Be the good: How U.S. first responders took community service to a new level in 2022
From locally, to Ecuador and Ukraine, EMS and fire organizations stepped up to make a difference both at home and internationally
Giving back is a first responder tradition and in 2022, firefighters and EMS providers across the U.S. went above and beyond the daily service they deliver to their communities.
From gathering supplies to send to their fellow emergency responders in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, to gathering community donations for disaster victims in their own locales, these organizations exemplify what it means to serve.
Read these inspiring stories of agencies giving back and make plans to spread that same joy in the new year.
An international act of love for Ukrainian first responders
Regardless of borders, emergency responders take care of each other. In February, Russia’s army invaded the neighboring country of Ukraine, devastating an entire nation and forcing its citizens to take up arms against the enemy. Ukraine’s first responders were doing their best with what was left of their gear amid the bombing and artillery shelling.
This is where the world, including U.S. fire and EMS organizations, stepped up.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — In April, Wentworth (S.D.) Fire & Rescue Firefighter Greg Zimmerman and Firefighter-Paramedic Matt Johnson planned a trip with the group Project Joint Guardian to travel to Ukraine and deliver gear, apparatus and medical supplies to Ukrainian firefighters, as well as help train individuals.
“Firefighters naturally want to help people, and I don’t think there’s a single firefighter that watches what’s happening in Ukraine right now and doesn’t feel a little heartsick,” Zimmerman said.
ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. — Monrovia (Calif.) Firefighter-Paramedic Igor Nisis, who was born in Ukraine and moved to the U.S. at 13 years old, organized a collaboration between his department, the Long Beach (Calif.) Fire Department and Los Angeles County Fire Department to gather and send supplies to Poland for the war effort.
“My family moved here when I was 13 years old, which was in 2000,” Nisis told Spectrum News. “I’ve been trying to be involved in helping somehow.”
In Florida, firefighters and paramedics in St. Johns County collected personal items and food for Ukrainian citizens and evacuees, and the department sent firefighting equipment, while the Olmstead Township (Ohio) Fire Department donated turnout gear.
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Just weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, two EMS agencies in Monroe County, New York, donated ambulances for the war cause to ROC Maidan, a local Ukrainian charity, after the group approached the organizations with the unusual ask for rigs.
“That’s not a request you get every day,” John Caufield, COO of Monroe Ambulance, told News 10 NBC. “But here we are today with three (ambulances) coming out of Rochester, Monroe County.”
PEORIA, Ill. — In May, Illinois-based OSF HealthCare, Advanced Medical Transport, the Peoria Fire Department and others donated an ambulance and 356 pallets of supplies to the people of Ukraine, with plans to send an additional four ambulances donated from Tennessee, Minnesota, Ohio and North Dakota.
Chris Manson, CEO of OSF HealthCare, organized the effort after his 7-year-old daughter asked how they could help the people suffering in the war. Manson then personally traveled to Ukraine and drove 200 miles into the country to meet with officials and assess how more he could help.
“I realized that what we are doing is having an impact and I came away from the trip better off than when I left,” he said in a statement.
Ambulances and apparatus for Ukraine
A small group is coordinating with the Ukrainian Government to ship ambulances and fire apparatus full of supplies to support Ukrainians, and they need your help
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Area Ambulance Service in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, donated a formerly ready-to-retire ambulance packed full of sleeping bags and medical supplies to Ukraine as part of the effort organized by U.S. Ambulance for Ukraine.
”To now have 18 ambulances in Ukraine and possibly have another 10 ambulances and a fire engine that we’re going to send in December just kind of blows my mind,” said Chris Manson, the charity’s founder.
CHICAGO — In April, the American College of Surgeons’ Stop the Bleed program released a public service announcement designed to help Ukrainians learn the basics of wound care in the early days of the war.
The PSA features actors Sophia Bush from CBS’ “Good Sam” and NBC Universal’s “New Amsterdam” actors Ryan Eggold, Alejandro Hernandez, Conner Marx, Freema Agyeman, Janet Montgomery, Jocko Sims and Sandra Mae Frank. Both medical dramas are well-known in Ukraine, according to a news release from Stop the Bleed.
