Koller said.
“Of course I am thinking about the homeowner, and I can let them know that someone will be there for them in five minutes.”
“When you’re standing on a street watching your house burn, that is hugely traumatic, and you don’t know what to do next,” he said.
Although some response teams, have chaplains, Pitcher said, “I would say throughout the United States, there’s probably nothing else like this.”
And the program continues to grow.
As ESST receives more calls, they have equipped Champaign with a emergency response van full of gently used clothing for victims. Pitcher said with funding, Mahomet will receive a van soon, too.
But Pitcher said the group could use a few more volunteers in the upcoming months. Two volunteers are moving and one volunteer is getting older and unable to respond all the time.
Volunteers have to fill out a support profile, go through a background check and have an ID made. After all the logistics are taken care of, volunteers go through training by job shadowing another volunteer.
The trainee and other volunteers also continually learn in monthly team meetings when the group goes through reports. Volunteers are only on call every other month.
To volunteer time to the ESST, contact Lon Pitcher at (217) 202-8381.
*ESST is contacted by METCAD in the time of emergency. Emergency calls must go through 911. ESST personnel will be distributed through the proper chains. Pitcher’s phone number is only to be used as a contact about volunteer opportunities.