When St. Paul Fire Capt. Tom Bever's mother was terminally ill with cancer, in their last months together he had a chance to tell her about a project close to his heart — fundraising to purchase bullet-resistant vests for firefighters when they're in potentially dangerous situations.
Like many mothers, Karen Bever worried about her children and especially her youngest, Tom. She also loved his firefighting colleagues in St. Paul.
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She told him of her funeral, "Tommy, I don't want flowers." If people wanted to do something, she asked that they donate to Shield616, a nonprofit Christian organization raising funds for vests that include ballistic plates to protect first responders from rifle fire.
Karen Bever, 76, died last July and donations in her memory were enough to fund protective gear for about five St. Paul firefighters.
So far, people and businesses have contributed about $73,000 for a total of 33 ballistic vests and helmets for St. Paul firefighters. Donors met with firefighters as they received their gear on Wednesday, a way to show how the community rallies "around our first responders to help make sure that they're better protected," said Shield616 founder Jake Skifstad.
Deputy Fire Chief Ken Adams said he's grateful for the donations they received, and they also have a long way to go. The goal is to raise enough money to purchase a custom-fitted vest for each of the city's firefighters. The department's authorized strength is 435.
St. Paul firefighters, who are all emergency medical technicians or paramedics, respond to shootings and other medical emergencies to render aid. The situations can be "unpredictable," said Fire Chief Butch Inks.
There have been instances of firefighters shot while responding to calls around the country. While body armor is standard equipment for law enforcement officers, people have pushed to also outfit firefighters. The National Fire Protection Association recommends firefighters have ballistic protection if they have to respond to an active-shooter situation, Adams said.
Worried about hostile siturations
Last May, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, St. Paul firefighters responded to buildings that people set ablaze in St. Paul. There were instances of rocks, bottles and bricks thrown at firefighters, according to the fire department.
Bever, who couldn't work at the time because he was awaiting surgery after he was injured at a fire in April, said he worried about the hostile situation his "brothers and sisters in the fire department" were facing.
He contacted Sgt. Brian Schultes, a friend who is a Mounds View police officer, to ask where they could get bullet-resistant vests for St. Paul firefighters. Mounds View Police Chief Nate Harder suggested Bever look into Shield616 because the nonprofit helped raise money and awareness to get their officers' ballistic vests.
Bever immediately called Skifstad, who is based in Colorado, but originally from International Falls and happened to be visiting Minnesota at the time. Skifstad met with leaders of the St. Paul Fire Department, and Shield616 and the St. Paul Fire Foundation started putting out the word about fundraising.
The first donation came from Scott and Kirsten Ramsay, with whom Bever went to Mahtomedi High School. They provided the funds for Bever's protective gear.
Then, at Bever's mother's funeral, Tom saw Brian Trexel, who'd been his youth pastor and who officiated at his wedding to Melissa Bever almost 20 years ago. Trexel noticed a brochure about Shield616 and told him that Skifstad is his nephew.
"It's such a small world," Bever said. All the connections and his faith convicted him "that this was meant to be," he said.
Skifstad, previously a Colorado Springs police officer, named Shield616 for Ephesians 6:16, the Bible passage that refers to, "Take up the shield of faith."
It costs $2,200 per firefighter for a ballistic helmet, vest and ballistic plates. Equipment for one firefighter can be funded from various smaller donations.
People or businesses may donate money for a specific firefighter, or opt to "sponsor" a firefighter at a fire station near them. Otherwise, the fire department drew names from a hat to decide who would get gear from the first batch, Adams said.
How to help
People can contribute to a ballistic vest for a St. Paul firefighter at shield616.org/firefighter.
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