Who’s Next: First Responders; Honoring 10 of Pittsburgh’s helpers

Who’s Next: First Responders is all about the helpers. 

In our first-ever collection of under-40 professionals in the field, we’ve got medical workers and advocates on the front lines of the opioid epidemic. We’ve also got paramedics, fire fighters, police, people responding to ICE detentions, those focused on mental health crises — and those making this work possible. 

All of them are saving lives and changing lives, often with little recognition. 

We hope to change that today. 

What follows is a group of 10 emergency response professionals who always answer the call. 

Who’s Next, presented by S&T Bank, allows The Incline to introduce you to Pittsburgh’s rising stars. Catch up on our previous Who’s Next classes here

Celebrate with them (and us!) at a happy hour in their honor on Nov. 20. 

Now, we’re pleased to introduce Who’s Next: First Responders. 

Cora Elizabeth Brna

Paramedic, City of Pittsburgh Emergency Medical Services

Age 31

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Cora Elizabeth Brna came home from a military deployment and went to work. 

“After serving our country overseas, she came back and continued (the) mission to serve others by training to become a paramedic,” her Who’s Next nominator told The Incline.

Cora is now working with Pittsburgh’s EMS agency, where she’s known as a quick-thinking technician and a calming presence for those in crisis. 

Off the clock, Cora is working to educate the next generation of emergency medical professionals on issues like how to best care for transgender patients. She’s also a board member with the Persad Center, a local organization dedicated to supporting LGBTQ individuals and those living with HIV/AIDS in western PA. 

Cora was trained at Pittsburgh’s Center for Emergency Medicine and now lives in Brookline with her husband.

Dave Brown

Fire Chief and Emergency Operations Coordinator, Collier Township

Age 34

Fire departments have a problem, and it involves a lack of new recruits. In Collier Township, fire chief and emergency operations coordinator Dave Brown knows this, and he’s pioneered “many progressive programs to increase recruitment and retention” there, his Who’s Next nominator told The Incline

He’s helped young people find college grants available to those who train to become firefighters. At 34, Dave is the youngest fire chief in the community, and his nominator said he works tirelessly in the role. 

“My great grandfather was the first police chief of Collier Township, so I think it’s great to follow in his footsteps as a public servant,” Dave told The Incline

Dave is a fire academy graduate and has many FEMA and local emergency management certifications to his name. He lives in Collier Township.

Jessica Gurley

Owner, Social Work Consulting and Counseling, LLC

Age 32 

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In more than a decade as a social worker and mental health professional, Jessica Gurley has worked with children, teens, and adults in crisis. This includes a group of 26 military veterans Jessica provided crisis services to as an inpatient psychiatric social worker with the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. 

Now she’s using her experience — and her own business — to train others in crisis de-escalation and to raise awareness.

“She grows within herself and has impact to address mental health and make sure people get the help that they need,” Jessica’s Who’s Next nominator told The Incline

Jessica attended the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work and lives in Stanton Heights. 

Julia Hilbert

Vice Chair, Students for Sensible Drug Policy; Social Work Intern, Prevention Point Pittsburgh; President, Pittsburgh DanceSafe

Age 21 

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Julia Hilbert is protecting drug users from harm and stigma. She does this through her work as a volunteer at Prevention Point and as someone who’s trained to administer naloxone, the so-called overdose antidote. 

She’s also doing it as vice chair of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at Pitt and as the founder of Pittsburgh’s DanceSafe chapter, which provides on-the-ground education and services at events where drug use is likely.

“Julia is a first responder in a crisis felt deeply here in western Pennsylvania, but rarely gets the recognition she deserves,” her Who’s Next nominator told The Incline. Julia also advocates for sex workers and those experiencing trauma, and is the business manager of Pitt Agents for Cultural Change, where she gives bystander intervention training and more. 

Julia is currently obtaining her degree at Pitt and lives in Bloomfield.

Tyler Machajewski

Volunteer, Millvale VFD

Age 23

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Tyler Machajewski was just 16 when she became a volunteer firefighter in Millvale, working alongside her brother, father, and mother. 

