GRIFFITH — For Ed Bacon, life is all about helping people.
It’s the reason he became a firefighter and later an ambulance medic.
But after Bacon became disabled a decade ago, he had to find a new way to serve his community. His solution? Griffith police’s Volunteer Emergency Services Team.
“I think it’s very rewarding what we do. Other towns may have something similar, but not like this,” Bacon said. “What we’ve got in this town is very special.”
Overseen by VEST Chief Mike Czerwinski, the team is composed of all volunteers — including Czerwinski — who dedicate a minimum of 16 hours per month to the unit, providing a multitude of services to help alleviate the Police Department’s workload.
“We get all walks of life. People with different skills and different backgrounds, then we bring it all together. And that’s the good thing about this,” said Czerwinski, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps. “Everyone has something to bring to the table.”
During his almost 20-year stint with the volunteer unit, Czerwinski has held many titles, serving first as an officer and then lieutenant before becoming chief in 2014.
He first stumbled upon the group while attending a community festival in 1999. Czerwinski, who had just moved to Griffith, said he saw a couple of volunteers providing security at the event.
Intrigued, Czerwinski said he decided to strike up a conversation with the men. That led him to submit an application and officially join soon after, with his first day on Feb. 14, 2000. Now, after two decades of membership, he oversees almost all aspects of the volunteer group.
Contributions to the community
VEST responsibilities include neighborhood patrols, funeral escorts, traffic control, event security and more. The unit, which currently has 10 people, also helps fire and ambulance officials with similar services when needed, as well as other neighboring communities.
While some of the members are retired or physically disabled — such as Bacon — many work full-time jobs in addition to volunteering and accumulate upward of 40 hours per week helping police or other agencies, Czerwinski said.
“These guys are another set of eyes and ears,” Griffith police Cmdr. Matt Moore said. “They are probably as close to being the police without actually being the police.”
Different iterations of the group have been with the department since the end of World War II, Czerwinski said, operating under various names and sometimes with government funding. Most recently, the unit had been called Griffith Emergency Management Agency before switching to VEST in 2005. It became an official part of the Police Department nine years later.
Similar to Griffith police officers, all volunteers wear uniforms and drive patrol vehicles with sirens attached, Czerwinski said. However, VEST members aren’t armed and drive white vehicles instead of black.
Everything is stamped with the group’s official logo — a light blue circle broken into four quadrants with various symbols representing the city — which Czerwinski helped design.
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Like Bacon, Cmdr. Ray Plopper said he looks for any opportunity he can to help people within his community. He joined VEST in 2003 after working several years with the American Red Cross — where he started at age 11 — and the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary’s civil air patrol.
But the opportunity to help isn’t the only reason Plopper has remained with the group for the past 16 years — it’s the camaraderie between members and within the Police Department, as well as the other agencies they aid.
'We do it because we enjoy it'
Still, being a member of the group isn’t without its challenges.
Moore said the volunteer unit deserves more recognition than its members often receive, since it complements all aspects of public safety. Without them, he believes the Police Department would not be able to properly serve the city because of a lack of resources and time.
“(VEST) is an absolute asset. ... These are people who are coming out to help their community that don’t have to. They don’t get a paycheck. They all have families. But yet, there is something in them that gets them to put on the uniform and come out and work for free,” Moore said. “And to me, that says a god-awful lot.”
Czerwinski said it can be tough when the people they are trying to help don’t see the value in their service, believing all they do is funeral escorts or only patrol during the day. But members often are out until 3 a.m. or later almost each day.
Some citizens don’t even know the group exists at all, Czerwinski said.
“People think, ‘OK, I have a police department, a fire department, and I have an ambulance that I call 911 to,’” he said. “They don’t know us per se, which is why we are always trying to get the word out about us.”
But despite the occasional lack of respect and understanding, Czerwinski said he doesn’t plan to stop volunteering with the group anytime soon, and neither do Bacon or Plopper, who hope more people join the group.
“If (VEST) was very stressful and you didn’t like it, I don’t think any of us would be involved,” Czerwinski said. “We do it because we enjoy it, so we’ll keep on doing it.”
How to get involved
Those interested in joining VEST can stop by the Griffith Police Department and pick up an application, which also is available online, or email Czerwinski at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Applicants, who do not have to live in Griffith to join, must be at least 18 years old. After submitting an application, individuals will go through a background check and interview process, being reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
If accepted, new volunteers must complete four four-hour ride-alongs, Czerwinski said. They are then put on a mandatory one-year probation, working that entire time with a field officer or seasoned VEST member. Throughout membership, all volunteers will receive continued training, no matter how long they’ve been with the unit.
“We're always looking for members, (but) we just don’t accept anybody — it has to be an upstanding citizen,” Moore said. “Someone who is willing to come out and help their community.”