Chicago’s Air & Sea Rescue team

On a recent Monday morning, the Chicago Fire Department received an emergency call about a person in Lake Michigan near 95th Street. The dispatcher immediately notified Engine Company 13, at 259 N. Columbus Dr., where the Air and Sea Rescue Team is located.

The divers began pulling on thermal protection layers, Viking dry suits, boots, fins and helmets before the truck even rolled out of the station. They secured one another’s air tanks and emergency air tanks as it sped towards the scene. Mastering this procedure is the first of many required to be a CFD Public Safety Diver.

“They do a test when they’re going through the first week of training called rapid deployment dressing,” says Ron Dorneker, Deputy Chief of Marine and Dive Operations. “They have to go from being in their uniforms to being fully suited divers in less than four minutes.”

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Charles Irey of the Air & Sea Rescue team

Every water-related emergency in Chicago — and, when requested, from the far northern suburbs to Indiana — is dispatched to Marine Headquarters at Chicago’s Engine Company 13. Besides housing a supervisor and three divers every day of the year, it also houses a vehicle loaded with two inflatable boats, four integrated scuba outfits and enough specialized equipment to complete rescues in virtually any water-related environment regardless of weather.

The entire Air and Sea Rescue Team consists of 140 to 160 divers, all of whom spent five years as sworn firefighters and demonstrated basic diving and swimming skills before applying. They respond to roughly 250 emergencies every year.

As the truck carried four of them to the incident at 95th, a Bell 412 helicopter powered up at the Chicago Fire Department’s Heliport near Calumet Park along the lakefront. Equipped with a high definition “FLIR” camera that can see over a mile in darkness, the chopper is capable of uploading footage of the situation to the Chicago 9-1-1 center, where call-takers, dispatchers and executives can review and respond accordingly.

“It’s a great helicopter that’s built for search and rescue,” says Dorneker.

It also transported two additional divers to the emergency. Like their counterparts traveling from Engine Company 13, these rescuers stuck with the Air & Sea training program even after enduring the first week, which according to Dorneker, “really weeds people out.”

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A map of the team’s rescue efforts

“It’s a little over a 40-hour week in a swimming pool and out in the lake and the river,” he explains. “From that point, it takes about three years to get to where they’re a true public safety diver trained for water rescue for the city of Chicago.” Upon achieving that honor, the fully-fledged divers can look forward to more training exercises every day.

“It never ends,” says Dorneker. “Last year we logged over three thousand hours.”

During the winter, he and the team use a special chain saw to cut holes in the Lake Michigan ice so that they can explore the waters underneath and “learn our true ability.” Besides navigating currents that Dorneker describes as “unforgiving,” the divers also perfect their means of communication, both hard-wired and wireless.

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Gratitude for the team

“The ice presents an overhead environment, which is dangerous to us,” he explains. “If something goes kaput and your breathing system fails, you need to go back to the hole that you went in to get out. We have contingency plans that we use — whether it’s the redundant air supply or the Rapid Intervention Team — to rescue the diver in distress.”

While the truck and the chopper approached the emergency at 95th over land and in the air, the department’s 92-foot fireboat, Engine 2, raced towards it from a dock near Navy Pier. Upon arriving, they joined the fire fighters from Engine Company 74, the Firehouse nearest to the incident, who also had been activated as part of the protocol for water-related emergencies.

“It’s a standardized response from the Fire Department that gets 41 fire fighters and paramedics on the scene of these incidents,” explains Dorneker. “Engines, Trucks, battalion chiefs, special operations chiefs, helicopters, boats… It’s a big group.”

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Members of the Air & Sea Rescue team

Fortunately, very few of the life-saving resources were necessary on the morning of March 18. Engine Company 74 was able to pull the victim out of the lake before anyone else arrived. Since every member of the Department is trained as a first responder to water incidents, they were equipped with floatation devices, ring buoys, throw bags, and the knowledge to use them.

“People do not join the Fire Department to go on their water rescue team,” Dorneker says. “People join the fire department to become firefighters. But if somebody’s in distress in the water, they can make a quick attempt for a surface rescue before the dive team even gets on the scene.”

Chicago firefighters can train in several categories including auto extraction, hazardous material fires, airport fires and high-rise fire fighting, which is Engine Company 13’s specialty.

