From fires to floods, Bridesburg vet answers the call

Joe Luczkowski gets a phone call at 3 a.m.

A family in Philly just experienced the lowest point in their lives. The home they lived in is gone. Their belongings are ash.

If they’re lucky, everyone is alive.

Luczkowski gets out of bed, puts on his boots and heads out the door.

While Luczkowski grabs coffee from Wawa and heads to his job, his wife, Shirley, is getting ready for another day at the Aramingo Diner, delivering orders of hash browns and asking people how they want their eggs.

Luczkowski will show up at the disaster, console the family, offer support and move on.

It’s an intense, emotionally draining experience; something Luczkowski describes as seeing people at their worst.

The thing is, Luczkowski doesn’t have to do this.

He grew up in Bridesburg, worked hard at General Electric, sent his two sons to St. John Cantius and retired two years ago at the ripe age of 61.

But, after a few decades of working at GE, he wasn’t quite ready to sit on the stoop and watch life go by.

So he called the Red Cross, told them he was available as a volunteer.

Instead of helping people fill out blood-donor forms, the Vietnam vet is driving disaster relief trucks and manning the phones when stateside family members of servicemen need to get urgent information to the battlefield.

“I needed something to keep me busy, and I had been a blood donor for 30 years,” said Luczkowski, a man admittedly surprised at the path he’s traveled as a volunteer in his golden years. “I found it intriguing.”

He works with the Red Cross Emergency Services Division — something that involves setting up shelters and visiting disaster scenes — as well as the Communications Department.

The latter job includes work that Luczkowski said not many people think of when they think about the Red Cross: confirming basic information that gets relayed to those serving overseas through the Armed Forces Emergency Communications System.

A typical call will involve a death in the family or some other important personal information the military wants to authenticate before informing the service member.

“We take all the information, and once we’ve verified the facts, we reach out to them,” said Luczkowski. “The military uses us essentially as a vetting service.”

He works at the Communications Center every Thursday, answering requests for emergency services, and is on the Monday and Saturday night Disaster Action Teams, responding to fires, floods, building collapses and more.

Luczkowski was honored for his work last month with not one, but two Exceptional Volunteer of the Year awards from the Red Cross. Given that there were roughly 500 to 600 fellow volunteers at event, he was a little surprised when they honored him twice.

Still, no one can say he doesn’t work hard — he put in 16 hours the day before Hurricane Irene hit the region, most of that time spent helping to make sure local shelters were ready to go.

Last Thursday, he was fresh off a fire in North Philadelphia when he took time to speak with a reporter.

“It was a single woman with five children, and we were able to go out there and give them some support,” said Luczkowski.

That support can range from giving them a debit card for buying clothes and food to providing a caseworker to help victims cope with the aftermath.

“We provide the immediate care, get them fed and clothed and safe, and the caseworkers take it from there,” he said.

He estimates about 90 percent of the work he does is fire-related — something that can be tough to deal with, especially in fatal fires.

“It can be a very emotional experience. You get there, the home is destroyed, and people are in tears. It can be tough, but at the same time we’re often the first people that they actually talk to,” said Luczkowski.

One of the worst he’s seen in his two years was just a few weeks back when an apartment fire in West Philadelphia left a number of people homeless.

“There were a lot of distraught people walking around, and they only had the clothes on their backs. It was terrible to see,” recalled Luczkowski. “But we’re there for them, so you put your boots on and you go out there and deal with it.”

Despite those tough times, Luczkowski said his experience has been much more fulfilling than he ever imagined it would be when he called the Red Cross two years ago.

“If you’re serious about any kind of service activity, I’ve always felt that you get more out of it than you put in,” said Luczkowski. “It’s been an eye-opening experience.”

Given that reward, Luczkowski encourages others to join in with he called a nearly all-volunteer operation.

Those interested can visit the Philadelphia Red Cross headquarters at 23rd and Chestnut or call 1–800 Red Cross.••

Reporter Brian Rademaekers can be reached at 215 354 3039 or brademaekers@bsmphilly.com.