September 15, 2021

 Black smoke spewing from the windows of a mobile home. A report of one still inside. And a dicey path to make entry into a zero-visibility situation. These were the conditions that Lt. Mike Belcher,  JFRD's Firefighter of the Year faced.

Lieutenant Mike Belcher, JFRD's 2021 Firefighter of the Year
The Window of Opportunity
The midnight call on Feb. 7, 2020 would eventually pull several companies from their sleeping quarters. Engine 41 was first on scene to the structure fire at a mobile home in Mayport, and Engine 29’s crew was on the way.
E-29’s Lt. Mike Belcher was focused on E-41’s radio traffic and sizing up the scene with each transmission. Belcher understood that 41’s crew would be attempting to simultaneously suppress the fire and save a young child inside, but with no immediate help nearby. That’s why Belcher told Eng. Sean Seng and Firefighter Jon Woodbury to bypass the hydrant because Belcher was committing to the inside search.
Seconds after arriving, Belcher met Selina Lugo and learned her 2-year-old was the only family member unaccounted for. Lugo directed Belcher to the window of her daughter’s bedroom. It was a small window.
Fortunately, Rescue 41 had broken out most of the window. But to gain entry, Belcher would have to climb on the roof of a small aluminum shed adjacent to the trailer. Lugo had placed a small ladder next to the shed, but Belcher worried about the strength of the tiny shed’s roof.
“I’m probably 300 pounds bunked out,” he said.
Belcher broke more of the window frame, and then got an assist from Woodbury who jumped onto the top of the shed and kicked in more of the window, allowing easier access for Belcher but also adding to his concern about the extra weight on the shed.
“That was a very intimidating moment for me,” Belcher said. “Most of the time we go in the front door. But being on top of the shed with black smoke pumping out of that window, I wasn’t sure what kind of conditions I’d have going in.”  
Belcher considered the risk, he thought about his family, and then he staged Woodbury next to the window in case the situation deteriorated.
Now it was go time.
Once inside, Belcher made the right decision by searching to his left. He felt a bundle of blankets, quickly cradled his discovery and passed the child to Woodbury just outside the window. Belcher caught a glimpse of the little girl’s face, and realized his job was done.
Lugo was overwhelmed and said she had been “laser-focused on the window” for what seemed like an eternity.
“It was an amazing site when they brought her out,” she recalled.
Belcher’s curiosity about little Eliana Lugo was just beginning. Three shifts later, Belcher and his crew were cleared to go to Baptist Hospital downtown. That is where he and his crew learned how serious the child’s injuries were, and how grateful her family was to JFRD.
“It was definitely an emotional moment, “Belcher said.
“I know a lot of times, that despite our best efforts, that sometime these calls go the other way, and I’m just so thankful that I was able to come through for that family that night,” Belcher added.
Fast forward to Spring 2021. Belcher and his crew return from a call and find Selina and Eliana in the day room. The visit transitions outdoors for photos next to the engine, and it’s quite clear that Eliana has fully recovered. She is excited and exploring the bumper and tires of Engine 29, interacting with the crew, and then she sits down long enough for a few photos with JFRD’s Firefighter of the Year.
Belcher said he appreciates the public recognition and the responsibility of representing the department at numerous special events, but the best part of it all is Eliana walking and talking.
“Seeing her happy and smiling, that’s all the recognition I need,” Belcher said.