Life is not always kind in Philadelphia, as evidenced by the daily headlines about gun violence, car crashes, overdoses and building collapses. But when moments of disaster strike, the city is blessed with a reliable fleet of trained professionals and selfless volunteers, always ready and eager to help.
In this edition of Billy Penn‘s Who’s Next, we’re highlighting Philadelphia’s most dedicated young first responders.
Who’s Next is a regular showcase of dedicated up-and-comers who are passionate about Philadelphia. Our goal? To track the city’s next generation of leaders and influencers. In the four years since founding this series, we’ve been honored to feature more than 500 outstanding under-40 trailblazers in a variety of fields.
This round did not disappoint. Below we’ve featured paramedics and firefighters, recent grads and city officials, counselors and coordinators of homeless services. In times of crisis, they’re the Philadelphians who vow to keep us safe.
Read on to meet our 13 impressive honorees, listed in alphabetical order — then come out and celebrate at the Who’s Next happy hour at Bok on June 12.
Alexandra Afanassiev graduated from Temple earlier this month with her undergrad degree in biology. As she studied, she volunteered as an EMT for the school's medic unit — to the tune of a cool 100 hours per month. Her pro bono work was mostly spent on calls for alcohol poisoning — except for one time at the Spring 2018 graduation ceremony, when Afanassiev responded by herself to a cardiac arrest. It's been stressful to balance EMS work with her academics, Afanassiev said, but well worth it: "I love how quick it is, and how you’re really needed."
No matter how dangerous the job, Bill Dischinger is grateful to be a firefighter — especially for the time he got to carry an American flag at Lincoln Financial Field during an Eagles game. Following the annual commemoration of the 9/11 attacks, Dischinger said the gratitude was palpable, and total strangers wouldn't even let him buy his own drinks. "It was like we were celebrities," said the 12-year firefighter. Still, for Dischinger, the attention isn't the best part — it's the camaraderie he shares with his colleagues. "I know if things do get bad they’re going to die there with me," Dischinger said. "It’s a lot of responsibility, but we have a great time."
Among outreach workers at Prevention Point, Kerri Hartnett has earned the loving nickname "Flash" — it commemorates the time she heard about an overdose around the corner and ran so fast to reverse it with Narcan that she beat a SEPTA bus to the scene. When she's not rushing to save lives, she's coordinating PP's drop-in center. Hartnett helps run warming centers during extra-lengthy cold snaps. To her, the most important part is humanizing people with addiction. "They’re fighting everyday to survive and to continue another day of living," Hartnett said. "The least I can do is show up every day and walk alongside them."
Starting last year, Philly public health officials spent $100k urging everyday citizens to carry Narcan. So many people started sporting the overdose-reversal drug that regular EMS workers didn't have to use it as much, and fatal overdoses dropped about 8 percent. You can thank Philadelphia harm reduction coordinator Allison Herens, who lead the charge on distributing naloxone citywide. Now, she's working on setting up drop boxes for used needles all over North Philly — with the hope that normalizing harm reduction practices will help save lives. "We have seen an impact," said Herens, a person in long-term recovery from addiction. "But I think there’s still a lot of work to be done at the city level."
Kathryn Kaminski can tell when someone is dying. As an emergency room doctor in Camden, her job isn't just to try to keep people alive, but also to console the family members standing at their bedside. It might sound crazy, but Kaminski said she exercises many of those same muscles as a Center City cycling instructor. Two different sides of the health coin, for sure, but with some things in common. "My whole professional life is leaning into the discomfort," Kaminski said. "That’s my skill, guiding people through things that are hard."
Clarence Manson III, a CCP alum, is the youngest community relations officer in the entire Philadelphia Police Department. After four months in the role, he's already making waves from the 18th District in Cobbs Creek. Manson focuses on planning events to keep teens out of trouble. His secret sauce? Making them actually fun. Past parties have included video game tournaments, basketball match-ups against police officers and sit-downs with social media celebrities. "A lot of the time [police] only deal with people when they’re in the middle of trauma," Manson said. "It’s good to see a more relaxed side."
Being a firefighter in Philly requires some degree of generalism. In Ismail Numan's six years with the department, he's responded to calls for medical emergencies, car accidents, downed electrical wires and even odd smells in the neighborhood. "A lot of people think it’s pretty much just fires," he said. "We are available to the citizens whenever they need help in any emergency." Numan can handle it all, he said, because he can think on his feet. Through the adrenaline, his first thought is always which tools he can use to resolve an emergency.
As the second person hired to a brand new unit, Devon Richio is helping pioneer the Philadelphia Fire Department's event planning arm. Using data and research, he's got to make sure his team is ready to handle any emergencies (think fires or terrorist attacks) that could arise at city festivities. This includes the big-ticket parties like Wawa Welcome America and Made in America. It's exactly Richio's wheelhouse — he just got his master's degree in emergency management and planning — but that doesn't negate the high pressure. "At times it can be stressful," Richio said. "For anyone in public safety, we have to get it right every time. Anyone that has ill will only has to get it right once."
When he's not responding to local emergencies, Chestnut Hill paramedic TJ Scheurman is handling hazards across the country. He moonlights for Team Rubicon, an organization that dispatches volunteer first responders to some of the nation's worst natural disasters. Recently, Scheurman was deployed to Florida to help citizens recover from Hurricane Michael. There, he searched through rubble to find photo albums a man thought had been lost forever. "That for me was very rewarding," Scheurman said. "It’s just the fact of actually being there, being the guy on the ground in order to stop what hurt someone."
Philadelphia's gun violence epidemic claimed the lives of 247 people last year and injured about 1,000 more. Police Captain Nicholas Smith is on the front lines. Presiding over Northwest Philly's 14th district, it's among his chief concerns for the neighborhood, and he's trying to find innovative ways to stop the shootings. His strategy: Better engage the community. In the five months Smith has had the job, he deployed a brand new unit of bike cops to increase face-to-face interactions with neighbors. "People still have that perception that they don’t like cops," Smith said. "Once they see that we’re approachable, that’s when you start working together."
Puppies need emergency services too, and Ryan Suter is here to help. As a full-timer with the Red Paw Relief Team, he gets a text alert every time there's a fire in Philly. When he's on duty, he responds to each one, tasked with the responsibility of finding any animals that need saving. His favorite part of the job? Whenever he finds a pet — cats, dogs, even bearded dragons — he gets to reunite them with their family firsthand. "Being an animal owner myself, I can’t imagine being in that position," Suter said. "That's one less thing the owner has to worry about."
The first time Will Tung ever responded to a fire, it ended in tragedy. A second-alarm blaze on Fabric Row took the life of Captain Mike Goodwin in 2013, when he fell off the building's roof and died. "It was terrible," Tung said. "Everybody was silent on the fire ground." An instance like that could scare any novice firefighter away — but not Tung. He kept putting out fires in Chinatown and rising in the ranks of the department. Now a lieutenant, he handles a lot of paperwork and checks up on staffing and safety regulations. It's a gig he finds comforting: "I’m happy to be in this role, because I feel like I can kind of watch over everybody and make sure we’re all safe."
Vesper Jingxuan Yang works at the intersection of domestic violence and immigration — a combination that can often result in crisis. Working at Lutheran Settlement House, she provides counseling for Philly newcomers who are in active conflict with their immigration status, domestic violence or both. A Chinese immigrant herself, Yang said an uncertain citizenship status can make everything more difficult, including getting away from a violent relationship. "It can be a huge taboo to talk about an unhealthy relationship in other cultures," Yang said. "They're looking at you hoping you can do something in a miracle."