‘Diminished’ after a home fire, a Kenosha County nurse helps others as she rebuilds

Story by Cooper Adams, American Red Cross

Stephanie Mortenson laid down on her hotel bed, sobbing after finally having the chance to process the previous stressful hours. Losing her house, her car and most of her belongings in a devastating home fire, Mortenson now had to figure out how to start over.

“My life was diminished to a razor and a toothbrush,” Mortenson said.

Mortenson had been having a pretty normal night with her husband, watching their two grandchildren, both toddlers. Around 9 p.m., an explosion came from the garage. Their pickup truck caught on fire. Because there were no smoke alarms in the garage, the fire built before the alarms in the rest of the house detected anything. Fortunately, Mortenson heard the explosion, promptly called 9-1-1 and the family escaped the house.

Mortenson admitted that her family should have had a better escape plan in case of a home fire: “We should have discussed it earlier. We didn’t know where we were going to go, just that we had to get outside.”

Everyone made it out of the house unharmed. Mortenson had brought her grandchildren to her neighbor’s house to keep them safe. Shortly after, the fire department and American Red Cross arrived to check on everyone.

Chin Ng Kenosha installs fall 2019

Chin Ng, volunteer with the American Red Cross, installs a smoke alarm during a home fire safety event in Kenosha. Photo by Cooper Adams.

As someone who describes herself as stubborn, Mortenson was initially hesitant having the Red Cross help her that night. “I thought we didn’t need help,” Mortenson explained. “We’re givers, not takers”. After some friendly persuading, Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) volunteer Ben Neal convinced Mortenson to take the first step of accepting a hug.

With Red Cross assistance, Mortenson and her husband are now living in an apartment, with plans to rebuild a new home in the same location as their previous one.

Mortenson’s journey with the Red Cross actually didn’t start with the home fire. Since she was 18, she’s been an advocate for donating blood. She’s donated every chance she’s had since.

Then, about a year and a half ago, she witnessed a horrible car accident involving a truck, leading to severe injuries and even deaths. As a nurse, she sprang into action and helped the passenger struggling for air in the wrecked car, saving her life. For her heroic actions, the Red Cross awarded her with the Brave Hearts award.


Do you know a community hero in southeastern Wisconsin? Click here to nominate them as a Brave Hearts hero.


After her own home fire, Mortenson found a way to be active with the Red Cross that would help others struck by home fires. For National Fire Prevention Week, the Red Cross teamed up with Journey Church and the Kenosha Fire Department to install free smoke alarms throughout Kenosha. Since Mortenson regularly attends Journey Church and remains involved with the Red Cross, she signed up to volunteer.

Mortenson felt moved to help make people safer by recalling the tragic night she had just months before. Mortenson arrived at Journey Church, prepared to go out and make a difference. She stopped when she recognized a familiar face: it was Ben Neal, one of the Red Cross volunteers who helped her the night of her own home fire.

She came up to him and they were able to catch up. Neal asked Mortenson about her grandkids and she replied that they were doing well. She also apologized for being stubborn about receiving help. When asked how she was, Mortenson grew contemplative.

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Stephanie Mortenson, left, receives a Brave Hearts community hero award in May from presenter Beth Straka, We Energies. Photo by Front Room Studios.

“We live in a proud fashion,” Mortenson reflected. “People are just going through life, and we need to stop.”

The two continued their conversation until the time came to begin the installations. Mortenson reiterated how grateful she was for Neal and the Red Cross’ assistance that night and the following weeks.

When asked about his experience working with Mortenson, Neal responded that “It was great! I could tell she had a desire to give back and share her story. I began to volunteer so I could give back and help others who are at their lowest.”

After this experience, Mortenson feels as if she’s become a better person. She learned that admitting you need help is not a sign of weakness. She learned how to remove a mask she felt that she was wearing. She learned to be okay with three pairs of jeans instead of a whole closet. Grateful for the help she received, she thanked the Red Cross for providing her with the resources she needed to recover and give again.

You can help families during their moments of need. Join our Disaster Action Team volunteers. Take that first step by clicking here.

‘Inspired’ days of home fire safety in Racine and Langlade County

By Kelsey ShaSha McCarthy & Justin Kern, American Red Cross

In a seven-day stretch, nearly 100 families in totally different parts of the state were made safer when it comes to a shared threat – home fires.

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Jill Neider, top right, of Racine, talks through a home fire escape plan with her mother, Gloria Tischer, and Red Cross volunteer Hillary Wanecke.

