Penfield, N.Y. — After the Webster tragedy, members of Penfield Volunteer Emergency Ambulance knew they needed to help their neighbors somehow.
On Dec. 24, when two firefighters were shot and killed in the line of duty, ambulance crews and operations officers, all volunteers, reported to their base within an hour to provide medical backup for the West Webster Fire Department.
EMS manager Daniel Riordan said things slowed down for the next 48 hours, as crew members returned home to celebrate Christmas.
“We took care of ourselves, we took care of our neighbors, and everybody took care of each other, which is protocol as first responders,” said Riordan.
Answering the call
The real work began when their crew returned to work on Wednesday, Dec. 26 as the community tried to return to business as usual after the shock on Christmas Eve.
“Everybody, I really believe, on Monday morning had a sense of almost helplessness, but we’re all in a business where we want to help. On Wednesday when went back to work, everybody went to work with their feet running.”
The ambulance crew decided to open up their station to those traveling from out of town for the firefighters’ calling hours that weekend.
“We wanted to have a place where first responders could come get something to eat or drink, sit down and relax that was out of the public eye so they could talk and do what they needed to do to deal with their grief,” said PVEA member Trish Boccuzzi.
They then posted a request on Facebook for food and drink donations, which resulted in an overwhelming response from the Penfield community.
Because there was no more room in the kitchen, members stored bags of ice in the snow banks outdoors. All the while, volunteers came with food from their ovens at home.
Soon, two refrigerators and five ice boxes at the station were packed, and a room was stocked with supplies like coffee and cases of bottled water.
On Saturday, Dec. 29, thousands of people stood in frigid temperatures at Webster Schroeder High School to pay their respects.
Members of the PVEA stood alongside many EMS agencies from across Monroe County that day, handing out heat packs, drinks, gum and mints to people waiting in line. They also provided sandwiches for the fire police directing traffic and state troopers managing the crowds.
Some members drove to 911 headquarters in Rochester to drop off food for the dispatchers who were working extra shifts to provide backup for emergency crews attending the calling hours.
The PVEA has 65 active members, many of whom pitched in to help in some way.
“This members of this agency went above and beyond,” said President Charles Callear. “People just called in and showed up.”
Don Behner, of Penfield, is a line officer with Penfield Ambulance but also serves as firefighter in the town of Henderson, NY, where he has a summer home. Three of his colleagues from the Henderson Fire Department were among those who felt compelled to make the trip after the shooting.
“They were devastated by what happened because the fear was that if it could happen here, it could happen anywhere,” said Behner. “It’s just something you don’t think about ... This hit home really hard for these guys. It was the brotherhood and camaraderie that made them feel like they wanted to come pay their respects.”
The ambulance base was buzzing with activity as firefighters, military personnel and other guests made their way to the station. Those who came for a hot meal expressed their thanks and shared laughs together.
Guests who visited the station came from as far as Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky and Canada.
While the tragedy evoked a strong response from people across the nation, it also helped unite the agencies at home that operate along geographical boundaries, explained Riordan.
Although it’s called “Penfield” Ambulance, many of the members, including the president and vice president, are Webster residents, and their headquarters on Jackson Road is just a stone’s throw away from the neighboring school district.
Riordan says some good came from the unthinkable actions of the shooter, William Spengler.
“There’s an overwhelming family of first responders in Monroe County and this greater area, and he woke a sleeping giant,” Riordan said. “We kind of take for granted that we work on political boundaries and districts, but he really brought together communities that border each other.”
The impact has also drawn interest from people interested in volunteering since the tragedy occurred.
“For the general public, it really pointed out the level of dedication in the first response organizations,” said Callear.
He compared the reaction to the shooting to the renewed sense of public service that emerged after September 11.
“I think there’s a better understanding out there about what first response means,” said Callear. “We haven’t lost anybody over this. We’ve actually gotten applications.”
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