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The ones in the middle: our experience as citizen journalists

As a fire blazed in a home just doors down, Rapidian citizen journalists captured firefighter's efforts. This is citizen journalism. And I am proud.
Underwriting support from:
"Citizen journalist and mom, Sara Sander"

"Citizen journalist and mom, Sara Sander" /Peter Sander

"Thank you, GR Fire Department"

"Thank you, GR Fire Department" /Sara Sander

/Kyle Esterley

Yesterday afternoon, my neighbors and I were all working to capture a moment that overtook our neighborhood. I was running around trying to get video, find the fire chief and get information from a variety of neighbors. Kerri and Kyle Esterley and Sara and Peter Sander, both whose families live three doors down from the fire, were capturing photos and videos and keeping an eye out for the information.

"I walked to the backyard to get a better view, and I saw fire fighters climbing a ladder to the second floor, and smoke was billowing out in larger quantities than were coming from the front. The smoke was thick, and it was hard to breath. My wife and I could only observe from the backyard for a few minutes because the smoke was so thick. Just before leaving to go inside for some fresher air, I could see the first licks of fire flashing out of the attic windows," says Peter Sander. "My wife, our two sons (one a toddler the other an infant) and I went back out as spectators and citizen photographers. It was hard to hold our sons as we attempted to capture shots of the scene, but we did get some good shots. It was rather entertaining to see how many people were standing with their smart phones up to capture footage or pictures. I almost regret not getting a picture of all of the people with their phones held up."

It was the first time I was a part of this "community news" breaking. I'm always the one behind the computer helping other citizens get their stories out. This time, it was me and my neighbors, getting coverage of what was happening on our own street.

This coverage was significantly different in several ways. For one, while getting the story and the images, we were also making sure our neighbors were okay. I asked the neighbor between our house and the one on fire if they had insurance on their home-and was relieved when I found out they did. I reminisced with the local police officer and other neighbors about the trials and tribulations we've had with that house before it was shut down for various crimes. We were shocked at the fire; we were worried for the neighbors who live on either side and we were taking care of each other.

"I noticed that the family who lives next to Holly [Bechiri] was very scared but people were around them telling them it would be fine and that they had a place to stay if something did happen," says Kerri Esterley. "At the end of the event, I saw a little boy give the firefighters a high five and the firefighters were showing the kids the truck and what it does."

This is how citizen journalism can add to the stories we are sharing: the invested concern for our neighbors. 

Because it was affecting our neighbors and could have affected our own homes, we were also keenly attuned to how the firefighters were working to battle the flame and protect homes around it. We were impressed, in awe and grateful. We had a new appreciation for what these public service workers do to keep us safe.

"I just noticed the fighters tearing down what they could to get into the house. There were fighters all around the house. They got the ladders out right away," says Kerri Esterley. "I was impressed at how fast they arrived, how many had arrived and it seemed like they were all working as a team. They were all trying really hard to figure out what to do since it was so hard getting into the house [because it was boarded up]. I thought they did a great job."

Every one of us, at some point throughout the afternoon or evening, noted the skill needed to divert such a strong blaze away from the buildings around it, the bravery needed to go inside or to climb onto a roof where a fire blazes right below with chainsaw in hand.

"Watching the Grand Rapids Fire Department hard at work battling a blaze three houses down," shared Sara Sander on her Facebook wall while the firemen worked in front of her. "Talk about heros. And reminds me of why I will vote Yes on Michigan Prop 2 to protect public employees and their bargaining rights."

None of us in the neighborhood were injured from such a serious blaze-and the fire department was making sure it stayed that way. Firefighters stopped at the home in the evening and again early in the morning to make sure the fire was still out-with an additional stop at 3:30 when smoke started billowing out of the house again. 

And because we were next door and heard the sirens and saw the lights, one of our citizen reporters once again captured the moment for his community.

The fact that we want to capture moments is universal. The fact that so many in Grand Rapids want to capture them with the purpose of informing and educating their surrounding community is admirable. Citizen journalists in Grand Rapids are concerned with sharing what they know and what they experience with their community. They care about the community and being a citizen journalist- and the way they tell our stories- is evidence of that. They have an important role to play. I get to help them make that possible.

And sometimes I even find myself in the middle of the news, sharing it with the community. Because I'm the one there, in the middle.

We're the ones there, in the middle. This is why we're citizen journalists. Not because we have some degree or high training on how to do it-but because we are there. All I had to do to show up was step outside my own front door. It was that simple.

This morning, stepping outside my home, I saw the remains of the house. Much of its roof is now gone and debris and fire-fighting "snow" are strewn around on the ground. 

I thought again of how thankful I am: for my family's safety, for my neighbors' safety, for the fire department's important training and brave service... and for citizen journalists willing to share their own news with the broader community.


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