Soon after he received a flyer in the mail from his local volunteer fire department asking for financial contributions and manpower, he took action. He volunteered to drive ambulances for the Pleasant Gap Fire Co. on nights and weekends.
Since then, he has taken additional training for firefighting essentials, HAZMAT, vehicle rescue, rope rescue and, most recently, fire police — making him a cross-trained responder in his community.
“I wear my pager 24/7,” he said. “When it goes off, and when I’m available, I go.”
Of course, Giacobe has a life outside of the fire department, including time with his wife and three children and his day job teaching cybersecurity in the College of IST.
“Sometimes I’m committed to other events or am in the middle of teaching class,” he said. “But when the pager goes off, the assumption is that if you are able, that you will come and help. Because imagine if you didn’t…”
With dwindling numbers in volunteer services, Giacobe reiterates just how crucial it is for everyday community members to consider giving their time to help others — especially considering that the staffing for an initial response to a single family house fire is 24 firefighters.
“There are times when you are short-staffed, but you do what you need to do to get the job done,” he said.
While Giacobe has answered his share of emergency calls (and yes, he has run into a burning building), he said that many of those calls are not complicated emergencies. But to the individuals involved, they are a big deal.
“When a person is having their worst day, you could make all the difference in the world for them,” he said. “It’s taken a little bit of rethinking about what that means.”
The big incidents stick with him the most. One occurred in 2006, when he was walking across the University Park campus and saw the University Ambulance Service arriving on scene at an incident. It turned out to be a student who was in cardiac arrest. Giacobe joined in to assist the EMS crew.
“I threw my things down in the grass and ‘went to work,'” he said. “That’s just what you do.”
Giacobe said that he is grateful for the chance to help save this student. “He survived, and eventually got a heart transplant,” said Giacobe, who still keeps in touch with the man.
“While you’re in the moment, it’s really easy to emotionally separate yourself,” he said. “But when you reflect on it later, sometimes you can’t help but get emotional about the role you played in helping someone in their worst moment.”
In 2017, Giacobe responded to another critical situation while volunteering with the Penn State Office of Emergency Management at a football game. This time, he and others at the emergency operations center heard the dispatch over the radio system and realized they were much closer to the scene than incoming first responders. Giacobe and Penn State emergency manager Brian Bittner were critical parts of the chain of survival, applying the automated external defibrillator (AED) to an individual suffering cardiac arrest. That man survived, thanks in part to the quick response of Giacobe and others who arrived on the scene.
He explained that not all rescues have happy endings, but he tries to put his training to work in those situations, too.
“When it’s the worst-case scenario, it’s not just about the victim, but about all the people around them,” he said. “Sometimes I take a secondary role and have a calming discussion with family members to help them understand all the things that are happening. There are times when you just have to do the job.”
Giacobe brings the first-hand experience he’s gained from his volunteer work into his classroom by talking to his security and risk analysis students about personal security related issues.
“I’ll ask them, ‘What if there was a fire or sprinkler activation in your dorm room? How long does it take for the fire department to get there and turn the sprinkler off? How do you mitigate that risk to you and your personal stuff?” he said. “We talk about risk management and risk transference. You can get renters’ insurance for a dorm room or apartment, which won’t prevent a disaster from happening, but it could mitigate the financial impact.”
While Giacobe’s service is deeply satisfying to him in a personal way, he also enjoys the camaraderie of the department and the firefighters’ commitment to helping their neighbors and keeping them safe.
“I trust [my fellow firefighters] with my life, and they do the same in return,” he said. “We’re all trying to do the job to impact things in a positive way.”
“I feel like I’m giving the community what they need, even on a person’s worst possible day,” he added. “I feel good about that and about being a part of that process.”
In the last several years, Giacobe has noticed that there has been a sharp decline in the volunteer base of local emergency services companies.
“Maybe it’s because the training requirements are more stringent, or the time commitment is too high for some people. Maybe it’s just that most people don’t realize that with a little time and a little training, they could volunteer with their local emergency services agency,” he said. “I try to encourage those who are interested to volunteer.”
Providing a temporary home for children in need
Erin Duckworth has a strong maternal instinct. But life’s circumstances haven’t yet positioned her to have a child of her own.
However, she still has the desire — and the opportunity — to be a mom.
Duckworth, administrative support assistant in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, serves as a foster parent with the Bair Foundation, a Christian organization that facilitates children’s foster placements and adoptions. She provides a temporary home to children that are in the process of reunifying with their biological families or are going through the adoption process.