The Salvation Army of New London’s Emergency Disaster Services Unit has recently been revitalized thanks to a man by the name of Gary Murphy, who stepped in to take over the program. Gary is a full-time volunteer who brings with him years of experience in this field, as he recently retired as the Chief of The Oakdale Volunteer Fire Department, a position he held for 34 years.
Tom Wise, the New London Salvation Army volunteer Public Relations Representative, recently sat down with Gary for an interview.
Tom: Thank you for meeting with me here, Gary. I have been looking forward to this.
Gary: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for setting this up.
Tom: Of course, of course. So, Gary, let's get started by diving right into some of your background here?
Gary: Yes, okay.
Tom: Now, Gary, you have spent a good portion of your life being a member of the Oakdale/Montville Volunteer Fire Department, correct?
Gary: Yes, Oakdale, CT. It’s in the town of Montville, but it is just known as Oakdale Township Volunteers Fire Department.
Tom: Now I read an article that mentioned you started in the department when you were 17?
Gary: Well, I actually started when I was 15.
Tom: (A bit stunned): 15?!
Gary: I was 15 years old, yes! I started as what was called a Junior Member.
Tom: I would have to imagine that a Chief of a Fire Department, who was receiving a job application from a 15-year-old, had his eyebrows raised while holding the application.
Gary: Well, not as a volunteer.
Tom: Ok, so that was cool! So you became a volunteer. Now have you always been a volunteer for that fire department?
Gary: Yes! Always.
Tom: What year did you start in the fire department?
Gary: I started in 1975.
Tom: Then this makes me think that you had a 'paying' job on the side?
Gary: Yes! Department of Corrections was my full-time job. Volunteering for the fire department was basically a 24 hours a day job, so if you were around when a call came in, you went in.
Tom: And so, when did you have the time to develop a family? (We both laugh here). That was a very loving wife you have there!
Gary: Oh, yes! She put up with a lot. She has always been very supportive, though. Very supportive. And I absolutely love her so much!
Tom: And when did you get married? And you better get this question right!
Gary: (Ha! Ha!). 1995! I got married in 1995.
Tom: What is your wife's name?
Tom: And do you and Marjorie have children?
Gary: I have 4 stepchildren.
Tom: That's great! Sounds like a great family! Now I would like to get a bit more into your career here, or at least your career with the fire department. So what was your position that you started out as called?
Gary: I started out as a Volunteer Cadet.
Tom: So you started as a Volunteer Cadet, and you were allowed to help put out the fires?
Gary: Yeah, we did.
Tom: So at 15 years old, you were allowed to run into a building and help rescue people, and put out whatever fires there was?
Gary: Well, no. You had to be 18 years old to fight a structure fire. You were allowed to do everything else, but the only thing you couldn't do was to run into the building that was on fire and fight that fire from inside. But everything that was going on outside of the building, or what needed to be done outside of the building, was allowed for at my age then. At least not until we turned 18.
Tom: Now I read a news article that you actually got involved with the department because of a fire that actually happened to you personally?
Gary: Yes, that is right.
Tom: When did that happen?
Gary: That happened in 1975.
Tom: The same year you joined?
Gary: The same year I joined. Because what happened was I was with a group of my friends, and we were camping, and we had a fire on this mound of dirt, and a log rolled off. We had this old car, and we were racing around with this car in a field. We looked back, and we could see that the field was blazing. We went back and we tried to put the fire out, but we couldn't. It was just too big for us. So we all just ran! But my mother knew that I was hanging out over there. It took about 15 hours for the department to put this fire out. You see, it was just a very big brush fire. And my mom knew I was in that area. So my mom asked me if I was at that fire. I said, “yes.” Then she asked me if I had anything to do with starting that fire. And I said, “yes.” She said, "Get home!" (We both laugh)
Gary: (continues): So I went home. She told me to tell her what happened, and so I did. Then she told me that I was going to go down to the fire department, and tell them what happened! So that's what I did. I had to ride my bike to the department because the department was actually a good distance from my house...
Tom: So you could fight a fire, but you couldn't drive a vehicle, huh?
