In missing persons cases and weather events, EMA volunteers are there to help

Volunteers respond to storms, missing people searches, among other things

The McHenry County Emergency Management Agency on Monday searched Lippold Park, on Route 176 in Crystal Lake, for missing 5-year-old Andrew "AJ" Freund. The search will continue Tuesday, Crystal Lake police said.

McHenry County Emergency Management Agency volunteers, some of whom donate hundreds of hours each year to help out their neighbors, are invaluable to the agency and the residents they serve. They help find missing people and provide weather updates during severe weather events to agencies, among other duties.

Jim Rospopo has been an EMA volunteer since 1997. He said McHenry County has been fortunate to not have had many severe weather incidents. “We’ve been fairly lucky,” Rospopo said. On the flipside, he added, McHenry County’s luck might not be a good thing since people could get complacent.

Rospopo has still responded to severe weather events over the years. He was on the ground during a January 2008 tornado that touched down near Harvard and derailed a freight train, injuring five people.

The first sign of trouble? An unseasonably warm winter day. “I remember thinking, ‘This ain’t good’,” Rospopo said.

Volunteers listen at the McHenry County Emergency Management Agency March 13, 2024.

A National Weather Service report on the tornado indicated the temperatures in Chicago reached 67 degrees, among the highest temperature recorded in the month of January.

Rospopo’s instincts proved correct, as later that day a tornado reached EF2 on the enhanced Fujita scale, the metric the National Weather Service uses to measure tornadoes.

“The train was tipped over,” Rospopo said.

He said there was some hazardous material in some of the cars that were derailed and the fire department took the lead on the scene.

He’s also responded to other weather events in McHenry County such as a 2011 derecho.

“That did some fairly good damage in the county,” Rospopo said.

“We couldn’t do what we do without them.”

—  McHenry County Emergency Management Agency Director David Christensen said of volunteers

But storms are just a fraction of what these volunteers do. They also help find missing people and make sure equipment needed for an emergency response is in working order, among other things.

Some of that falls under emergency communications. Emergency management agency Director David Christensen said the volunteers prepare for backups in case technology fails. There was a 911 outage in four states in mid-April and Christensen said the volunteers are prepared if it goes down in McHenry County. One way they do that is making sure they can communicate through amateur radios. Christensen said people “can talk from here to Springfield” on the radios.

Sue Zwierzycki has been a longtime volunteer at the EMA. She’s been out to scenes to find missing people many times. She said she became a volunteer 30 years ago, and in that time has helped out on weapons and missing people searches in McHenry County and beyond.

Zwierzycki said she helped in the search for AJ Freund, the Crystal Lake boy reported missing in 2019 who was ultimately found in a shallow grave outside Woodstock, leading to convictions against his parents.

Christensen said the Freund search was the first time the agency’s volunteers had interacted with the FBI. He said that many of the searchers for AJ missed work to look for him.

Last year, Zwierzycki helped search for a McHenry man who fell into the Fox River. She said about 50 searchers, including emergency management, fire departments and others were on the scene.

Another time she assisted in locating an elderly man who went missing on the south side of Woodstock.

The volunteers don’t just help their neighbors here in McHenry County. They sometimes assist with rescues in other counties and jurisdictions.

Zwierzycki also was in an “interesting search” in the small town of Serena, located in La Salle County about an hour and a half south of McHenry County, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was called to help collect evidence for a burglary and was assigned to help search fields and woods. Among the trickiest parts of the search was the terrain, which Zwierzycki said was “much steeper than we’re used to.”

She also collaborated with emergency responders from all over Northern Illinois and into Central Illinois, many of whom she doesn’t get to see often. “We got to work with a lot of teams we don’t normally work with,” Zwierzycki said.

Zwierzycki and Rospopo were among 16 EMA volunteers in February who were honored by the County Board. Many gave 100 to 249 hours of service last year and a handful gave 250 to 499 hours. Collectively, the honorees gave 4,500 hours of their time last year, which county officials said works out to 12 hours per day.

“Commitment and dedication, along with the desire to serve, are part of what makes a volunteer great,” a resolution honoring the volunteers read. “These individuals have demonstrated the innate ability to assist their government and its residents in times of disaster and emergency. We are indebted to each for their service.”

Christensen also said the volunteers were invaluable to the emergency management agency.

“We couldn’t do what we do without them,” Christensen said.