Giving back to city she loves, auxiliary officer takes on more


By John Bayles

For some, volunteering is strictly a choice. But for Stephanie Phelan the decision to first become an auxiliary police officer and now a member of her local Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, was born somewhat out of necessity.

Like any longtime former resident of the East Village she remembers a time when the streets were not as safe. In the late 1960s, before a brief stint on Martha’s Vineyard, Phelan was a victim of multiple muggings, and when she returned to an apartment on Christopher St. in the ’70s she decided to take her safety into her own hands.

Not six months after being back, she was sitting in a cab stuck in traffic when she watched a man with a gun break a jewelry store window, grab some jewelry and start running toward the cab.

“I thought to myself, I’d do anything to stay here and be comfortable,” Phelan said.

The burglar did not get into Phelan’s cab. However, the cab driver happened to have a brochure in the back seat that read, “Want to Fight Crime? Become an Auxiliary Police Officer.”

So Phelan did, and since 1981 she’s had a locker at Greenwich Village’s Sixth Precinct on W. 10th St., where she keeps her nightstick and uniform. But recently Phelan has decided to volunteer in another capacity as well; as a CERT member who, in the event of a catastrophe, can “handle initial emergency recovery” until the professional emergency responders arrive.

CERT was also less a choice for Phelan than it was a calling. After 9/11 she was compelled to help.

“It was such a life-altering event,” she recalled, “something one never gets over. I wanted to do more in the local community.”

It wasn’t easy though for Phelan to give back in her newest volunteer role. When she reached out to CERT she was told that auxiliary police officers could not also be CERT responders, particularly due to possible overlap of services.

“I was told that if there was a disaster, then the auxiliary wanted us in uniform,” she said.

But Phelan reached out to the powers that be and was eventually allowed to participate in the CERT training program, which lasts 11 weeks and covers everything from disaster preparedness to basic response skills. Phelan said different scenarios call for different responses, and they were developing guidelines for what sort of events would determine which role she would fill.

Phelan admits that her chosen volunteer efforts may not be a good fit for everyone; she said one must have the time and the physical capabilities for both. Regardless, she said, there are certain things anyone can do to help out their neighbors in a time of need. If someone is unable to actually help an elderly person out of his or her apartment during a fire emergency, one can certainly be alert and tell the first responders there is an elderly person in the building in need of assistance, she said.

Phelan once read a sci-fi novel, the typical post-apocalyptic scenario, in which a group of survivors made their way to Manhattan and everyone was living underground.

“There were these people who were armed, acting as vigilante police, protecting everyone,” said Phelan. “I thought, I’m going to be one of those people.”

Apocalypse or not, however, Phelan is volunteering for another reason.

“I don’t want to die knowing that I didn’t give something back,” said Phelan. “And, I love New York.”