Gary: (Snickers): Yeah! So I went and knocked on the door, and the Chief at the time was the one that opened the door. The Chief looks at me and he says, "What do you want?" And I was like, "I was involved in that fire!" The Chief tells me to get in here! And I did. So when I went in, there was like 4 of his officers all just sitting there, and they are all just staring at me. And The Chief says "Okay, tell me what happened!" And I told him what happened. And then he tells me that he wanted the names of all of the other kids that were there. And I told him I couldn't give him those names. I wasn't going to rat out my friends. He said if I didn't tell him, then I was going to get the punishment for all of them. And I was like, "Okay, whatever!" And so he gave me the assignment of washing all of the fire trucks and equipment, as well as the floors and stuff like that for a year. And so I did it for a whole year. And by the time the year was up, I got to know all of the guys in the whole fire department. And that is when I just joined. And so that's how I ended up at the fire department. But it wasn't until years later, that I came to find out that my mother had already called the Fire Chief while I was on my way to go talk to him!
Tom: So you better have shown up, huh?
Gary: Yeah! And so he already knew the story, and you know, he, as well as the other guys were already preparing to 'talk' to me. But they helped me pay for my mistake.
Tom: So they all took you under their wings, and showed you the ropes, became mentors, and it led to the beginning of a long stay for you?
Tom: So tell me this, growing up did you ever think about a career in first responder services, or corrections? Or were you thinking about any type of career at all?
Gary: No. Not really. Well, my grandfather was a Providence Fire Fighter. So I already knew about firefighting and all that. He would take us to the fire station, so I got to learn about that already. But there are a lot of my family members who are police officers or firefighters. You know, I have brothers, and uncles and cousins that had already been working or retired from some form of first responder jobs.
Tom: The only difference was they were paid?
Gary: (Laughing): Yeah. I was the only volunteer. Not that I mind. Volunteering is a great thing to do. And truthfully it is something that I think everybody should do somewhere.
Tom: Being that you have been a member of Oakdale's fire department since 1975, you have had a lot of experience with The Salvation Army's Emergency Disaster Services, correct?
Gary: Oh, yes! Yes, I have!
Tom: Do you think you can remember your very first experience with the Army's EDS?
Gary: I believe it was a search and rescue call that several units responded to. We were searching for a little boy that was lost. They searched for about 4 or 5 days if I recall until they finally found him. He, unfortunately, was found drowned, but The Salvation Army was out there every day, just pumping out the coffee, water, food, or whatever it was that we needed. I don't recall the year specifically, but I do know it made an impression on me. I mean, how could it not? When you are hungry or thirsty, and somebody just hands you food and water like that and they don't want money for it? Yeah, it stays with you for a long time.
Tom: Yeah, well, we call ourselves the “first responders to the first responders.” We know that when you go and fight those hot fires, or just pulled a rescue from a bad accident, you do get thirsty for cold water, or maybe hungry for food, because it does take a lot out of you.
Gary: Yeah, and let me tell you that when I put out that notice that the EDS unit was back in business, I immediately got 7 responses from Fire Chiefs within the area. All of them pretty much said the same thing, "Hey Gary! Thank you so much for doing this. Glad it’s back, it’s been very much needed.” In fact, I even had someone who stated they would offer assistance when they can. I know how important this is and I know how much this is needed not only by the firefighters, but also by the police officers, and all of the people who are first responders in one form or another. And I know how important all of the other fire chiefs feel that it is needed. And I actually would like to have more people involved with this. People may not be sure of what they can do, but there is enough that can be done, even if they've never been to a first response incident as a responder.
Tom: So you are needing more people? Because there are just so many people, compared to the incidents you respond to? And it is not just emergencies you respond to, you do community events as well?
Gary: Yes, that's right. I will be going to Groton's Night out with the truck. And we will be passing out some water, and other refreshments. But it will be good to get the truck out, and get our name out, and talk about what it is we do.
Tom: Now do you have an established team?
Gary: Yes! I do! I have 15 already signed up, and ready to go. They have passed the applications, they are trained, and qualified. Then I have 8 or 9 more who are needing to just finish the Child Safe program, and they are ready to go. They have already passed the background check, and other items, so they are ready to go. They are just waiting on the class.
