WALTHAM — When Waltham Firefighter Tom Bower returned to Massachusetts following a five day trip last month, he had finally accomplished something he’d waited his whole career to do.
After 18 years on the Waltham Fire Department, and seven as a member of a Federal Emergency Management Agency rescue squad, Bower finally got the chance to provide first-hand assistance to victims of a disaster. He was dispatched, along with fellow New England-based first responders, to help the people of Puerto Rico pick up the pieces following the devastation left behind on the island by Hurricane Maria.
Bower deployed to San Juan on Sept. 23 along with more than two dozen members of FEMA’s Massachusetts Task Force 1, which specializes in post-disaster search and rescue operations.
“It’s something I’ve always been interested in and I’ve always wanted to be involved with,” Bower said. “I’ve been playing with knots and ropes my whole life, and going down there helped to fulfill a lifelong passion of mine.”
Bower, who had yet to be officially deployed for a FEMA response prior to last month’s journey, is the first Waltham firefighter to go on this type of operation, and he credits Waltham’s city and Fire Department leaders for their support of his participation. He also credits the Waltham Firefighters Union for helping make his dream become a reality.
“Without all of their support, there’s no way I would have been able to do this,” Bower said. “I’m truly blessed.”
While in Puerto Rico, Bower and his fellow task force members provided emergency aid to a group of hotel guests who had been left stranded in the wake of the storm, and responded to assist Puerto Ricans who had sheltered in place prior to the storm and needed help getting to safety once Maria had passed.
Massachusetts Task Force 1 has historically responded to a variety of disasters both natural and man-made, including Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Bower’s ability to contribute to the relief effort was an enormously rewarding experience, he said, and he’s excited to have opened doors for fellow Waltham first responders to give back in similar ways in the future.
“I truly believe that my being able to do this has opened the door for others to get involved with similar efforts,” he said, noting that the City of Waltham has since sent three police officers to Puerto Rico to help with the recovery effort.
Though his trip to San Juan was his first deployment, Bower said that his involvement with FEMA has required regular training on search and rescue techniques and has helped him become deeply familiar with the state of the art equipment the agency uses.
Bower, in turn, brings that expertise back with him to the Waltham Fire Department, which consults with him on potential equipment purchases and relies upon him to share the knowledge and skills he’s obtained from FEMA–as well as in his role at the Massachusetts Fire Academy–with his fellow Waltham firefighters.