It’s a firefighter’s job to keep a community safe, and some firefighters take that noble calling a step further — helping a community far from home.
Four Winter Park firefighters were given a hero’s welcome home Friday, Oct. 19, after finishing a 10-day deployment to the Panhandle to rescue and aid those affected by Hurricane Michael.
Brave first-responders from Seminole County Fire Department, Orange County Fire Rescue and Orlando, Reedy Creek, Mount Dora, Clermont and Winter Park fire departments all arrived back in Orlando at the Urban Search and Rescue Offices & Training Facility to find a cheering crowd of families, friends and fellow firefighters greeting them. The four Winter Park firefighters — Andrew Isaacs, Rodney Childers, Alfredo Escalera Jr. and Bryan Moman — were chosen to be a part of the group of 46 team members named Florida Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 4, and were in charge of setting up communication towers as the mobile area radio cache unit.
The Winter Park first-responders traveled with Task Force 4 to Port St. Joe, Mexico Beach, Wewahitchka and St. Vincent Island, where the team rescued dozens of people and searched thousands of houses.
“Once we started getting into Port St. Joe and Mexico Beach, the devastation was unbelievable,” Moman said. “There were foundations where houses used to be and buildings collapsed — places that were unrecognizable. The beach was washed away. The roads were washed away.”
The team of four from Winter Park had an important job to do: provide emergency communications to the area. For about a decade, Winter Park has maintained and operated a mobile area radio cache system for Central Florida – for occasions just like this.
“We were the radio truck — they had zero communications until we got there,” Isaacs said. “We set up on top of a Highway 98 bridge — it’s 100 feet in the air — and provided 911 and radio traffic for the entire area.”
Among the families waiting to welcome home Task Force 4 was Isaacs’ wife, Heather, and their four children. Heather said it was hard to have her husband away for so long but that she understood the importance of his training and the mission at hand.
“I’ve never been more proud of him — he was called to do this and called to serve other people, so it’s been an honor for me to stay home and serve him while he’s been gone,” Heather said. “He’s prepared for this his whole career. … I was more than happy to support him to be able to go out and do what he was trained to do.”
Winter Park Fire Chief Dan Hagedorn said he was incredibly proud of the four firefighters from his department.
“It’s our community helping others, and we’re glad to be able to offer skilled personnel in that regard to do some specialized service,” Hagedorn said. “As far as them coming back, we’re excited. We know they’ve seen a lot of devastation. That takes a toll on a human being, because at the end of the day we’re not machines; we’re people with families. It affects us all differently. We’ll welcome them back, get them back home, get them all rested up and get them what they need.”
The Winter Park Fire-Rescue Department has had a long history of sending firefighters wherever they are needed — from the Hurricane Harvey floods in Texas last year to wildfires in California.
“That’s the backbone of our service — coming together in times of need,” Hagedorn said.