From fires to floods, Bridesburg vet answers the call

Joe Luczkowski gets a phone call at 3 a.m.

A fam­ily in Philly just ex­per­i­enced the low­est point in their lives. The home they lived in is gone. Their be­long­ings are ash.

If they’re lucky, every­one is alive.

Luczkowski gets out of bed, puts on his boots and heads out the door.

While Luczkowski grabs cof­fee from Wawa and heads to his job, his wife, Shir­ley, is get­ting ready for an­oth­er day at the Ara­mingo Diner, de­liv­er­ing or­ders of hash browns and ask­ing people how they want their eggs.

Luczkowski will show up at the dis­aster, con­sole the fam­ily, of­fer sup­port and move on.

It’s an in­tense, emo­tion­ally drain­ing ex­per­i­ence; something Luczkowski de­scribes as see­ing people at their worst.

The thing is, Luczkowski doesn’t have to do this.

He grew up in Brides­burg, worked hard at Gen­er­al Elec­tric, sent his two sons to St. John Can­ti­us and re­tired two years ago at the ripe age of 61.

But, after a few dec­ades of work­ing at GE, he wasn’t quite ready to sit on the stoop and watch life go by.

So he called the Red Cross, told them he was avail­able as a vo­lun­teer.

In­stead of help­ing people fill out blood-donor forms, the Vi­et­nam vet is driv­ing dis­aster re­lief trucks and man­ning the phones when stateside fam­ily mem­bers of ser­vice­men need to get ur­gent in­form­a­tion to the bat­tle­field. 

“I needed something to keep me busy, and I had been a blood donor for 30 years,” said Luczkowski, a man ad­mit­tedly sur­prised at the path he’s traveled as a vo­lun­teer in his golden years. “I found it in­triguing.”

He works with the Red Cross Emer­gency Ser­vices Di­vi­sion — something that in­volves set­ting up shel­ters and vis­it­ing dis­aster scenes — as well as the Com­mu­nic­a­tions De­part­ment.

The lat­ter job in­cludes work that Luczkowski said not many people think of when they think about the Red Cross: con­firm­ing ba­sic in­form­a­tion that gets re­layed to those serving over­seas through the Armed Forces Emer­gency Com­mu­nic­a­tions Sys­tem. 

A typ­ic­al call will in­volve a death in the fam­ily or some oth­er im­port­ant per­son­al in­form­a­tion the mil­it­ary wants to au­then­tic­ate be­fore in­form­ing the ser­vice mem­ber. 

“We take all the in­form­a­tion, and once we’ve veri­fied the facts, we reach out to them,” said Luczkowski. “The mil­it­ary uses us es­sen­tially as a vet­ting ser­vice.”

He works at the Com­mu­nic­a­tions Cen­ter every Thursday, an­swer­ing re­quests for emer­gency ser­vices, and is on the Monday and Sat­urday night Dis­aster Ac­tion Teams, re­spond­ing to fires, floods, build­ing col­lapses and more.

Luczkowski was honored for his work last month with not one, but two Ex­cep­tion­al Vo­lun­teer of the Year awards from the Red Cross. Giv­en that there were roughly 500 to 600 fel­low vo­lun­teers at event, he was a little sur­prised when they honored him twice.

Still, no one can say he doesn’t work hard — he put in 16 hours the day be­fore Hur­ricane Irene hit the re­gion, most of that time spent help­ing to make sure loc­al shel­ters were ready to go.

Last Thursday, he was fresh off a fire in North Phil­adelphia when he took time to speak with a re­port­er.

“It was a single wo­man with five chil­dren, and we were able to go out there and give them some sup­port,” said Luczkowski.

That sup­port can range from giv­ing them a deb­it card for buy­ing clothes and food to provid­ing a case­work­er to help vic­tims cope with the af­ter­math.

“We provide the im­me­di­ate care, get them fed and clothed and safe, and the case­work­ers take it from there,” he said.

He es­tim­ates about 90 per­cent of the work he does is fire-re­lated — something that can be tough to deal with, es­pe­cially in fatal fires.

“It can be a very emo­tion­al ex­per­i­ence. You get there, the home is des­troyed, and people are in tears. It can be tough, but at the same time we’re of­ten the first people that they ac­tu­ally talk to,” said Luczkowski.

One of the worst he’s seen in his two years was just a few weeks back when an apart­ment fire in West Phil­adelphia left a num­ber of people home­less.

“There were a lot of dis­traught people walk­ing around, and they only had the clothes on their backs. It was ter­rible to see,” re­called Luczkowski. “But we’re there for them, so you put your boots on and you go out there and deal with it.”

Des­pite those tough times, Luczkowski said his ex­per­i­ence has been much more ful­filling than he ever ima­gined it would be when he called the Red Cross two years ago.

“If you’re ser­i­ous about any kind of ser­vice activ­ity, I’ve al­ways felt that you get more out of it than you put in,” said Luczkowski. “It’s been an eye-open­ing ex­per­i­ence.”

Giv­en that re­ward, Luczkowski en­cour­ages oth­ers to join in with he called a nearly all-vo­lun­teer op­er­a­tion.

Those in­ter­ested can vis­it the Phil­adelphia Red Cross headquar­ters at 23rd and Chest­nut or call 1-800 Red Cross.••

Re­port­er Bri­an Rademaekers can be reached at 215 354 3039 or 

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