Firefighters' help goes beyond duty

January 31, 1995|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,Sun Staff Writer

When a fire broke out in Hillendale this month, Jim Kinard brought $50 Toys R Us gift certificates to five children whose apartments burned.

When Dundalk residents were burned out of their homes on Christmas, he and another volunteer showed up at 3 a.m. wearing bright green jackets with "Victims Assistance Committee" emblazoned on the back and used Mr. Kinard's credit card to put several fire victims up in motels.

And when fire destroyed Sparks Elementary School a few weeks later, they made plans to donate $500 to the school.

The Baltimore County Victims Assistance Committee, which began in December 1993, is made up of 16 county firefighters who volunteer to buy gift certificates -- with funds raised by their union -- from Kmart, Mars and Super Fresh supermarkets and Toys R Us.

They go in pairs to the homes of county fire victims, giving about $500 worth of certificates to a family of four. They help victims sift through insurance paperwork, find temporary lodging and handle other details.

"There's nothing any more rewarding to us," said Mr. Kinard, a paramedic at the Back River Neck Road fire station who chairs the volunteer committee. "You ask what makes us do it -- it just might be that personal thank-you."

Volunteers are members of International Association of Fire Fighters, a union representing career firefighters throughout the country and Canada. International union officials say that as far as they know the committee is the only union-affiliated organization like it in the country.

In 1994, volunteers responded to 40 calls and gave out $9,000 in gift certificates.

Edna and Randy Stiles found out about them after a Sept. 16 fire heavily damaged their two-bedroom rental town home in Baltimore Highlands. Clothing, toys, beds, dressers and linens were burned; sofas and carpets were destroyed; and a living room hutch was warped by the water. Then the family was evicted after fire officials determined that the Stileses' five children likely were responsible for the fire.

The Victims Assistance Committee gave Mrs. Stiles, 22, and Mr. Stiles, 23, gift certificates worth $200 for groceries, $200 for clothing and $100 to buy toys and children's clothes from Toys R Us. The family moved in with Mrs. Stiles' mother in Lansdowne until they found an apartment in Baltimore recently.

Because they didn't have much savings, they would have had to rely financially on Mrs. Stiles' mother. "Not having to do that helped a lot," Mrs. Stiles said. "I was really surprised -- I didn't realize they did so much. . . . Without their help, I'm not sure what we would have done."

The committee was started after firefighters decided they didn't want their involvement with victims to end after flames were put out.

Mr. Kinard said the group augments the Red Cross, which usually does not provide toys or relief after small apartment fires.

The assistance doesn't have to be major to be appreciated.

Jennifer Werry needed a little help after an August fire. About midnight one Wednesday, she awoke in the Mount Washington apartment where she had lived for 2 1/2 weeks to the sound of glass breaking.

"When I got outside the building I saw the floor above mine was engulfed in flame," said Ms. Werry, 27. "I didn't suffer too much burn damage, but I had some articles out on the balcony that melted." Inside, most of her food and spices that weren't sealed or refrigerated were ruined by smoke.

After learning that Ms. Werry worked as a budget analyst with the county Fire Department, the committee decided to help, even though she was not a county resident and Baltimore firefighters put out the fire. Committee members gave her a $100 Mars gift certificate.

"At the time, the money was very handy," she said.

Optimally, after the Fire Department puts out a fire and makes sure everyone is safe, the incident commander or battalion chief requests that dispatchers call or page Victims Assistance Committee volunteers who live closest to the fire and who are not on regular duty. But because the program still is relatively new, not all firefighters know to call, Mr. Kinard said.

He said getting members to serve on the Victims Assistance Committee is no problem. "The job's rewarding in itself," said Jim Boyd, captain of the Texas fire station and central county coordinator for the committee. "But with something like this, it's a little extra. We can go put their fire out for them, but this helps them out after the fire."

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