Many of the men and women who join Air & Sea Rescue come from obvious places like the Navy, but Dorneker enthusiastically explains that there are also plenty “who showed the willingness to train and learn.”

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Deputy Ron Dorneker

Dorneker himself seems to have followed the path of a natural born water rescuer. His career in public safety diving began when he was a 15-year-old camp counselor at Owasippe Scout Reservation in Twin Lake, Michigan. “They used to pay extra money to bring my scuba gear to camp with me,” he remembers. He worked as a lifeguard for the Chicago Park District, the Sheriff of Galveston, Texas, and the Chicago Police Force before joining the Chicago Fire Department in 1988.

“I’m very passionate about the water,” he says. “I love the water and I like going out there, too. I’m just smart enough to know to stay far enough away so I don’t get myself caught up in the waves or out on the ice.”

— Dan Patton | Staff Writer

Interview with Jackie Guthrie, Maggie Daley Park Supervisor

Jackie Guthrie might be the first friendly face you see behind the desk upon entering the Maggie Daley Park field house. “A day in the life of the Maggie Daley Park Supervisor…is an honor,” says Guthrie.

“I am able to work with a team of talented and dedicated staff, supportive community, and each day brings new opportunities. I would argue that I have the best job in the Chicago Park District.”

During her lunch hour, she often strolls through the lakefront greenery to admire how visitors are enjoying the space.

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Jackie Guthrie (photo: Angela Gagnon

“Some areas of the park are very active, while others are quiet and serene,” says Guthrie, who has been Park Supervisor for over six years.

As Park Supervisor, Guthrie focuses on balancing the needs of the community while also catering to the demands of tourism.

During the park’s transformation over two years in 2013 and 2014, Guthrie was involved in planning and designing the field house. “The Chicago Park District team and the architects were committed to designing the best use of our space,” she explains. “Our team understood the importance of our programs and special event space for the community.”

The facility was designed to accommodate the people who participate in the park district programs as well as the skaters and climbers who use the park’s amenities.

“The use of the space has changed,” says Guthrie. “What once was a big kitchen and shower rooms is now a well thought out space that is program focused.” In addition to offering activities for children, teens, and seniors, the field house has a multipurpose room for meetings and special events. This month, an Easter Egg Hunt is scheduled on March 24 from 10am – 12pm, and Guthrie played a big role in organizing the event. There will be children’s activities in the field house, including holiday crafts and a bounce house, with the egg hunt taking place outside.

The park is also part of a migratory bird path. “In the spring, there are plans for some organized bird walks to take advantage of the nature,” says Guthrie.

Recently, the park even boasted its own unofficial mascot. A calico cat named “Maggie” took up residence in the area until a resident rescued her.

According to Guthrie, the options for outdoor activity in Maggie Daley Park are endless. The new tennis courts at the east end, which will offer reservations and charge fees for usage, are scheduled to open in spring. Plans are in the works to host musical performances and movies in the summer.

“Maggie Daley Park is still developing its personality because it’s so new,” says Guthrie.

— Angela Gagnon, Staff Writer

Raising funds for the American Writers Museum

AWM Executive Director Nike Whitcomb
describes the process of paying for the Michigan Avenue Institution

Nike Whitcomb, Executive Director of the American Writers Museum, has created a thrilling level of anticipation for the country’s first and only national monument to the written word, which is scheduled to open next year in Chicago. Now, all she has to do is find the money to build it.

“We raised about $2.4 million last year,” she says. “We need $10 million altogether.”

When completed, the museum will occupy the entire second floor of 180 N. Michigan Ave., joining Millennium Park and the Cultural Center along the city’s prestigious Cultural Mile. It’s 8,500-square-foot space will include a Readers Hall, a Writers Hall, dedicated exhibits for local as well as national authors, and a room-sized digital “Word Waterfall” where, according to the downloadable interior plans, “Magic Happens” as “Words float down and assemble in interesting ways.”

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Nike Whitcomb

It will also benefit from massive pedestrian traffic along Michigan Ave. “We are looking at 45,000 hotel rooms within about a half mile,” says Whitcomb. “150,000 people walk by that site every day.”

Whitcomb is uniquely qualified to get the job done. Before accepting the position last January, she had operated her own fundraising company, Nike B. Whitcomb & Associates, for 36 years. During that time, she generated hundreds of millions of dollars for the likes of the Evanston Art Center, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the National Public Housing Museum. In one decade alone, she raised more than $125 million for Millikin University, her alma mater.

