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Organization stands ready if area first responders fall in line of duty

Organization stands ready if area first responders fall in line of duty

Safety Net for the unthinkable

July 29th, 2016 by Shelby Rowe in Local News

East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid J. Gautreaux kneels and places his hand on the casket of deputy Brad Garafola after it was transferred from carriage to hearse Saturday, July 23, 2016, at the scene where Garafola and two police officers were killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Photo by Associated Press /News Tribune.

While the majority of police shootings have been hundreds of miles away, they still hit close to home for Mid-Missouri law enforcement.

Officers buttoning their navy uniform every day to patrol the city have expressed greater feelings of concern that attacks on police are a growing trend that could eventually strike in Cole County.

However, stress to provide support for families with spouses and parents who are law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs or corrections officers who are killed in the line of duty has been a looming responsibility for Safety Net of Missouri since it formed in 2012, said founder Det. Mark Edwards with the Jefferson City Police Department.

In Cole County, within days of an employee in those fields dying in the line of duty, Safety Net steps in to provide a $5,000 check for the family.

The nonprofit organization would like to build its funds to provide financial assistance to the family of the fallen officer for life, including mortgage payments, health and dental insurance, educational assistance for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, post-secondary tuition or other financial assistance approved by the board of directors.

The organization began in Cole County, but there are plans to incorporate Boone County first responders as well. Area departments have shown a lot of interest in being involved in Safety Net, which would also expand fundraising opportunities.

The aid spans beyond financials, though, Edwards said.

"We want to follow up with families for Christmas and birthdays, and we could bring (their children) to the police department, fire department (and the other departments) to see where their mom or dad worked," he said. "We want to keep them close to us because they gave the ultimate sacrifice. Their family is our family."

Roughly 700-800 employees in those departments risk their lives, Edwards said. He hopes Safety Net brings them some solace their families will be taken care of if they're killed on duty.

Edwards helps work the annual law enforcement memorial and sees firsthand the grief-stricken families of men and women killed in action. In 2005, officer Molly Bowden in Columbia was shot and killed on duty, and Edwards has become close to her parents.

"My standard response when talking to individuals on the street is 'We hope never to have to use this,'" Edwards said. "But we know for whatever case this is we want to take care of the families. If something happens to one of these families, we want to be prepared, more so now than ever with the way things are going in the nation."

Capt. Casey Hughes, a 26-year veteran with the Jefferson City Fire Department, got involved with Safety Net as a board member because of the incredible need to have assistance for families, he said.

"The news here lately, we've been hearing about law enforcement deaths — it seems to be a hot topic — but people forget how many firefighters die in the line of duty, too," he said.

Since the beginning of this year, 47 firefighters died on duty — the figure falls in line with the statistic he was told in rookie school that roughly 100 firefighters die each year performing their jobs.

Fighting fires immediately comes to mind as part of the dangerous job, but water rescues, electricity and other calls to service are also risky.

"There's been many times where I've thought, 'That was kind of close'," he said. "I've made a fairly long and successful career out of it, and I'd like to keep up with that. There's just always that one thing, you think, 'If I would have done this instead of that, it could have been different.'"

One of his friends, Lt. Bruce Britt with the Columbia Fire Department, was killed while responding to a building fire. He was treading across a second-story walkway when it collapsed, and the rubble landed on top of him. Britt left behind a wife and daughter.

There hasn't been a death at the Jefferson City Fire Department since Hughes started 26 years ago, nor does he recall one before his time. The department has been blessed, he said, and he credits some of that to the aggressive safety training to ensure employees are as safe as possible.

In the years since Safety Net has formed, the organization has received nearly $100,000 in donations and is aiming to grow the fund to support families for life. As of now, if a tragedy were to happen, it wouldn't be possible to do that.

Safety Net has relied mainly on donations but is also hosting a concert for the second consecutive year at the Jefferson City Jaycees Fairgrounds to raise money and awareness about the organization.

The "So Long Summer Music Fest" will be held Sept. 16-17 with the band "Bosytx" headlining on the first day. Former singer and guitarist David Victor for the band Boston is part of Bostyx, and they play hits from Boston and the Styx — hence the name.

Board member and former law enforcement officer James Tharp hopes the community comes out for the concert for great music and to get to know local officers.

"Hopefully we have this concert and people will get to come out and meet police in a different way than, say, in an adverse way with a traffic incident or if they have a problem," he said. "This is a more relaxed way to meet policemen. Hopefully people come out and thank the police officers."

Tharp said they feel lucky there hasn't been a tragedy here, but they're always worried and are concerned there isn't enough funding.

"We don't want anything to happen to anybody," he said. "We just constantly know that something could. It's been several years in Jefferson City (since an officer was lost). In California they lost four officers in the early '90s. You just never know. It could happen today. We only have so much money; we can only do what we can."