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From left: VCU Police officers Joel Abernathy, Mark Bailey, Josiah Evans, and Ian McAllister in front of VCUPD headquarters. [View Image] From left: VCU Police officers Joel Abernathy, Mark Bailey, Josiah Evans, and Ian McAllister in front of VCUPD headquarters. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

‘Save people in the safest ways that you can’: VCU Police officers recognized for evacuating residents from burning building

The four officers — Joel Abernathy, Josiah Evans, Mark Bailey and Ian McAllister — repeatedly entered the building to evacuate residents during the Jan. 23 Dominion Place fire.

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It was below freezing in Richmond on the night of Jan. 23. But as temperatures continued to drop, an apartment fire began raging in the 11-story Dominion Place building next to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Monroe Park Campus.

The Richmond Fire Department advised that the fire was spreading rapidly as four VCU Police officers heard the radio call for service and responded to the scene.

Without hesitation, lieutenant Joel Abernathy and officer Josiah Evans ran inside to help evacuate older residents, some of whom had disabilities. Officer Mark Bailey and lieutenant Ian McAllister arrived within minutes to assist, as residents started to suffer from smoke inhalation.

The four officers repeatedly entered the building to evacuate residents from various floors and McAllister opened one of VCU’s academic buildings, 500 Academic Centre, to provide people a warm and safe place to wait. McAllister also worked with the Richmond Ambulance Authority and Richmond Fire Department to set up “a triage area for the residents, as well as a section for Richmond firefighters to recover,” he said.

Within the hour, Richmond Fire had the blaze under control and the building was almost entirely evacuated. There were no fatalities. 

For their response that night, the officers were awarded bronze VALOR awards by the Retail Merchants Association of Richmond on Dec. 2. The annual awards recognize first responders in the Greater Richmond area for “their acts of courageous valor, going above and beyond the call of duty.”

This is the second time McAllister has been honored with a VALOR Award since 2016.

The officers were not injured, though they suffered from mild smoke inhalation from repeatedly entering the building.

“I learned that you save people in the safest ways that you can so you're still available to help,” Evans said. “And you rely on your team to help out.”

A confluence of factors — including the cold weather, heavy smoke and the need to evacuate people quickly during a chaotic event — made the situation challenging.

“I've assisted with structure fires before, but not quite like this,” Abernathy said. “ Knowing when to stop pressing forward is important, especially without breather units so you don’t become another casualty. It's sort of like responding to calls: You can't do any good if you don't get there.”

Bailey said the biggest takeaway from the rescue was continuing to be patient in a crisis.

“I encounter many people from different walks of life, different ages, et cetera, while in public safety,” Bailey said. “Having patience helps me understand their needs in the moment, and that’s where making a difference comes into play.”

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