Since embracing her new role, she has successfully shaken some of the tallest philanthropic trees in the country. To date, she has procured an antique writer’s desk from an individual donor and funding for the Readers Hall, which will accommodate 75 people, from a family foundation.

Whitcomb’s fundraising technique combines thorough research with flexible presentation. After learning as much as possible about potential donors through online search, news sources and personal networks, she attends meetings with full confidence but also understands that none of her preparations might matter.

“It is like improv,” she says. “You cannot predict what’s going to happen.”

During one recent meeting, a gentleman asked if she had talked to a certain “so and so.” Upon learning that she had not, he launched a conversation that yielded 15 more potential donors in 15 minutes.

“You don’t want to pitch and not listen,” she explains.

She is also reviewing artifacts, developing the first 100 authors to be honored by the museum, and keeping a lookout for literary fans of all ages.

“I was at a party and a little boy was making paper airplanes with his brother. I asked him, ‘what do you like to do when you’re not making paper airplanes?’ He said, ‘I like to read.’ So I asked, ‘who’s your favorite author?’ He said, ‘Oh man, I have more than one.’”

— Daniel Patton | Staff Writer

Soliciting the Solicitors

We thought we’d stop them and ask a few questions

They are easy to spot. Waving clipboards and wearing brightly colored vests, lanyards, and smiles, gauntlets of canvassers can be seen lining Michigan Avenue and occasionally State Street, ready to pounce on passersby:

Do you have a second for the environment?

Do you have a minute for children in the developing world?

Over the last few years, I have observed an upswing in the number of sidewalk fundraisers for high-profile charities. The fresh-faced young men and women sporting Children International windbreakers used to mark the beginning of spring as clearly as daffodils and tulips budding along the Mag Mile. But now, these “chuggers” — a slang term combining charity and muggers — are out and about year-round.

Chuggers rely on friendliness, emotional appeals and, yes, pushiness to elicit on-the-spot donations. They take their cues from legions of Europeans who have been employing the technique for decades and boast a record of success in raising money for the charities that employ them.

Since most chuggers are younger, they are able to engage with a young donor base. In addition, potential donors who regularly screen telemarketers or throw away direct mail might not be so quick to dismiss an eager street solicitor.

Almost every Chicagoan has a way of reacting to chuggers’ requests for “just a minute of your time.” Some people avert their eyes or adopt a purposeful stride. Others return a noncommittal greeting or begin to sweat as they formulate a nervous excuse in their head. On the other end of the spectrum are those who step up to donate or chat with a chugger.   

Sara Tews, fundraising for Children International in front of the Michigan Avenue Ralph Lauren store on a recent chilly Friday, said she “typically signs up one to two people per day.” Not all donors decide on the spot, and some sign up later through the charity’s Children.org web site.

“I would prefer people sign up directly with me,” says Tews, as that way she gets credit for donors.

Last year, Tews “personally signed up 178 people and the charity as a whole signed up 33,600.”

When asked about data protection, Tews said she uses an iPad “with an encrypted system similar to ordering online through Amazon,” to accept donors’ credit cards.

Since many potential donors do not budget for large, one-off donations, fundraisers typically urge them to accept a payment plan. In the case of Children International, it takes 90 cents per day to sponsor a child. This can be paid in monthly, quarterly, or other installments. Tews says the charity asks for a two-year commitment, but it is “up to individual donors to decide how long they want to continue.”

Despite the exasperation chuggers can cause, it is worth keeping in mind that their day is probably worse than yours. Several articles have chronicled long hours, constant rejection, and an unstable pay structure. Tews, who worked in alumni fundraising while attending DePaul University, has been employed with Children International for two years. She is quick to point out that her boss is “awesome,” but admits that schedules can be intense.  Tews says, “Shifts last from 10am-6pm most days and I am out in pretty much all weather conditions.”

Whatever your reaction to chuggers, it is important to be informed. The City Council’s Finance Committee has a list of 33 groups that hold the required charitable solicitation permits. These groups have shown proof that they’re registered with the Illinois Attorney General’s office as legitimate charities, though it is up to consumers to request to see a permit. The city recommends dialing 311 to report a suspicious charity.

The independent watchdog CharityWatch.org encourages donors to “find out how much a charity is paying to solicit you, take the time to check out a charity before giving, and never feel pressured to give on the spot in the street.”

