Escambia Firefighters Create Shelter For Families Left Homeless by Fire

How acts of kindness grew into something much more



photos by Steven Gray

Firefighter Ian Sumner is on a mission to refurbish a dilapidated house to serve as shelter for families burned out of their homes.

Keating Road bisects a pleasant neighborhood of modest, family homes in Northeast Pensacola, but there’s one structure there that stands vacant and neglected.

With a caving roof, water-damaged interiors and a crumbling framework, it exemplifies dilapidation.

But for third-generation firefighter Ian Sumner, it’s a space that houses hope.

From its bones, he aims to create a safe house providing shelter and comfort to families who suddenly and desperately need it: families left homeless by losing their homes to fire.

 

Witnessing loss

Until the year 2000, Escambia County residents relied exclusively on the service of volunteer firefighters. Then, around 30 career firefighters were hired to establish a combination fire service, coalescing the capabilities of volunteer and career firemen into one entity.

Escambia County Fire Rescue now provides an additional 13 districts of coverage throughout the region. While one of these career stations operates from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, the remaining 12 function 24/7. 

The work can be hard, even dangerous, but the emotional burden may be greater.

Homes are filled with far more than expendable, material possessions.

They’re museums of a household’s memories, exhibiting irreplaceable heirlooms and securing records of people’s existence. And they are sanctuaries, ensuring privacy and refuge.

Imagine standing in a storm of ash, watching your home be reduced to rubble and smoldering embers. Sumner says this is something he and fellow firefighters witness once a week. 

“It’s always hit home with me, that after we put the fire out, I’m going to climb on the firetruck to go back to the station, and then I’ll be back in my own bed that night,” Sumner says. “These families don’t have anywhere to go. We may tell them before we leave that the Red Cross has been called and they’re on their way, but who knows?

The Red Cross is already stretched so thin, so the victims may end up with a couple of nights in a hotel and then they’re on their own.”

Struck by these families’ plights, many firemen pull money out of their own pockets to offer victims at the scene. But as frequent as fires are — especially in wintertime — this proved to be unsustainable.

So, the career firefighters began pooling their money bit by bit into what they dubbed the “Burn Fund,” one big pot that would allow them to properly distribute donations. 

Sumner ardently participated in the union once he came on board as a firefighter for Escambia County Fire Rescue in 2007.

Over time, he learned that if the firemen gained official recognition as a nonprofit organization, it would broaden their access to donations and grant donors the documentation required to file for tax deductions. 

 

Donations of supplies and pledges to provide labor are starting to come in.

 

Saving for a safe house

Sumner took the bull by the horns. He filed the necessary paperwork through the IRS, state and federal governments and in 2013 officially achieved 501(c)(3) status for the Escambia County Professional Firefighter’s Charity.

“It still operates much like it did in the past, only now we’re an official, charitable organization and have the potential to become so much more,” states Sumner, coordinator of the Escambia County Professional Firefighter’s Charity.

“When I took over, I knew I wanted to do something major. A while ago I read about this safe house in a fire engineering magazine, but I didn’t speak about it right away because it was very lofty … a lot of additional money and work. But I always kept that magazine, because (a safe house) was a long-term goal.”

Turns out, one of the charity’s major donors, Complete DKI in Pensacola, had the same thought.

The owners of the restoration contractor company approached Sumner out of the blue and asked if he was interested in a house that could temporarily host displaced families.

Sumner was tickled pink as he learned the owners’ ministry, Potential Church, had a property they would lease to the organization for a dollar a year.

The catch: It’s currently unsuitable for living.

“To give you the best idea I can for the state this house is in, is that if we weren’t going to use it, the church would have just demolished it,” Sumner sighs.

“It started as a small house and has been expanded over the years, so we’re looking at about a 2,600- to 3,000-square-foot property now. No one ever added any trusses, so the further away from the original house, the flatter the roof gets … which leaks. We need a whole new roof system and need to replace pretty much everything beneath it.”

So far, Sumner has acquired a generous donation of supplies and labor for installing new doors and windows.

Contractors are lined up to renovate the cabinetry, and, slowly but surely, more local businesses and altruistic citizens are coming forward to pitch in.

The charity also hosts an annual gala featuring a silent auction, from which all funds will contribute to the Keating Road home.

According to Sumner, the finished product will be a nine-room home that can house a displaced family for two weeks at a time.

“Over a 12-month period, I would say there’s a fire in Escambia County at least three times a week, so I don’t suspect the house will remain empty very often. We want to fill the void for these people, pay their expenses, help with any prescriptions they may have lost. Some don’t even have a driver’s license available to go cash a check. It’s hard to do anything after such a loss, so we want to put them in contact with people who know how to get them going in the right direction.”

 

How to help

The renovation ball is finally rolling after years of planning. Sumner asks that any willing contractors or construction suppliers donate materials and labor for any aspect of the house. 

Citizens of the Emerald Coast who wish to contribute may contact Ian Sumner at: charity.coordinator@escambiafirefighters.com or (850) 698-3105