When Joy Dotson was a senior in high school, living with her parents on the south side of Pittsburgh, her brother’s nearly completed house fell victim to the hands of arson. What made the event even more traumatic for her was that she was the first to find out — and the one to deliver the news. Perhaps it was this experience that launched her career in the Fire and Rescue service, and later the inspiration behind the creation of the After the Fire Program, which provides assistance to victims of residential fires.
"I feel a connection to them [victims] because of the feelings we had of not knowing where to turn to next," said Dotson, manager of public education for the Department of Fire and Rescue.
While Dotson’s brother was not in the house at the time and financially recovered from the loss, the feeling of having to sift through debris to salvage his possessions has not escaped her.
"It was a lot of hard work, just trying to put our lives back together," she said.
According to Carol Barbe, director of the Loudoun County chapter of the American Red Cross, 150-200 individuals a year go through the trauma of being displaced by household fires. Although material objects can be replaced, the sense of helplessness and disorientation are more difficult to repair.
THIS IS WHY the Department of Fire and Rescue created the After the Fire Program. Although firefighters might be first to arrive on the scene of a fire, employees of After the Fire are right behind them. The program is funded by the Department of Fire and Rescue and operates out of the Public Education Office. Working in shifts of three, the program is ready to respond to fire dispatches at all hours of the day.
"The After the Fire Program is designed to help families begin the recovery process," said Mary Maguire, public information officer for the Department of Fire and Rescue. "They respond to the scene if it is a significant fire and residents are going to be displaced."
In one such case, the recent Sept. 6 incident on the 21000 block of Hyde Park Drive in Ashburn, a fire destroyed one house and badly damaged two more, resulting in a combined $1,000,000 in damages. Originating at 21975 Hyde Park Drive, the wind quickly spread the blaze to the properties on either side. When firefighters arrived on the scene it was too dangerous to take an offensive approach, limiting their strategy to containment.
While no injuries were reported, the family at 21975 completely lost their home. What’s worse is that the family was in the process of rebuilding their home after a fire last March, which resulted in $350,000 in damages. This, again, brought the After the Fire Program to their aide.
Dotson explains that the relationship between the program and the victims is an informal, helpful relationship.
"They seek us out by name, saying ‘Joy, I did this’ or ‘what should I do next?’" said Dotson.
During situations like the one on Hyde Park Drive, the After the Fire program will calm the family as the fire is being extinguished. They also provide immediate answers to questions pertaining to the firefighters.
"We answer questions like, ‘why are they breaking the windows?’ and ‘why did it [fire] get so big so rapidly?’" she said.
THE IDEA FOR the program, which started as a pamphlet handed out by firefighters, soon grew into what Dotson refers to as "an extension of customer service." The goal — to set victims up with 24-72 hours of relief, as well as the initial steps towards financial and emotional recovery. Long after the firefighters leave the scene, representatives stay with the victims and begin getting their lives back in order.
While the After the Fire Program is the first response for recovery, a significant amount of help comes from the local chapter of the American Red Cross.
Many who receive help from the two organizations get back on track when their insurance companies take over. Others need prolonged care. The American Red Cross allows victims to stay in hotels for up to 30 days while reorganizing their lives.
"We have agreements with all hotels in the area," said Barbe. "But we try to find one as close to the proximity of their home as possible."
Much like the displaced victims of hurricanes, those in need also receive everything from clothing to medicine.
"Whatever they need to help with recovery, we will try to provide," said Barbe.
As long as fires like the one on Hyde Park Drive are a problem, After the Fire will continue to be the first step in a long road to financial and emotional recovery. The name — After the Fire — might be somewhat misleading. In fact, the program works with all citizens who have been displaced through some incident. With a range of experience from water main breaks to cars that crash into houses, the program has been at the assistance of all types of problems.
"It really could be After the ‘blank,’" said Dotson.