— Shanti Nagarkatti | Community Contributor

The urban gardener of Engine Company 13

By Daniel Patton | Managing Editor

David Sudler’s flower garden in front of Engine Company 13 at 259 N. Columbus Dr. represents more than a local resident’s green thumb: it is an achievement of determination, innovation and resourcefulness by a well-read extrovert who will not let any loose seed, discarded bulb or untended patch of earth go to waste.

“If there’s land,” says the retired shipbuilder, boilermaker, filmmaker, pharmaceutical executive and member of the prominent Chicago real estate family, “I want to plant something.”

Sudler has lived in the New Eastside with his wife for over two decades. Although he cannot recall exactly when he began cultivating untended patches of the neighborhood, he can fondly list many past projects.

“I was growing potatoes twenty years ago behind Columbus Plaza and I had melons behind the Swissôtel,” he says. “When they were redoing Michigan Ave, they threw away hundreds of hyacinths. I collected them and stored them behind some bushes nearby and used them when I needed them.”

His devotion to botanical rejuvenation is matched by a commitment to organic recycling. The Russian sage bushes, tiny flax blossoms and colorful mums in front of the fire station thrive in a bed that was little more than “mulch and clay and plastic” before Sudler first plowed into it years ago.

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The garden at Engine Co. 13

“I had to dig up the garden because it was all salt,” he explains. “I got some dirt from when they were excavating the Wanda lot. They were loading it into the back of a truck and I said, ‘Hey, give me a load.’”

When he began sowing, a woman who lives in the area donated the Russian Sage bushes. Then came the flax seeds, which were leftovers from his wife’s good intention to enhance both of their diets. “She can’t stand them and I can’t stand them,” Sudler says. “So I threw a few of them in the dirt and they all sprouted little itty bitty flowers.”

Additionally, he has formed relationships with many of the companies that frequently revise building landscapes throughout the year and, according to Sudler, “junk” the old flowers and shrubs.

“I go and beg from them: you guys got a bucket of dirt? You got some mulch?” he explains. “They’ll always set something aside.”

The pumpkins that decorate the garden are salvaged from a patch that he planted, tended and nearly lost over the summer.

Located in an empty lot behind Fifth Third Bank at 400 E. South Water St., the harvest dwindled from a promising bumper crop in midsummer to little more than an empty rectangle of earth by fall. The majority of his yield — as well as the gardening tools he stashed nearby — literally disappeared into the night.

Undeterred, the resourceful New Eastsider rescued the ones that remained and made them part of the garden outside Engine Company 13.

Lt. Steve Serb of Engine Co. 13

Like many officers in the Chicago Fire Department, Lieutenant Steve Serb lends support to short-handed stations whenever they need it.

We caught up with him at Engine Co. 13 on N. Columbus Dr. just as his wife, Susan, and their children, six-year-old Eamonn and six-month-old Elizabeth, stopped by to visit on their way to a costume party.

“Years ago, this was a lot of office space,” he says. “Now it’s a neighborhood where people live and eat and go to the park.”

The CFD, according to Lt. Serb, helped the area make that transition. “A fire house is where people can come together and meet and talk,” he explains. “We love the community.”

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Lt. Serb and son Eamonn

His role as a father helps him work towards the goals of the department.

“There are a lot of paralells between being a fire fighter and being a dad,” he says. “When you’re dealing with emergency calls, it doesn’t matter how bad the situation is, it’s the worst day for the people who called.”

Although many of the calls turn out to be issues of simple household maintenance — “really, what we are is the problem department,” he jokes — the severity, or lack thereof, does not affect the service that the CFD provides.

“I’ve been called out for plumbing problems, for water leaks in someone’s house, steam leaks from a radiator,” he continues. “Not really our stuff, but that person is having a bad day because they don’t know how to fix it. We are calm about finding a solution.”

Of course, when it comes to the actual emergencies that Lt. Serb refers to as “our stuff,” he doesn’t hesitate to explain that “it takes a lot of faith to crawl into a flaming building.”

Then, just as quickly, the 15-year veteran modestly insists that his job is not that much different from anyone other hardworking person’s.

“You can help people in any profession,” he says. “We all contribute and help as much as possible because we are human beings.”

“The help that I provide people — I don’t think it’s any greater, but it’s more dramatic.”

Daniel Patton | Staff Writer

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