Recounting Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, a tornado that ripped through Joplin, Mo., and the 2011 earthquake in Virginia, Chris Johnson of Bowie said emergency responders do so much to help the community — and now he wants to ensure they have help, too.
“I know how it feels when there’s a complete disaster and you’re putting on your gun and badge to go help people. So I started to think, ‘How can we help?’” said Johnson, a Prince George’s County police detective and corporal of seven years who previously served in the Secret Service. “I saw a news blog from an officer who worked Katrina. He broke down and started crying on camera and was saying that he had been working 72 hours straight, had no idea where his family was, had no idea what his house looked like and had no idea if they were alive, but was going to keep working for complete strangers.”
Johnson, 38, said there is a need for those in public safety across the nation to have their own helping hand when responding to disasters.
After a year of planning, on Sept. 12, Johnson and a group of other public safety professionals from Prince George’s and surrounding counties launched Heroes for the Homeland, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, which makes them exempt from federal income tax, dedicated to responding to natural and man-made disasters throughout the country to aid those in need, beginning with police and fire/EMS personnel on the front lines.
Johnson said the group would be on hand to set up generators for officers’ houses, take generators to police and fire stations, clear debris and provide emergency responders with food and water, among other tasks.
“This is a need that hasn’t been looked at. It takes somebody who does something and leads with it to see the need,” he said. “It would be really nice knowing that if I’m strapping my gun and badge on in a hurricane and this tree falls on my house, somebody is at least there looking out for my family.”
Johnson said part of what makes the group different from other disaster-relief organizations is it aims to be completely self-sustaining while on scene — bringing volunteers to an area with their own food, shelter and transportation so as to not “step on the toes” of other responders and drain local resources.
He also said everyone involved in the organization either already has a public safety background, will be trained in emergency management, or has experience aiding in emergency situations, which he said is essential in aiding public safety crews.
Currently, the nonprofit consists of its board of directors — four Prince George’s County police officers, two Anne Arundel County firefighters, an information technology specialist, a nonprofit specialist for grant writing and publicity, and a Prince George’s assistant state’s attorney.
Mike Nolli, a Prince George’s police officer of seven years and the nonprofit’s treasurer, said Johnson came to him with the idea when they both were rookies in the department, and he has been on board with the idea ever since.
“Organizations go down to a disaster site and come in afterwards where it’s safe for civilians and people who don’t have the experience,” he said. “But we want to go in before that because when you look at it, you need to have the police departments and the fire departments in good shape to get those guys so they can start doing the work they need to get done so they’re not worrying about their families.”
Nolli said because the group was just granted its 501(c)3 nonprofit status, it does not yet have the funding needed to carry out its model of emergency response. The nonprofit will stage fundraisers and seek corporate sponsorships in the near future. Nolli said depending on how much and how quickly funding and equipment are donated, the group hopes to be fully operational within a year and a half.
“Of course, we would all jump in our cars and drive somewhere if we had to,” he said, noting without the tractor-trailers and converted 18-wheelers desired for the operation, their ability to help would be limited.
Johnson said those able to respond to disasters across the nation must use their personal leave time to take off from their duties locally, which is why he said the group is looking for a large pool of volunteers.
Vince Canales, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89, said the FOP often is contacted by groups asking what can be done to aid officers and public safety personnel in times of need.
“An incident happens, and 20 different groups show up and are stepping on toes,” Canales said. “But they’re focused on a niche. They’re not going down to take on a whole issue, they’re going to focus on fire stations, hospitals, police departments, infrastructure needs, where things need to be taken care of so that public safety can focus on their job to take on communities that they need to serve. They’re extremely passionate about this.”