Tom: Now why do you think you need more people if you already have 23 ready to go?
Gary: Because I want to make sure we really are covered the 24/7. I currently have retirees, I have people who work 1st, 2nd or 3rd shifts. I want to have enough people to cover at all times. That is my goal. I know that in the past, you would just have 5 or 6 people, but something comes up, like one of their kids is in a baseball game, and now you are already down one person. So I really went out of my way to find people who would be available for the different jobs and time frames. And so having the most people I can have, would help ensure the goals are reached and I absolutely won't say no to anybody who would be willing to volunteer.
Tom: Well, you make a good point, because we not only respond to first responders, but we also respond to the people who were just affected by whatever the emergency is or was. There is the family who just lost their home, or the kids who just lost their puppy. I mean these disasters often can have a long-term affect. So you are looking for people who not only respond to the responders, but you also would need those who can be there for the victims as well?
Gary: Yes! But that isn't all of the need I have to fill. Look, I have some people who are not good talkers, and maybe not good as far as one-on-one with another person, but they are good workers. I need some technical people too. Maybe they are good drivers, which is important in first responding. Or maybe they are good at cooking, and maybe they don't mind getting dirty when the cleaning needs to be done after an event. I have some people who are head smart, who know how to get the vehicle running, and keep it maintained, and make sure the equipment is operational. So I have people who can do all of these things. Obviously, the more people I would have with these capabilities, the smoother the truck unit will run. But I also need those people, who are people persons too. I need the people who are not afraid of taking care of other people who need it. The people who may need just that little hug, or maybe that pep talk. Just somebody to say, "I am so sorry," or "Can I help you?" or anything that is just personable. And I really think that it is so important to have people who have that willingness to be available for other people. It is just really important.
Tom: This does bring up another question: Now you know that The Salvation Army is a Church?
Gary: Yes! Oh yes!
Tom: And you know that we believe it is our mission to spread the good news of God?
Gary: Yes, of course.
Tom: So how do you see your position in that aspect of the job, being that your entire career has been in the secular, non-religious field? Is this going to be a different venue for you?
Gary: It is going to be different, but I don't think it is going to be a challenge. I will be working with Captain Borrero, and I know he will guide me in that area. If there are some things I am not doing in that area, or maybe a direction I can take, I know we will work together in this particular area. I think everybody just needs somebody there for them because you just never know who you are going to run into, or what the need is going to be. I think that is the main thing. We need people who will be there, and to have the people we serve know that there are other folks who are there just for them.
Tom: So let's get a message out there from you. Talk to the people who are reading this interview. Why should they volunteer for a job like this? Like you said, it’s an on-call, 24/7 job they would do as a non-paid, volunteer. Lifestyles today may not have a lot of free time in them, because of job responsibilities, or family commitments. Committing to be available on call for 24/7, no matter what they may be involved with at the time they had been scheduled to be on call, is certainly asking a lot of a person who would not receive a paycheck for their time, during those times. So why should anybody want to consider volunteering for a job like this?
Gary: Yes, certainly. Well, I think late at night, when you are home after you have done your service time, there is no better feeling. There really is no better feeling than to sit down and have the thought to yourself that you made one person's life better today. I can't think of a better feeling to have at the end of a day. You have done well. You really have done well. And you just take one day at a time with this. But you give that water to that first responder who is doing his or her job, or you give that stuffed animal to that scared kid who just lost all of his toys in that fire that burned his family's home, you honestly just gave a lifeline back to a human being. And I think that The Salvation Army is an organization that has helped millions of people every year. And there is no better organization than The Salvation Army to do that. There is nobody better. And let me add this to what I am talking about here. My Uncle Bud, his name is Bud Walker, and he was a New London Sheriff for many, many years. And he always told me, and God rest his soul today. But he always told me, if you are going to give your money to anybody, any charity organization that you think are helping people, you give that money to The Salvation Army. He said it stays local, it will help people in your own local area, and just always remember that. He said if you see a kettle, that red kettle at Christmas time, you don't walk by that kettle without putting money in it, no matter how little or how much you can put in it. You just DO NOT walk by that kettle without dropping something into it. And because of that, because of my Uncle Bud, I honestly cannot ever walk by one of those things without digging into my pockets to find something to drop in there. I just cannot go by them without thinking of my uncle Bud, every single time!
