ARLINGTON – When Oso chaplain Joel Johnson is called to a critical emergency situation or crime scene, odds are someone just lost their home, their life or that of a loved one, and any signs of hope.
Johnson is director of Support 46, a program providing respite to on-scene emergency responders from Arlington Fire and Police departments. It’s his job – and calling – to bring compassion and a shoulder to lean on for victims and families who are most-likely experiencing one of the worst days of their lives.
Support 46 chaplains and support crews are dispatched by 9-1-1 when there is a natural disaster, structural or brush fire, serious accident, need for a death notification, search and rescue, or other trauma.
Nowhere has Johnson’s training, professionalism and regard for lives proved more readily apparent than when he was called to assist during the deadly Oso landslide in March 2014. He didn’t realize the magnitude of the disaster until he arrived, but through his actions, he established a bond with neighbors in the Stillaguamish Valley that endures to this day.
As Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper tells it, “Joel came into our lives in Oso on the day of the mudslide. He was given the option to leave the valley when we were evacuating everyone, and he asked to stay with us, sleeping in an SUV, helping to comfort people on the worst day of their life.”
He was a brother to us from that day forward. While on scene, even in a chaplain role, Joel was in the mud, digging side by side with the victims’ families,” Harper said.
What Harper and other first responders didn’t know then was that Johnson and his wife, Brianna, had returned from Children’s Hospital in Seattle only two nights before.They were caring for their first child, Jaelyn, who was born on March 14 with a heart defect.
Johnson stayed at the disaster scene, while his wife took care of the baby. Harper said, “Once the flurry of activities settled down after the last victim was found, funds were provided to begin the task of mucking through a mountain of paperwork. Joel then volunteered to stay at Oso and assist in that monumental task and also helping us maintain some emotional stability.”
Johnson provided a comforting presence and guidance to emergency responders and to the families who lost 43 loved ones. He joined families during the recoveries from the mud, and he led services for the deceased.
In the aftermath, Johnson and other chaplains were paired with families for follow-up care.
In addition to Support 46, he has served as lead chaplain for Support 37, both serving Arlington, Oso and neighboring fire districts. Joel joined Northwest Incident Support in January 2013. He is a their support team leader. He is also an EMT and firefighter with the Oso and Darrington fire departments.
Johnson’s newest role is as executive director of Hope Unlimited, the parent organization of Support 46. Johnson is stepping into the shoes of founder Ralph Fry of Stanwood. Fry and his wife, LeAnn, founded Hope Unlimited in 1988 to help people in need of comfort and encouragment, and it evolved into a chaplains program.
Arlington interim Fire Chief Dave Kraski praised Johnson for the time he volunteers as lead chaplain, and working with public safety personnel to support them at crisis scenes. He nominated Johnson for a mayor’s volunteer of the month award, which he received last week at a City Council meeting.
For Johnson, he said the award was much appreciated, although unnecessary.
“Volunteering and doing what we do we don’t necessarily do for recognition,” he said. “It is a privilege for us to do this, to be with people on one of the worst days of their lives to bring some comfort and care both to them and their situation.”