American Red Cross volunteers and staff teamed up with fire department and community leaders in Racine and Langlade County to install dozens of free smoke alarms and work with families on their home fire escape plans. Just recently, this same program eclipsed 620 lives saved nationwide since 2014.

Here are two stories of the families and volunteers involved in those recent, important home fire safety and preparedness events in Wisconsin.

‘Whatever she needs for emergencies’
Becky Murphy saw a blurb in the Antigo newspaper about free smoke alarms being installed in Langlade County when she realized there weren’t any working alarms in the home she shares with her grandmother, Goldie Muelver, in Deerbrook. Becky signed up online and their home became part of a day of installations in Antigo and Langlade County on Aug. 23 run by the Red Cross and the Antigo Fire Department.

“I want to have whatever she needs for emergencies,” Becky said of her grandmother.

First-time volunteer Emily Koszarek and disaster staff member Dan Dozer scouted the interior of the Deerbrook home for the best spots for a handful of alarms. Once alarms were in place and tested, they talked through escape plans with Becky and Goldie. They also shared info on other types of disasters, like tornados, which had just dropped down in nearby areas during a summer storm.

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Deerbrook homeowner Goldie Muelver thanks and flatters new Red Cross volunteer Emily Koszarek.

Goldie, for what it’s worth, had some fun with the conversation, flattering Emily and adding that she’d “scream bloody murder” as part of her alert system should the smoke alarms go off.

Langlade County has been particularly hard hit by tragic home fires and seasonal storms this year. Emily said it was important for her to be able to do something for people who live in the same county as her, adding that it was a bonus to share information on a range of local and relevant disasters.

“I’m inspired by what we were able to do,” she said. “You never assume what someone knows or doesn’t know.”

Special layer of safety in Racine
The morning of Aug. 17 started out with boxes upon boxes of new battery powered smoke alarms arriving at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Racine. When all the supplies and materials were collected, groups of Red Cross volunteers and Racine Fire Department firefighters took their list of appointments and drove off to make the first of many house calls.

In the neighborhoods, volunteers left information with residents interested in learning more about home fire safety. At their appointments or when welcomed in by residents in need, volunteers helped residents start the dialogue on preventative measures with home fire emergencies. They also offered support by helping families create fire safety escape plans and installing smoke alarms in key, accessible areas of residents’ homes.

A three-member team comprised of Tommy Poe, Hillary Wanecke and Skip Gaffney headed to appointments along Deane Boulevard. One of those important house calls belonged to Jill Neider, a former 9-1-1 dispatcher, who lives with her mother, Gloria Tischer, and their seven-year old toy rat terrier, Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

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Volunteers and firefighters made dozens of families in Racine better prepared from home fires during a single-day safety event.

In a conversation with Jill and Gloria, it became apparent that Gloria’s hearing loss would necessitate an additional special piece of safety equipment. After the volunteer team installed three smoke alarms – upstairs, next to the kitchen, and in a basement bedroom – they identified that a bed shaker alarm was needed in the home. With this equipment, if a house fire was to start, smoke alarms both sound off and communicate with a device that shakes Gloria’s downstairs bed.

Testing the alarms, Gloria could faintly make out the traditional smoke alarms – “I can hear the beep-beep-beep” – though with the additional bed shaker, Jill knew their household was more fully prepared if a fire were ever to start in their home.

Blessings, ‘Star Wars’ and home fire safety: local stories from ‘Sound the Alarm’ 2019

Words by Wendy Rociles and Justin Kern / Photos by Hannah Hudson, Rociles and Kern, American Red Cross

More than 1,620 smoke alarms were installed in just shy of 800 homes across Wisconsin this spring during “Sound the Alarm. Save a Life,” an American Red Cross campaign for home fire safety.

Nationwide since 2014, the campaign has involved 1.7 million alarms and home fire escape plans brought to more than 709,000 homes. Among other results, the campaign has saved 589 lives to date, including a family of three in Janesville.

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After training and a rally, teams pulled together home fire safety tools before heading out into Wisconsin neighborhoods.

For the 2019 home fire safety push, events large and small spread across Wisconsin in late April and early May, including installations in Janesville, Barron and Brothertown, and in La Crosse, Dunn and Taylor counties. The two largest installation days occurred in Milwaukee (593 alarms in 225 homes by 223 volunteers) and the Fox Cities (823 alarms in 276 homes by 159 volunteers).


