BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (WOOD) — Del Kilbourne says he got an idea from a mobile canteen unit that the American Legion Post 53 in Hillsdale, Michigan, put together. He just wanted to make it a little bigger — a ripple he hopes reaches other communities.
He brought that idea to the American Legion 257, where he’s a member and director. He asked if were any volunteers interested in helping him make that thought a reality. Hands shot up in the air.
“You give a veteran a mission and our mission is to take care of our first responders,” Kilbourne said. “That veteran is going to stay on that mission until it’s complete.”
His idea has become that mission. Kilbourne is now the commander of the newly formed veteran nonprofit the American Legion Emergency Response Team, A.L.E.R.T. 257.
He said the group recognized a need in the community that was being overlooked and was ready to address it.
“Who’s taking care of the first responders?” Kilbourne asked. “No one. Until now. We are going to take care of our first responders.”
A.L.E.R.T. 257 is a mobile unit of 16 American Legion volunteers from the local 257. Starting this April, they will be on call 24/7, ready to serve when any first responders in Calhoun County need help. They renovated an old fire equipment trailer, which was donated to them, to accommodate a space where crews that are on extended scenes can have a place to rest, refuel and get back in the fight.
A second trailer was donated by the city of Battle Creek. The old trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that acted as a commander center in previous disaster situations will soon be renovated and put back into service.
“That’s going to help us serve our first responders. You know, get them the nutrition, the rest, whatever that they need while they’re battling trying to save my neighbor’s house or a lost child. You know, this is not only going to fires but maybe accidents out on the highway that are major cleanups,” Kilbourne said. “Or what if there’s a missing child? Sometimes that takes hours and days, they’re out there looking for them. You know, we’ve got to keep our first responders warm, healthy, cool.”
Each of the A.L.E.R.T. 257 volunteers will have an app on their phone. If an incident commander on scene notices their crew might need the A.L.E.R.T. services, he or she will call dispatch. Dispatch will alert Kilbourne and his team.
Kilbourne says all first responders in the county have been notified of the mission and can’t wait for them to begin.
“Everyone has been just overwhelmingly supportive. And it’s not been, ‘How can you start?’ It’s, ‘When can you start?'” Kilbourne said.
That reception started when Kilbourne and one of his Legion partners and fellow volunteer, Joe Teixeira, took him to the fire chiefs meeting in Calhoun County. Teixeira is a retired fire chief from Springfield and spent 45 years as a firefighter.
“I really wish we had it then ’cause there was a lot of times that I’d be on the on the scene and spraying water as just a firefighter and someone would call my name and I can’t turn because the ice was built up on my turnout gear. I’d have to do a hard snap and all the ice would just fall off me. And I’d say, ‘Well, it’s about time to do something here, I got to warm up somewhere.’ The only place to go is in the cab of the fire engine and only one person can get up there at a time,” Teixeira said. “It’s definitely needed. There’s not anything in the community like this.”
He remembered scenes like the Springfield recycling plant fire, where his crews spent 16 hours fighting flames, or the 193-car pileup on I-94 in 2015 that shut down the expressway for two days.
“It was chaos there. And if we would’ve had our two trailers going, we could have put one at both ends and serviced them to keep them in the fight,” Teixeira said.
All of the A.L.E.R.T volunteers will be trained in CPR and will be checking and logging things like blood pressure and pulse for first responders when they enter the mobile unit and when they leave. If there are any problems, they will alert the incident commander that extra time or extra attention may be necessary.
“When I retired, 2018, I thought my fire career was done and it was like my heart emptied out,” Teixeira recalls. “This is one way of fulfilling my fire career in a way, a little bit. I’m helping out my brothers and sisters.”
It’s a shared sentiment for Teixeira, Kilbourne and the rest of the A.L.E.R.T members: a continued service to their community.
“Every one of my volunteers are just stoked and ready to go,” Kilbourne said emphatically. “So without reservation, I would say, yes, everyone is ready to serve again.”
Kilbourne says they need the support of the community in the form of donations. Money will help keep the trailers up to date with repairs or necessary renovations. Food and drink like nonperishable snacks, water or sports drinks will ensure they have essential nutrition to provide first responders. Learn more about how to donate and help get first responders back into the fight here.