When an e-mail was circulated in early September requesting help for firefighters after hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans and the Gulf Region, firefighters did what they do best: they all pitched in and went above and beyond.
The results included over 20,000 t-shirts. Hundreds of sweatshirts were received along with a few hundred pairs of sweat pants and shorts, all with fire department markings on them. It was common to find balls caps, patches and pins in some of the boxes as well.
The idea was started by Firehouse.com's Content Manager, Peter Matthews who is also a volunteer with the Glenwood Fire Company in Glenwood Landing, NY. He sent the e-mail out to some pals to help his friend Chris Mickal, a district chief with the New Orleans Fire Department. Mickal's home was only a block from a levee that broke and he lost his collection of firefighting memorabilia including patches, helmets and shirts. "We knew Chris would need some help and when I first spoke to him, he said he needed some clothes" Matthews said. "I figured we could collect a few shirts and that when he put them on, he would think of the support he is getting from all over."
Matthews sent the e-mail to friends from all over, including Billy Goldfeder, a battalion chief in Loveland-Symmes, OH. Billy sent the e-mail out to his "Secret List" and Firehouse.com posted the story. With that, the "Fire Shirts Off Our Back" program was started.
Goldfeder put Matthews in touch with Randy Kuenzli, the chief of the Bladensburg Volunteer Fire Company in Prince Georges County, MD, who had ample storage space. Within days, packages were received at Matthews' home, the Firehouse.com office and Bladensburg's firehouse. "For the first few days, we received small packages and then we would get several deliveries from Fed Ex and UPS each morning" Kuenzli told Firehouse.com. "Even the Post Office, which is right behind our firehouse, would call us and say 'come pick up these boxes, we can't deliver them all." A group of Bladensburg's live-in members started unpacking the boxes they received, sorted and packed them by size, and kept a running tally of items coming in.
Personal letters were found in many of the boxes with notes that offered support to the fellow firefighters in the hurricane battered communities. A note from the Bath Fire Department in Akron, OH, read: "It's what we can spare for now."
"Our fire department would like to make this small donation to help benefit the firefighters of the devastated Gulf Coast region. Maybe these shirts will give these folks some little piece of hope, and also show them their brothers are thinking of them" wrote Joshua Ellison, of the Atkinson, NC, Fire Department.
Most days, it took the group three to four hours before getting through everything. They started reusing boxes, but many of them were beaten up before arriving and businesses in the community donated boxes, tape and knifes for effort.
A half-dozen boxes from the Schnecksville Fire Company in Pennsylvania contained in excess of 200 brand new t-shirts at the Firehouse.com office.
On Sept. 26, two members of the Delaware Volunteer Firefighters Association pulled into Bladensburg's Firehouse on Edmonston Road with a pickup truck and trailer which was filled up quickly. Only half of the collection made it onto the trailer and the next batch will be shipped down shortly.
The first batch of shirts was to be dropped off in two locations for distribution to firefighters in the Gulf Region. Ferrara Fire Apparatus in Holden, LA