Tom: Well, that is fantastic. And we honestly do thank you for that! Every penny does truly count. Speaking of pennies, this does bring to my mind another question, and I think we can end with this question, but I do think it is a very important question. Gary: Yeah, sure?
Tom: As we have mentioned before, everything that is offered out of the Emergency Disaster Services Unit is offered for free to those we serve.
Gary: Yes, that is true, yes.
Tom: However, everything that we offer is not free for us.
Gary: No! It is definitely not free to us. I am just learning about the bills. And you are right, it is costly.
Tom: Would you like to speak to that aspect, and how the readers of this interview could help out with that? Maybe they cannot volunteer to be on the job, but there are certainly ways they can help out financially?
Gary: Yes! Absolutely! Well, as you know, the canteen itself has been around and in use since 1998.
Tom: Making this the 20th year that truck has been in operation!
Gary: Yes! That is right. And as such, the vehicle suffers the usual wear and tear like any vehicle, especially one that is used in first response scenes. She is still working, but some TLC is needed to keep it going. So repairing, and repairing again, just general maintenance of the vehicle is a major bill. We just spent $1,000 to fix the refrigeration components, which of course is necessary to keep the water cold, and the food from spoiling. So there is that. Then, of course, you have all of the other regular items that has to be covered such as the gas, the insurance, and just all of the things that go into owning a vehicle that has to be covered. Plus, we add on the cost of the products we serve our people, such as food, or maybe the coffee and hot chocolate. You know what it costs to go grocery shopping for a single family. Well, just think of what it costs to have food for literally hundreds of people in a week, or maybe even in just one day. So the entire cost of this unit is really not cheap. In fact, if I was to narrow down the cost of operation to a description, that description is just mind-blowing. I was Chief for 34 years, and I do know the cost of operations. But this just somehow seems different. And how The Salvation Army's been doing this for all of these years. I am amazed. Just amazed by it. So yeah, if people can't physically volunteer, then maybe they can perhaps help with something that would simply pay for maybe to fill up the gas tank once, or probably help with providing the food, whatever. But that would be a great help. Now I have to say that I am okay as far as bottled water because I get a great big help from the people at Mohegan Sun. All I have to do is call them up, and say I need some more water, and they will always have 40 cases of water for me to pick up. I am also okay with ice because The Oakdale Fire Department is helping me with that. The new Chief had said for the Department to always make sure that I have at least 2 buckets of ice for the truck. But as far as other items such as hamburgers, or hot dogs, or maybe the bread that goes with those items, yeah, we buy those. So these are things that need financing.
Tom: And so the best way for people to help would be not to actually buy the items, although you would take the items if offered, perhaps they can just write a check, with a designation on the memo for The EDS Unit.
Gary: Yes! That is the best way for us to make sure that we have what we need in all of the areas of the unit, whether it is for the maintenance, or for the physical items, like food, or even paper products like plates or paper towels, and so on. Also, I would like to add other items that people may not know about, such as maybe blankets, because someone may get out of a fire at night time without much on their bodies. Or new stuff toys, you know for those really scared and nervous children who are just going through that trauma of an emergency. So yes, I think the message here is that there are really just so many ways that people can help out, whether they volunteer to actually work with us, or even if they just gave financially, as well as other items.
Tom: Fantastic, Gary! Just fantastic! Well, I think we covered about everything we can cover.
Gary: Oh did we? (We both laugh).
Tom: So I just want to say thank you so very, very much for taking this job, and the services you are providing. Obviously, your experience certainly makes you more than incredibly adequate for this job, and I really think the EDS Unit is in great hands.
Gary: Well, thank you. I am glad to do this. Just so blessed. And I hope to be doing this for a long time.
Help support The New London Emergency Disaster Services. Mail your checks to 11 Governor Winthrop Boulevard, New London, CT 06320. Be sure to specify the New London EDS Unit in the Memo section.