Whenever there is a need to help people, first responders answer the call, no matter what the time or location.
For Jeremy Pepin, a member of the Sedalia Fire Department and Missouri Task Force One, the desire to answer the call of duty took Pepin to North Carolina to help in the search and rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.
Pepin spent 11 days from his deployment Oct. 6 to his return Oct. 17 as a logistics specialist and member of the rescue team with the task force, which is one of 28 FEMA Urban Search and Rescue task forces in the United States.
“It was pretty crazy to see the amount of devastation and destruction in North Carolina that Hurricane Matthew caused,” Pepin said Thursday afternoon, one day after his return to work for the SFD. “We spent a ton of time chasing the hurricane and it seemed that we were always right behind it following the trail of devastation.
“It was our job to assist the local agencies in whatever they needed to help the people who were affected by the storm,” he explained. “I have never experienced anything like that in my life.”
Missouri Task Force One consists of 210 members from across the state. Pepin was one of 35 members and 10 ground support personnel who first arrived in Mariette, Georgia, before arriving in North Carolina.
The task force is sponsored by the Boone County Fire Protection District, which Pepin is a member.
“My job on the Force is a logistics specialist, which means basically I keep the team running and take care of the details, but we are all cross-trained so we can assist in and rescues as well,” Pepin said. “I actually assisted in 10 water rescues during our stay.
“We spent most of our time in Lumberton, North Carolina, where a substantial part of the city was underwater,” he added. “The city was turned into an island and was actually marooned by the flooding.”
Pepin explained that North Carolina was hit especially hard with flash flooding, which created much of the damage and devastation.
“The residents couldn’t walk anywhere safely and that was one of our primary tasks, getting them out of their houses and on dry land,” Pepin said. “I’ve worked on water rescues before but nothing like this.
“I understand how the people could be caught off guard by how fast the water rose,” he added. “It’s not our job to judge why the people were still there, it’s our job to help them.”
Pepin said the Task Force remained in Lumberton until the local officials felt comfortable with the situation.
“We wouldn’t leave unless they felt comfortable that they could handle the situation,” Pepin commented. “Everyone there was helping their neighbors and one another.
“It must be the Southern hospitality but they all wanted to help and went out of their way to do so,” he added. “We are a fully self-sufficient team but there was a pastor who insisted on cooking dinner for all of us so we didn’t have to eat our rations, which we all appreciated.”
Pepin’s appreciation extends not only to the members of his team and the people of North Carolina, but also to the city of Sedalia and especially the members of the Sedalia Fire Department.
“I really appreciate the fire department for not only letting me go for the 11 days but for allowing me to with no notice,” Pepin said. “I got the call from the Task Force at 6 a.m. and I called Chief (Mike) Ditzfeld at 6:01 and he told me not to worry about a thing, they would cover my shifts.
“They have been so good about allowing me to have the opportunity to leave for my training as part of the task force as well and I appreciate their willingness to let me do this and I am glad to have the opportunity to represent Sedalia as a member.”
In his first year on Task Force One, Pepin said he feels honored and lucky to be deployed so early in his tenure with the group.
“I will be a member of the force for the rest of my life,” Pepin said. “I am so thankful for the opportunity and I can’t find the words to express my gratitude.
“I am so lucky that I get to do the job I dreamed of as a little kid, being a firefighter, and this opportunity is beyond anything I could have imagined,” he said. “It is really rewarding to have the chance to help people.”
Hope Lecchi can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1484.