Tyler is the next generation of firefighter in a line of work that has struggled to find young recruits and to offset the losses of older rank-and-file members. 

Tyler is working to obtain her EMT certification and water rescue certification. She hopes to one day make a living in the emergency response field. 

“I am also a deputy for Millvale’s emergency management team, and am on Millvale’s civil service board,” Tyler told The Incline. “I LOVE Millvale and serving my community.” 

Tyler attended Community College of Allegheny County and lives in Millvale. 

Mindi McCloy

Care Navigator, SPHS Center of Excellence

Age 29

Mindi McCloy is a recovering addict, and she’s working to help others in recovery — and those who aren’t there yet.

Mindi recalled to The Incline: “I remember the day very vividly where I was homeless, staying in an abandoned building, worrying about where and how I was going to get my next fix. For the first time I was scared. Scared that I wasn’t going to make it out of this. (…) That is when I turned my life over to God and made the choice, with the support of a few people, to get help.” 

Now, Mindi offers that kind of support as a certified recovery specialist working with the Southwestern Pennsylvania Human Services organization’s Center for Excellence, one of several dozen centers tapped by Gov. Tom Wolf to help address Pennsylvania’s ongoing opioid epidemic. 

Mindi is also a member of the Mon Valley Opioid Coalition and lives in Charleroi. 

Laura Perkins

Emergency Response Organizer, Casa San Jose

Age 30 

🔗 LinkedIn 

Laura Perkins is an emergency response organizer with Casa San Jose, the Beechview-based resource center for Latinx people who are new to Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh area.  

In addition to immediately responding to ICE detentions and their consequences, Laura accompanies people to ICE check-ins, coordinates Casa San Jose’s “PA is Ready!” community engagement, and responds to urgent organizing needs 24/7. 

“Laura came to Casa San Jose after nonprofit human rights work in Honduras and Nicaragua, throughout two political crises,” her Who’s Next nominator wrote.  

“Laura is a native of the mighty hills of Pittsburgh, and she feels a personal obligation to put her international crisis experience to work by actively challenging the status quo and responding to the injustices her neighbors suffer.” 

Laura attended American University and lives in Highland Park. 

Jessica Smith 

Disaster Program Manager, American Red Cross Southwestern Pennsylvania Chapter 

Age 29 

🔗 LinkedIn 

Jessica Smith is ready for disaster. A graduate of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, Jessica has worked with Pittsburgh’s Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security and now works as a disaster program manager with the American Red Cross of Southwestern Pennsylvania. 

“She has been on the ground locally for countless fires and major flooding incidents, was on-scene administering reunification and other trauma services at the Tree of Life mass shooting incident, and has been deployed to multiple disasters across the United States,” her Who’s Next nominator told The Incline

Jessica attended St. John Fisher College and lives in Cheswick.

Simon Taxel 

Crew Chief, Pittsburgh Bureau of EMS

Age 34 

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📸 Instagram 

Simon Taxel is a crew chief with Pittsburgh’s Emergency Medical Services agency, and he’s also an advocate for society’s most vulnerable communities. This includes people facing drug addiction and housing insecurity. 

Simon has taken his advocacy to Harrisburg, addressing lawmakers on harm reduction, the need for drug policy reform, and the dangers of related stigmas. 

“Beyond this, Simon champions mental health awareness and support for first responders to address a critical need in their professional community,” his nominator told The Incline. “He is a hero in so many ways and we’re proud to have him serve in our communities.” 

Simon attended Allegheny College and the Community College of Allegheny County’s Public Safety Institute. He lives in Brookline with his wife and two children. 

Aundre Wright 

Officer, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police

Age 31

Aundre Wright is Pittsburgh born and bred. And in a city with a persistent divide between police and the communities of color they serve, Aundre is a bridge. 

“I hear something on the radio, I go,” Aundre told The Undefeated in a 2017 profile. “Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.” 

Aundre has continued on this mission in the years since that article was published, telling The Incline he’s working to make “connections with youth and the community,” often through sports and mentoring. “I teach them that the tenets of fair play, discipline, and sportsmanship can be applied to whichever path they choose,” the former Pitt football player added. 

Aundre attended the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Mt. Oliver.

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