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First Responders Offered Moments Of Levity With Mini-Parades During Pandemic



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With lights flashing and sirens often blaring, various configurations of Newtown’s first responders have responded in recent months to a different call for help.

Parents with children celebrating birthdays this past spring — especially younger children, who likely had been looking forward to having birthday parties with friends — found themselves in a jam when COVID-19 protocols started calling for people to stay home.

In addition, most bakeries were closed. Both of Newtown’s ice cream stands began their seasons later than normal, which meant a longer wait for ice cream cakes. Shopping for essentials became the norm, while extras like decorations and gifts dropped to the bottom of shopping lists, if they were even on there at all.

Groups of people outside a household were not supposed to congregate. If they did, wearing face masks and bathing in hand sanitizer were required.

It was not a time to hang up balloons and throw open front doors for parties. Instead, firefighters, police officers, emergency medical responders, and dive team members were all called on by parents this spring. Instead of going through dispatch in an emergency, however, these first responders were contacted with requests to drive past the home of children celebrating birthdays.

Between early April and mid-June, Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue did at least 30 such calls. Continuing with pandemic precautions being followed, members wore masks when they arrived at their station, and wiped down any of the trucks they used after each call.

Hook & Ladder firefighters participated in 34 parades within its district, according to Chief Engineer Mike Aurelia, who coordinated the company’s efforts. Hook & Ladder “also did several other parades with neighboring districts,” he added.

The company “had a great turnout and awesome feedback from the community,” he added.

Michelle Greenspan, an EMT on the executive board of Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps, said doing the drive-by celebrations were a safe way for people to say hello without getting too close to each other.

“We did a handful, maybe five or six, over the course of March to May,” she said June 19. “They started picking up when the weather was warmer,” she noted.

Greenspan recalled doing one such drive-by for a local resident.

“The smile that appeared on his face made me feel so good, to be able to uplift the spirits of someone on their birthday,” she said. “As a volunteer EMT, I feel honored to give back to our town/community, and this was just another way to do so.”

According to Administrative Sergeant Jeff Silver, Newtown Police Department members were also eager to help when they could.

“We understand that these are difficult times and the isolation has taken a toll on many people,” Silver said via e-mail on June 16. “When the opportunity presented itself to have a positive impact and help someone feel special on a monumental day, the department wanted to participate.”

Officers were able to do at least 20 such events, he believes. They were “spread out over different shifts, units, and months,” he added.

The department allocated resources when possible, he said.

As with other first responders, the number of such calls or events the police department is responding to has diminished.

“We continue to receive calls and evaluate the request on a case-by-case basis,” he said, “but with the state transitioning back open and the calls for service increasing, the availability of our officers has diminished.

“We look forward to our continued partnership with the community,” he added.

Dodgingtown Volunteer Fire Company did about a dozen of the calls, according to its chief.

Steve Murphy said members of his company “enjoyed doing them,” and that the offerings brought “some excitement to people cooped up at home.”

The public service calls also served the first responders to a small degree.

“It got us out of the house, too,” he said.

A Graduation Parade

One request for public service, on Saturday, May 16, was a reverse parade. For that event, Sandy Hook firefighters staged their apparatus on the Schoolhouse Hill Road bridge over I-84. They then waited for the day’s honorees — nearly a dozen Newtown High School grads-to-be — to pass them.

The parade route took the seniors through their home neighborhoods, where neighbors had been invited to decorate their yards for the young adults ahead of their graduation.

Nicole Christensen was the lead organizer behind the event. She wanted “to do something for these kids that will be memorable,” she said.

About 100 people responded to the invitation to decorate their yards, she said this week. Residents along Old Green Road, Horseshoe Ridge Road, Yearling Lane, Winter Ridge Road, and Old Farm Hill Road were all encouraged to decorate so that the seniors in the front passenger seats would be honored.

Just past noon, a group of vehicles, led by six Newtown Police Department cruisers, paraded past those fire trucks and personnel. In the front passenger seat of each vehicle was a Newtown High School senior, being driven by a parent.

“When we turned that corner and saw the Sandy Hook fire trucks there, I started to cry,” Christensen said June 22. “I talked to others in the neighborhood and they said the same thing: They turned the corner, saw all those firefighters and the trucks, and the tears just started.

“It was so nice to see that turnout, and it just continued the whole length of the parade,” she added.

The presentation along the route, she said, was more than she expected.

“I don’t think there wasn’t anyone who wasn’t outside. Even the UPS guy was standing outside his truck, holding his camera and whooping,” Christensen said. One family in the cul-de-sacs gave out yellow roses to all the graduates, she said.

“There were dogs dressed up, people filming, people had instruments, and signs. It was something else,” she said.

“My daughter looked over at one point and said ‘This is better than a graduation,’” Christensen said this week, still beaming from the experience. “It was something everyone’s going to remember.”

That sentiment was what parents were also hoping for when they invited first responders to drive past their homes this spring.

The birthday and graduation parades by first responders have all but ceased at this time. Police officers, as Sergeant Silver mentioned, are responding to a growing number of calls. Many of the volunteers in the town’s ambulance, dive team, and fire companies have also begun returning to their careers, so their availability for non-emergency daytime events has diminished.

A recent birthday parade in Newtown hosted vehicles from Newtown Police Department, Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue and Botsford Fire companies, along with trucks from Pendergast Garbage Roll-Off & Recycling. In recent months, first responders from across town were requested for similar events, meant to highlight birthdays for residents otherwise missing out on traditional celebrations due to pandemic quarantine efforts. —Bee Photo, Hicks
Russel Stiles waves to a passing Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps ambulance that drive past his home on his birthday earlier this year. —photo courtesy Michelle Greenspan/Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps
Parents of Newtown High School Class of 2020 graduates drive their vehicles past Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue apparatus parked on Schoolhouse Hill Road, May 16, for a reverse graduation parade. Six Newtown police cruisers and ten families participated in the event, which took graduates over a 4½-mile route, passing dozens of homes. —Bee Photo, Hicks
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