You can still bring this home fire safety campaign to your home. Enter your info at GetASmokeAlarm.org for an appointment.


Here are vignettes from this campaign to make our state safer and better prepared when it comes to home fires, the top disaster response on almost a daily occurrence for the Red Cross in Wisconsin.

‘Thank God you’re here’

Aretha Robertson breathed a sigh of relief once she heard why volunteers from the American Red Cross were at her door.

“My smoke alarm just started chirping today, thank God you’re here,” Robertson said.

Robertson was one of 225 residents in Milwaukee who received nearly 600 free smoke alarms during a one-day home fire safety blitz in Milwaukee by the Red Cross and partners as part of the “Sound the Alarm.”

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Volunteer Kristen Forseth, right, discusses a home fire escape plan with Milwaukee resident Cora Martin during the “Sound the Alarm. Save A Life” event.

Three trained volunteers – Kristen Forseth, Anthony Marzien and Joey Schulteis – installed a trio of new alarms in the home where Robertson lives with her husband. And while they did the installation, Robertson rang up three of her Washington Park neighbors to let them know about the free alarms and home fire escape opportunity.

One of those neighbors, Cora Martin, welcomed this same team of volunteers into her home, where her adorable puppy, Bentley, even received some good scratches for his enthusiasm at the newfound friends.

Martin also received three smoke alarms and said she was very happy that her husband, who has a medical condition, wouldn’t have to handle the installation himself.

These volunteers were three of more than 220 involved during the April 27 home fire safety event in Milwaukee, which primarily fanned out eastward from host site Harley Davidson on West Juneau Avenue. Volunteers toted alarms, tips for home fire and tornado preparedness, Snap-on drills and other instructions, along with a determination to make their city a safer place.

“I was really excited to be able to do this,” said Forseth, a first-time home fire safety volunteer and an employee with Harley. “I didn’t expect as much thanks as we’re getting, so it’s really awesome to be able to go in the home and hear homeowners say, ‘Thank you so much, you answered my prayers today.’”

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At one Menasha home, Ayden Overson and Garred Blanthorn replaced alarms in the kitchen while team member Mark Gallert talked tornado preparedness with the owner.

Safety on ‘May the Fourth’

After stopping by a smoke alarm appointment in Appleton on May 4, a volunteer team of Sharon Holt, Dean Haas and Joanie Micke knocked on the door of a next-door neighbor.

Laura Leyh answered and soon admitted she didn’t know the number of alarms in their two-story home, nor the last time the batteries were checked.

“I had no idea you did this. Of course, please come in,” Leyh said to the volunteer team.

Micke began discussing home fire escape plans with the five-person family, around the kitchen table for lunch, as Haas got permission to check on smoke alarms around the home. In the meantime, Holt shared a safety coloring book with the smiling, rambunctious kindergartener in the home, Lillian. (Nationally, 1.3 million youth have been reached with home fire safety lessons and materials to this point in the campaign.)

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Sharon Holt, left, shares a preparedness coloring book with Lillian Leyh during a “Sound the Alarm” visit in Appleton.

The Leyh home was decorated with an intricate, colored pencil drawings of R2-D2 and an explosive poster that featured Rey donning a lightsaber. It became clear on this installation date of May 4 that the family chose to include home fire safety as part of their “May the Fourth” celebration of the “Star Wars” movie franchise. Exiting the home, the Leyh family replied to one volunteer with a “May the Fourth Be With You” cheer.

2019 American Red Cross of Wisconsin “Sound the Alarm. Save A Life” Milwaukee and Fox Cities partner roster

  • Fox Valley Technical College
  • Menasha Corporation
  • Festival Foods
  • WHBY
  • Lands’ End
  • United Way Fox Cities
  • Appleton Fire Department

    Mark Thomas tests alarm NW STASAL 2019

    Mark Thomas, CEO, American Red Cross of Wisconsin, tests an alarm during a home fire safety stop at a home in Dunn County. 

  • Appleton City Hall
  • Menasha Health Department
  • Hmong American Partnership
  • Great Northern Corporation
  • Harley-Davidson
  • Wisconsin Tiffany Circle
  • We Energies
  • Lands’ End
  • Forest County Potawatomi Community
  • Milwaukee Fire Department
  • Nicholas Family Foundation
  • Laureate Group
  • HOPE Worldwide
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County
  • Coffee Makes You Black
  • Pete’s Fruit Market
  • Near West Side Partners, Inc.