mutual aid

A Knoxville Fire & Rescue vehicle pulls into the emergency room entrance of Pella Regional Hospital after the tornado that hit Vermeer on July 19.

The siren snuck up as I raced into Pella last Thursday. I glanced south, expecting a Pella Fire Department vehicle.

Instead, in my rearview mirror, was an eastbound truck from the Knoxville Township Rural Fire Department. I’d heard a mutual aid call over the police scanner, but as I swerved out of the way, the situation’s urgency became very real.

The tornado that hit Pella last Thursday caught most people off guard, as I discovered by hearing and sharing stories early that evening. Vermeer Manufacturing and its neighbors were hit hard. But in the calm soon after the storm, as it became clear that few people had been injured, I reflected on a wonderful concept: mutual aid.

It’s what fire and law enforcement agencies do. Whether through formal agreements of just out of sudden necessity, they help each other. It goes far deeper than “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” In the heat of a fire or, worse yet, a natural disaster, mutual aid makes a huge difference. The local chief takes charge, but so often, their crew can’t do it alone. Many hands lighten the load.

For quite a while Thursday, many of those extra hands restricted non-essential traffic from the Vermeer Mile. We could only wait while first responders did their jobs. I headed over to Pella Regional Health Center, anticipating a hectic scene.

About the only ripple I noticed was PRHC staffers hustling from their vehicles. Dozens of folks in scrubs, some already in gowns, milled around the emergency room entrance. It was clear they had their act together, ready for far worse than what emerged.

I helped hold down the fort at the Pella Chronicle office while my colleague Nicole Presley reported from Vermeer. Over the next 24 hours, we’d tell some important stories, weaving several into Saturday’s special edition.

One scene she captured truly touched me. A woman was working in town when the tornado hit her farm, just down the road from Vermeer. Her husband sent her a text message, warning her to brace for the damage she’d see when she got home.

When she arrived, she saw something truly amazing: People showed up — without a single phone call — to start cleaning up their place.

Mutual aid has many faces. Adversity has an odd way of sparking kindness, though less heroic responses happen all the time. Shoppers drop everything to help a lost toddler connect with its distracted mother. Fairgoers reach out to rope in a critter that breaks free from its young handler. Situations both dramatic and mundane bring out our best selves.

I’ve been blessed these past 11 months to engage in mutual aid with Nicole, who’ll move on from the Chronicle next Tuesday. It’s been a challenging time in which we’ve stretched ourselves to do a lot with a little. The tornado was a whirlwind way to wrap up our teamwork, but it brought out the best in us. Alongside two other colleagues, we set aside our egos and did what needed to be done.

Nicole’s cool, steady approach and her subtle, snarky humor have calmed me through many storms for nearly a year. Our papers will miss her efforts to tell stories clearly and fairly.

As I headed home Friday from Pella and caught a glimpse of Nicole in my rearview, I felt grateful for her mutual aid and envious of those who’ll be blessed to work with her down the road.

Pat Finan is the managing editor of the Journal-Express. He can be reached in the newsroom at 641-842-2155 or via email at

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