Ann Arbor nonprofit offers support on the scene for Washtenaw County's emergency repsonders

HART Huron Valley provides food, shelter, water, and many other support services to Washtenaw County's emergency responders.
Emergency responders have to be ready to handle a wide variety of challenging circumstances whenever duty calls. But in Washtenaw County, their jobs are being made easier with the help of a growing number of volunteers at Helping Area Response Teams (HART) Huron Valley. Launched in 2014, the Ann Arbor-based nonprofit provides food, shelter, water, and many other support services to Washtenaw County's emergency responders. 

"Emergencies don't care about the time, place, or weather, and when we go out there, HART volunteers are right there beside us," says Dexter Fire Chief and HART board member Doug Armstrong. "It's really difficult to explain or quantify how important the volunteers at HART are." 

Recalling a nasty blaze he fought one frigid Michigan day, Armstrong says he couldn't fight the reality of the water that was falling and freezing onto his gloves. He tried until he couldn't bend his fingers at all.
Dexter Fire Chief and HART board member Doug Armstrong.
"I walked out to the HART van and the volunteers had a glove heater," he says. "That was a crucial moment in time that really flipped the script and I was able to go back in."

When any of HART's 27 volunteers show up after being summoned to a scene by the police or fire department, they might not be readily spotted working side-by-side with emergency response crews. 

"An emergency response is like a choreographed orchestra or dance with multiple components," Armstrong says. "It's not unlike a concert, when you might hear the trumpets because that's hearing the melody, but you would miss the flutes if you didn't hear them."
HART volunteers responding to a fire on North Maple Road in Ann Arbor.
He adds that someone watching a fire from the sidewalk might not also readily connect the dots on how impactful a HART volunteer can be.

"You can't really understand what it means to have worked really hard for two hours straight and be tired, physically, mentally, emotionally," he says. "To be hungry and completely thirsty and have someone with a smile take some of that exhaustion away and offer you a cup of hot chocolate or a coffee or a warm sandwich, it can really give people a second wind, and an opportunity to get right back into finishing the job."

HART Board President Roger Simpson was once Huron Valley Amublance's (HVA) vice president of central operations and is now retired. Armstrong and Simpson both share concerns that while HART is a critical component to the county's emergency response efforts, it's not one that is routinely funded. Both have more recently been concerned about HART's van – a pre-loved, and now repurposed, ambulance that HVA donated to the group. 
HART Board President Roger Simpson.
Simpson, who was instrumental in the van's acquisition, says the vehicle has seen a lot of wear and tear over its long lifetime. Last year, for instance, HART was summoned 42 times.

"It's a very long story about the availability of used ambulances in the size and type that we need for HART, which are no longer available," he says. "Our truck is a 2011 model year. Eventually, it's going to get tired. It's nearing 300,000 miles."

As that time lurches forward in Simpson's mind, he's hoping that a donor might contribute a food truck-like vehicle. A donated new vehicle that could be transformed by HART volunteers is also on his wish list. 

"We've been looking for donations anywhere that we can find them," he says. "And it doesn't need to be a truck. Maybe drop off a case of Gatorade. We once had a school create a fund for us."
HART board member Emily East.
HART also needs volunteers, says Emily East, who has donated her time "essentially on a 24-seven, 365-days-a-year" basis. She says HART's intake process and training is stellar, and the personal rewards of giving back to the community have exceeded her expectations.

"At first there was a lot to navigate when I heard that loud tone on my phone that told me it was time to go," she says. "At first I was scared to be in the way. But everyone works together and is generous, even at a crime scene."

One unexpected surprise for East is the connection that happens with first responders after what she calls "the initial thank you."
Emily East, Doug Armstrong, and Roger Simpson with the HART van.
"When they sit with you and tell you how they are, or why they might be doing something a certain way, you see that passion," she says. "At first I was happy just to not be in their way. Now I see I'm important."

Armstrong reflects on seeing people at the lowest point in their lives, and the effects of "the human suffering and the trauma of whatever they're experiencing that has led them to call 911." 

"We're there to help sort of pick up the pieces, comfort them, [and] try to make things better. When you arrive and there's a critically ill family member, when you arrive and someone is standing looking at their entire house in flames and in ruin, that's difficult to process," he says. "There are situations where you want to make everything right and can't. … It's easier to care for people with a recharge and to find a place to rest with HART."

Jaishree Drepaul is a freelance writer and editor based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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