Embracing A Second Calling

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After 35 years in the funeral service industry, Deon Strommer, the former owner of Portland, Oregon’s, First Call Mortuary Services, faced a major decision: Retire now or stick it out for another three to five years? If now, who will take over? One of his eight children, several of whom worked beside him in the business … or sell to a third party?

By Jason Widing

Strommer, 62, also had a second calling to consider. For the past 20 years, he’s worked every large-scale, mass-casualty disaster in the United States as a member of the federal Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team. He was deployed to New Orleans after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, travelled to Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria and has recently flown across the country to care for victims and survivors of COVID- 19. Strommer discusses his decision to sell First Call and the rewards of devoting more time to serving Americans under extreme circumstances.

What influenced your decision to sell First Call Mortuary Services?

Because several of my children work in the business, my exit strategy always focused on family. Then in 2018 I met a representative of Foundation Partners Group who asked if I’d thought about selling the business. At that point, I was thinking that retirement was still three to five years away, but I realized it was time to have a serious family meeting about the future of the business. The conversation was eye opening. While several of my children wanted to continue to work in the business, taking on an ownership role was not their passion. They admitted that none of them loved it enough to give it their all, but they felt obligated to carry it on. Everyone was relieved to clear the air, and we agreed to enter into serious talks with Foundation Partners.

When did you sell the business to Foundation Partners and how did the process go?

We closed the deal in the spring of 2019, and I really feel like it has given me an extra five years to enjoy life and pursue my personal passions.

In death care, we all know there are no guarantees that we’ll be here tomorrow. Foundation Partners paid me a very fair price – and I was so impressed with the way they treated me, my family and my employees. I no longer work the business day to day, but I’m still very involved in the industry and love sharing my experiences with new funeral service professionals. I serve as a Foundation Partners’ brand ambassador and the company has been extremely supportive of the time I have devoted to DMORT over the past year. Community service, compassion and a focus on people are among the principals that guide the company, and I’ve seen that firsthand.

How were you deployed in response to COVID-19?

While the primary mission of the Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team is to forensically identify the dead, my deployment and responsibilities during the pandemic were very different than my previous assignments. I was first deployed in February to California’s Travis Air Force Base to assist with the repatriation of U.S. citizens from Wuhan, China, and then to process 400 American passengers exposed to the coronavirus on a cruise ship returning from Japan. I helped screen, monitor and quarantine those individuals. In March, I moved to Dobbins Air Force Base in Georgia to offer similar assistance to passengers from other cruise ships. Part of my job was running the flight line as they arrived at the bases. I welcomed them home, and they were so grateful to be back on U.S. soil. My last coronavirus assignment was in New York City, where we assisted the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner with an unprecedented number of COVID-19 decedents.

Did you have any concerns about working so closely with COVID-19 patients?

To assist people in need is rewarding. That’s why I got into the death-care industry. I worked closely with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctors and have complete trust in their guidelines to the public. While working with returning American citizens, I was in physical contact with over 1,500 potential carriers – taking the elderly by the arm and assisting them down many flights of stairs, and even carrying 70 children. Of course, my crew and I wore personal protective equipment and followed procedures – washing and sanitizing as we went. About 400 of those passengers became sick with the coronavirus, yet my crew and I remained healthy. In the death-care industry, we are suited for this kind of work; we understand and know how to work with scared, upset and emotional people. We also understand blood and airborne pathogens and know how to properly wear PPE. If we all continue to follow CDC protocols and guidelines, we can and will remain safe.

What were the chief challenges you and your team faced in New York City?

Supporting the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City was a job like no other. I was morgue operations manager on a two-week assignment that stretched to six weeks. When we arrived in early April, the city’s existing morgue facilities were already stretched well beyond their limits. The initial challenge was to set up facilities to house the overflow and the thousands of COVID decedents expected during April. The world was watching, so we had to get this right. We divided the main DMORT team into three small teams to cover borough morgues in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. I led the Queens team, which was embedded with the military’s Decedent Affairs Unit. We worked round-the-clock in 12-hour shifts. The death toll was staggering. I was so impressed with the young National Guard troops who did the heavy lifting for us. It takes bodies to move bodies, as they say, but these young men and women had never been around anything like this. Some lab techs onsite had never seen a dead body. Even the mortuary affairs officers had to take a knee now and then. No one had ever seen anything like this. We eventually set up a large facility on a Brooklyn pier to freeze decedents until proper arrangements could be made.

What did you learn from this?

This experience has reinforced my faith in the power of the human spirit to persevere and overcome obstacles.

It also made me appreciate the human connections that can be made during a time of crisis. While in New York, we were housed in hotels. We came home dog-tired every evening and had to venture out for take-out dinners. One of the cruise families I had assisted on the West Coast was from New York City. Somehow, they tracked me down and brought me homemade meals every night for a week. I’ll never forget their simple act of kindness and gratitude. I also was impressed with the support I received from Foundation Partners Group, which supported my work on the DMORT team 100%. They are equally supportive of my plans to share my New York experience with local office of emergency management personnel and National Guard teams so they can be better prepared for the next major incident.

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