After losing home in fire, Fulton woman pushes for national first responder holiday

Mar 19, 2014

Only days after a fire tore through her home last year, a Fulton woman wanted to make sure the men and women who saved her life were honored for their actions. Now her efforts have grown into a campaign to honor first responders with a national federal holiday.

It was the evening of June 1 when Beverly Belton's house caught fire. She was completely unaware anything was going on, even as the flames burned in the attic above her.

"I was getting ready to get into the bathtub to take a bath, filling my bathtub and getting ready, and all of a sudden I heard commotion and I didn't really know what it was," Belton explained.

The commotion turned out to be coming from firefighters, police officers and EMTs who rescued Belton, who is visually impaired and has diabetes. For six hours she sat stunned in a lawn chair across the street from her home while those first responders worked to try to salvage what they could.

"I watched my house burn down," Belton said. "I never moved a muscle, never got up for anything. And you just sit there in shock and watch what's going on. I was watching them do all that just mesmerized. I was not as concerned about the fire as I was what was going on around me, because they do such wonderful things. You just can't believe how hard these people work to save your home or save whatever's in there if they can."

Since July, Belton has been working closely with Rep. Dan Maffei (D-Syracuse) on a bill in the House of Representatives to designate a National First Responders Day that would become the eleventh legal federal holiday. If passed, the holiday would be established by President Barack Obama within 90 days, joining other federal holidays like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Veterans Day.

Belton says she doesn't care what day it is, as long as everyone gives credit to the first responders in their cities, towns and villages.

"They take that chance," Belton said. "And I know it's their job, but all of it isn't their job. They've got a heart in there, too. And we can't as Americans just stand by and watch it happen and say 'Good job, guys' and go home and go to bed. I couldn't do that."

Maffei introduced the bill with Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass), whose district includes Boston, where first responders were credited for the way they handled the Boston Marathon bombing. Capuano also wanted to honor Sean Collier, an officer killed by the bombers. The bill currently has 24 bipartisan co-sponsors.

Maffei said in a statement that, "This bill is one meaningful way that we can show our gratitude for their service. It is also a testament to the difference that everyday citizens across central New York can make, and I'm thankful that Ms. Belton brought this great idea to my attention."

Belton says she's grateful to everyone who supports the cause, including those who stop her in public to thank her for what she's done. Of course, there are always detractors.

"People have said to me, 'Oh yeah, they get paid for it. What are you bothering to do this for? It's their choice,'" Belton explained. "I said if you ever sat there and watched what I watched, they don't. They don't think about their wallet when they're fighting a fire. They think about that person sitting out there that's losing everything, what can we do to help her? I said it's their heart that's going in there, not their wallet."

Belton says Maffei told her he wished he had thought of the idea first, but says she's just glad first responders might get the recognition they deserve.

"It's not about me. It's not about anybody but first responders and volunteers," said Belton.

Since the fire, Belton says she's spoken with Menter Ambulance, the Fulton Fire Department and the Fulton Police Department, and all are thrilled that she's been working toward this goal. She says it's also changed the way she views those who risk their lives to protect others.

"I am so happy to know that those first responders are out there, like they always were," Belton said. "But the nice thing is I know they're there. Even if we don't need them, they're there. I'm just as grateful today as I was before the fire, but more so it comes from a different direction now."

The legislation does not yet have a sponsor in the Senate, though a representative of Maffei's office says they are actively looking for someone to propose the bill.