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Volunteer first responders group looking for participants
I-Dawson FIRST pic.jpg
The Dawson FIRST members pose for a photo following the Patriot Day memorial Sept. 11. From left, Dennis LaGatta, Linda Mincey, Ricky Mincey, Dwayne Messerschmidt, Barbara Roberts, Lydia Messerschmidt, Stephanie Fedoruk, Dennis Fedoruk, Amanda McCall, Brian Fraser. - photo by Photo for the Dawson County News

If you’ve ever wanted to be the first on the scene of a fire or other emergency situation, now’s your time to shine.

Dawson FIRST, an all-volunteer group of individuals trained to assist Dawson County Emergency Services personnel in times of community emergencies, is looking for new members starting this fall.

In October of last year, DCES expanded the program previously known as CERT, or Community Emergency Response, to include additional skills to directly support and optimize fire and emergency medical services. Since then, the core group of 14 members has spent over 1,200 hours in training, graduating in July 2018 as the inaugural Dawson FIRST class.

FIRST stands for Fast Incident Response Support Team, and the group meets monthly to train and conduct mock disaster drills.

“It stemmed from CERT but the idea was to get a deeper involvement with the fire service, rather than just to be called on major storm events or mass casualties, that we would have our team officially certified and trained as a support firefighter,” said Director and Firefighter/Emergency Medical Responder Dennis Fedoruk.

Team members are all certified under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, as well as certified support firefighters under the Georgia State Fire Marshal's Office, according to Assistant Director and Support Firefighter/Emergency Medical Responder Dennis LaGatta.

“Those are the two primary credentials, and about half of our group has gone through emergency medical responder training, which is over and above the FEMA program,” LaGatta said.

The FIRST members are certified to ride along with firefighters and paramedics to offer additional manpower and support.

Fedoruk and LaGatta are both associated with Dawson County stations and have pagers and radios that they monitor, so they know ahead of time what is going on. The FIRST responders can be activated by the county and also have an internal system through apps and text to notify the members.

“We’re fast, we want to be there as quickly as possible,” Fedoruk said.

The group’s first real event was the three house fires in Burt’s Crossing the morning of July 5. The group got called out shortly after midnight to assist the firefighters who were taming the blaze.

“We spent six hours on scene after the fire was pretty much out, that’s the kind of time these guys get freed up from, we were able to help them do it faster,” LaGatta said.

The FIRST trainees were able to assist the worn-out firefighters with tasks that can be burdensome after a long time spent fighting a fire. 

“Dawson County has never had this type of organized support, and after the Burt’s Crossing fire, for weeks all we heard was ‘you guys were such a good help and support,’ changing out air packs, handing them a bottle of water, rolling hose, these firefighters are tired after a fire so to have a team there to help do all that for them was a tremendous burden off of them,” Fedoruk said.

LaGatta said the program is different from other volunteer support groups. 

“This program is very unique. There are support firefighter programs, volunteer firefighter programs, there are FEMA CERT programs, but putting them together is really forward thinking and our plan is to develop more skills, we’re going to hopefully get into missing persons work,” he said.

Funding for the program comes from the county, and LaGatta said the group is looking to start grant writing to potentially receive funding from FEMA.

There are 10 active members currently and four on standby. Among their ranks are local business owners, a registered nurse, a retired Georgia Forestry Service employee and a former hazardous materials technician.

Among them is Barbara Roberts, who said she is thrilled with the core group that she graduated with July 5.

“I’ve never seen a group so committed and ready to be of service,” she said. “Easter weekend we got a call about a missing boy in Cherokee County, and everyone who was in town was ready to go and we went and he was found safe.”

The group will have a fixed base at the Mountain Moonshine Festival in October. The team will be instant command in charge of dispatching medical in case of emergency at the festival.

Individuals interested in joining the next class for Dawson FIRST should contact dennis.fedoruk@dawsonfirst.com or dennis.lagatta@dawsonfirst.com.