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Everyday Heroes: Fire and ice in Amherst (Mass.)

PoliceOne talks with Officer David Rhoades of Amherst PD about his outstanding work to help citizens and fellow officers stay alive and healthy

In late December 2010, two Amherst (Mass.) police officers saved the life of an 83-year-old man who had lost control of his Toyota Camry on Old Farms Road and ended up in the icy Mill River. First to respond was Officer David Rhoades, who waded into the freezing river and pulled John Moner to safety. By the time Rhoades was making his way toward shore with the elderly man in his arms, Officer James Damouras had also arrived at the scene, helping both men from the water. Although Officer Damouras declined my invitation to speak, today I connected via phone with Officer Rhoades. My aim was to learn a little more about the incident — and a lot more about Dave Rhoades.

“It was in my sector and I took the call,” Rhoades told me. “There were three or four people standing around on the bridge when I arrived. It caught me by surprise that they were just looking down into the water — I kind of figured somebody might help but nobody did. I went down a 20-foot embankment that was covered in wild rose bushes and got to the river bank. I broke through the ice shelf — the river was moving so it wouldn’t freeze all the way across — and I radioed dispatch that I was going out into the water, just in case anything happened.”

Despite not knowing the depth of the water into which he was striding, Rhoades trudged 15 yards into the frigid, slow-moving water. Standing six feet and six inches tall, the water came up to about the middle of Rhoades’ thighs by the time he’d gotten to the car.

‘Thanks, But I Think I’ll Stay Here’
“I opened the door and asked the gentleman if he was okay — he was bleeding pretty good from the head. I asked him ‘Would you like to come with me?’ and he said, ‘No, I think I’ll just stay in my car and listen to my music.’ He was listening to some classical music and he seemed to enjoy that very much. But the water was coming up onto his seat in the car, so I pulled him out and brought him back to the shoreline. I could hear the next cruiser pulling up — that was Jimmy Damouras — and saw him coming down to help. I was glad to see him because by then I was pretty well toasted with all that cold water and the physical part of pulling the guy to shore.”

Damouras and Rhoades again broke through the shoreline shelf of ice and carried Moner up the embankment. “Those rose bushes seemed to grab us even more on the way up — that’s when we started to feel them — I didn’t feel them going down, I think because of the adrenalin. Amherst Fire Department had shown up by that time and we were able to put him right on the stretcher,” Rhoades explained.

Fast-forward to late March 2011 — roughly three months following the date of the incident — to a scene at a local restaurant called Kelly’s. Rhoades had stopped in for a sandwich and was hailed by the waitress soon after he walked through the door of the College Street eatery. “She must have pointed me out to him, because he came over to me and thanked me. I asked him, ‘Do you remember any of that?’ and he said, ‘No.’ I told him about how he’d wanted to stay in the car and listen to his classical music. He laughed and said, ‘Good classical music will do that to you’.”

Caring for Fellow Cops
Rhoades, who grew up near Buffalo (NY) and began his police career as an officer in New Iberia (La.) in 1990, has recently been awarded a Letter of Appreciation by Chief Livingstone of Amherst PD for the work he’s done to help cops in Amherst and surrounding police and fire agencies. Through an innovative program that addresses mind, body, and spirit, Officer Rhoades is helping to keep public safety professionals from succumbing to the fires of career burnout.

“A very positive thing that’s happened at our police department in the last three years is that we’ve started a critical incident stress management and peer support group. I know there are a lot of programs out there, but I think we’ve done some neat things with our department — with our policies and procedures. We’re tired of seeing friends of ours — friends in this dysfunctional family we’re all in — waking out of here after 20 or 25 years as a skeleton. We’re trying to change those things — with psychological, and physical, and peer support — to try to reduce that stress.”

The program, which Rhoades created and continues to lead, is robust and still growing. “Chief Livingstone has gotten on board fully with this,” Rhoades explained. “In the past four months we’ve even started an on-duty work-out program. So for an hour each day you can go lift or do cardio or whatever, to help relieve that stress.”

“I’ve been doing police work for about 22 years now. I’m very proud to be a police officer, and very proud to be associated with police officers. Cops do a great job, but there are a lot of burdens to bear along with that. It’s long overdue that we create the support to help officers deal with that, so we’re trying to help to make a change. I’ve been grinding on patrol for 21, 22 years now, and my career in the past three or four years, I’m just so happy to be doing this work because it’s helping other cops.”

In fact, Rhoades’ work in this regard is reaching far more cops than those in his immediate area or taking advantage of the program itself. In an announcement about the Letter of Appreciation, Chief Livingstone and the PD said that “this peer to peer program has been successful as members of the department are willing to reach out to fellow officers for assistance. The Peer Support Program developed by Patrolman Rhoades has been used as a model for other law enforcement agencies in Massachusetts. His commitment and conscientious efforts to the development of the Peer Support Program have brought credit not only to Patrolman Rhoades, but to the entire Amherst Police Department.”

A Man’s Proudest Moments
Dave Rhoades has had many opportunities to take pride in his accomplishments as an officer — the water save in December and his tireless work over the past few years to care for his fellow law enforcers’ mental and emotional well being. But those pale by comparison to the pride and joy plainly evident in his voice when he speaks of his wife Emily, son Zack, and daughter Brittany.

“The proudest moments of my life are about my family,” Rhoades told me. “Zack is at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He’s currently involved in the security forces. I tried my best to talk him out of being a cop, but he wants to be a cop. My daughter Brittany just got engaged and will be graduating in June as a registered nurse,” Rhoades beamed.

Even from my seat 3,000+ miles away, I could hear the smile crossing Rhoades’ face as he concluded, “I’m just so proud of my kids, and I’m actually still married to the same woman!” he laughed.

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