A Ukrainian surgeon with Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Mass General Brigham translated the script into Ukrainian for the subtitles.
Organ donation: The ultimate act of service to others
On each call, providers do everything in their power to improve the lives of others. These providers went above and beyond by donating the gift of life.
HACKENSACK, N.J. — Robert Thornton, a squad member with Moonachie First Aid & Rescue Squad, was killed after being struck by a vehicle while clearing a crash scene for the towing service where he worked.
“Rob was someone who clearly believed in service to his community as evidenced by his choice of career, works as a volunteer EMT with the Moonachie First Aid & Rescue Squad, and even in death as an organ donor.”
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — In 2021, Paramedic Sara Cathey’s 2-year-old niece Natalyn Mann was diagnosed with Bilateral Renal Artery Stenosis (RAS), a condition that narrows the artery connecting her kidneys. Because of the lack of adequate blood flow, the toddler needed a double nephrectomy, which allowed her to go home and be with her family before beginning the search for an organ donor.
Cathey wanted to immediately see if she was a match for her niece, but doctors told her that she was not eligible at her current weight of 278 pounds.
“I started losing weight because the transplant team told me I couldn’t even be tested to be her donor,” she said. So began her emotionally-driven weight loss journey.
In January 2022, Cathey found out she was a donor match. By April, one year after her niece’s original diagnosis, Cathey had lost 110 pounds and was ready for the transplant surgery.
Following a successful surgery to transplant Cathey’s kidney, doctors told the girl’s family that it could take three to eight weeks for the kidney to start producing urine on its own – but they were wrong.
“An hour after surgery, she started producing urine,” Cathey said. “The kidney is working really good.”
The impact of raising awareness
Sometimes the best way to honor a loved one’s memory is to create a movement or bring awareness for a related cause.
VISTA, Calif. — Just three months after being diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of melanoma, Vista (Calif.) Fire Department Firefighter-Paramedic Andy Valenta died, leaving behind a wife and two young girls.
Valenta’s wife, Caylie, was determined to prevent a similar tragedy from happening to other first responder families.
“The impact of this loss will ripple through the rest of my life and my girls’ lives,” she said. “The thought of other families going through this, when it’s something that we may be able to prevent, breaks my heart.”
Through the creation of her nonprofit, the Andy Valenta Melanoma Foundation, Caylie hopes to raise awareness and offer free, annual melanoma skin checks to firefighters, who have a 9% higher chance of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% higher chance of dying from cancer than the general population.
“Andy was such an incredible person who made such an impact during his life,” Caylie said. “Through this foundation, his tragedy will be able to transform lives and continue to have a positive impact in this world. I’m so proud to honor him in this way.”
DESTIN, Fla. — Holly Heidenreich, a firefighter-EMT with Destin (Fla.) Fire Rescue, paddled 80 miles from Bimini, Bahamas, to Florida during the 2022 Crossing For Cystic Fibrosis challenge in July 2022.
Staffers said Heidenreich’s team raised $1,518 for Piper’s Angels Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for the cystic fibrosis community, of the $443,932 the event raised overall.
First responders are hard-wired to respond to the needs of others. Learn how two organizations gave back to vulnerable communities, both locally and abroad.
PERRY COUNTY, Ky. — A July storm in Kentucky brought torrential rains and flooding to several counties in the state, killing eight people and causing extensive damage. Jessamine County EMS stepped up to provide relief, packing an ambulance full of community donations, which included essential items such as bottled water, diapers and paper towels for flood victims.
“Our hearts, and our ambulance, are so full,” the agency posted on Facebook.
TINLEY PARK, Ill. — In late November, the Hazel Crest Fire and Rescue Department donated one of the city’s ambulances, stocked with several SCBA packs and a stretcher, to the Naranjito Fire Department in Ecuador.
The donation was made in coordination with the Chicago-based International Fire Training Force, a nonprofit effort to aid overseas fire departments.
Patrick McDermott, a 30-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department and chief executive of the International Training Force, said the donation is valuable to the citizens of Naranjito.
“This is going to decrease their response times,” he said. “It will help in saving lives and property.”