Empact Northwest – Serving People, Addressing Unmet Needs

Unique search and rescue task force equips custom Ford Transit command center

Jake Gillanders headshot
Jake Gillanders

KINGSTON, Wash. — When the catastrophic 2010 earthquake devastated Haiti, Jake Gillanders and a group of paramedics and firefighters from the Pacific Northwest wanted to help.They prepared to deploy, but couldn't find a nonprofit that recognized the skills of paramedics in a disaster environment. Jake – a fire captain in Poulsbo, a suburb across Puget Sound from Seattle – says they were turned away because they didn't meet the traditional model of a disaster volunteer. The small team was determined to go anyway and traveled to Port Au Prince, where they worked for the better part of a year in a field hospital, treating thousands of patients. Soon after their return to Washington State, they founded Empact Northwest as a nonprofit rapid response rescue, disaster services and training organization.

In 2018, Empact Northwest was awarded a customized Ford Transit in the Ford Disaster Relief Mobility Challenge. Jake - the organization's executive director - says it was never their intention to start a nonprofit when they set out on that first mission, but he's thrilled at how the task force has evolved.

Empact Northwest van back with purple screen and Empact logo

"We genuinely started with a bunch of us who wanted to go help people. We went as a small team and we all got bit by the bug of serving others. We just kept finding needs that weren't being met. We recognized that there was no emergency medical system in Haiti. We had translators we'd been working with who had very poor career prospects, so we took the opportunity to start the first EMT training program and graduated the first EMT class in Haiti. When we find problems that are not being addressed we address them. We recognized there is a real international shortage of search and rescue teams. We jumped in with both feet and started this urban search and rescue task force. We needed technical rope rescue, structural collapse work. We go in and find somebody and get them out. We're a unique organization. We are the only non-governmental, nonprofit in the U.S. that we know of doing this kind of work. We've also added community preparedness on a local basis and training emergency responders."

What does it take to do this kind of work?

Person in rescue gear with dog searching debris

"We are people of service. Most of our members are experienced professionals from fire service or health care, so the people we attract by their very nature are in the business of serving others. One of the founding creeds and core values of our organization is that no work is beneath us. There is nothing we won't do to serve others. When we show up in an area to do rescue work, we will distribute food, we will dig latrines and we will move materials. We will do what needs to be done to serve the community."

Have you been able to utilize the new custom Ford Transit?

"We took delivery of the van in March. We're still making some tweaks, adding creature comforts, but it's fully in service. We put in shelving, a work space, command center and storage. It's our light rescue initial response vehicle. We've used it for training and now we're gearing up for hurricane season. The idea is when we get word of a hurricane, we put two people in the van and they hit the road on the way to the disaster. While it's on the way, we mobilize the rest of the team and fly into the disaster destination. The Transit is primarily an equipment hauler and mobile command post, but we've also rigged it to have multiple anchor points to run rope systems out of it. One of the things we do is high angle rope rescue. In the future, we're also going to set it up as a power distribution point, a hub for power."

How important is support from companies, such as Ford?

EmpactNorthwest Transit van packed

"There is no way we could exist without the support of companies like Ford. It's absolutely imperative to our mission. People are asked for money all the time and it's always a challenge to find donations. By making gifts, large institutional donors and large companies allows us to focus on our mission and improving our program instead of the trying to pursue a van $20 at a time. We would not be anywhere near the position we are in without Ford's contribution. We've been working on a capital campaign to buy a vehicle for a long time and it was looking like it would be several more years. So we were literally deploying to disasters in our own personal vehicles – throwing gear in the back of my pickup truck and heading out the door. I can't stress enough how big of an impact it was for Ford to provide us with this vehicle."

Are there elements of nonprofit work that the public doesn't fully understand?

"I think a lot of people don't recognize the significant impact of the nonprofit community after a disaster. Many people believe and assume the government will take care of everything and they don't see how involved the nonprofit sector is in disaster relief. In some ways that's okay. During a disaster people don't have to worry about who is helping them as along as somebody is helping them. But between disasters it's often a challenge to fundraise. If people don't understand the contribution we're making, why would they want to support us? We work with nonprofits from across the sector – food focused, water focused, everybody in the disaster space. Most of us are very small, so we have to work together. I want to stress the importance of the nonprofit community in responding to disasters because I think sometimes people miss that."

Empact Northwest training near van

Is there a story or mission that stands out? 

"Our toughest deployment was to the Philippines for Typhoon Haiyan. We served a pretty impoverished waterfront area of fishing families that was very hard hit by the storm. We spent a fair amount of that trip doing body recovery which is always very, very challenging. Then finding ourselves having to deal with the orphans left by the event. It's really tough. A lot of the survivors were children. It was a difficult trip all the way around. It took a real toll on a lot of our members. A lot of our folks needed some time before they went out the door again."

What's a good day look like when you've accomplished something in a disaster zone?

"Our focus is so much on underserved communities that a lot of times nobody is working in the areas we're in. Not because they don't care, but because of a lack of resources. We consider ourselves an expeditionary task force. We strive to be foot mobile or highly mobile everywhere we go. That allows us the ability to move quickly and get into communities that a heavier group can't get into. A lot of times we're the first outsiders to arrive at a disaster ravaged area. The feeling you get serving others in desperate need is positive in its own right. It's only strengthened by the gratitude that you see from people you are serving. It's not why we do it, but it's icing on the cake. It's a very, very positive feeling. These can be very stressful events, emotionally challenging and trying, but I think for most of us that's offset by our own sense of satisfaction at the job performed and the gratitude of the people we're serving. I don't think there is any better feeling in the world."

For more information on Empact Northwest visit http://www.empactnorthwest.org/.