As flames ripped through a residential boarding home in Summerville this month, all but one of eight residents escaped to the front lawn. One disoriented man in his 40s, unaware at the time that his life hung in the balance, lingered in a back bedroom.
First on the scene around 4 p.m., Summerville Police Lt. Rick Gebhardt learned the news and tore through the front entrance at 205 North Palmetto St., knocking on every door and shouting for the man.
“I saw people standing outside and flames billowing,” he said. “I ran right in and tried to find him.”
But with black smoke pouring into rooms and hallways, Gebhardt struggled to move inside the home.
“You could barely see, barely breathe. It gives you a lot more respect for what firefighters do on a daily basis,” he said.
After locating the man behind a closed door, the officer announced his presence and urged the man to come out, though the resident questioned what was happening.
“At first he said, ‘What do you want?’ and I told him his house was on fire, and he didn’t believe me. He said he had to put some clothes on, and I told him he could do that later, and he needed to get out now,” Gebhardt said.
Soon after the man opened the door, then understanding the danger that surrounded surrounded him.
“He realized how bad it was, and I ushered him out of the house,” Gebhardt said.
The residence is now uninhabitable, and police called in the American Red Cross to assist victims with temporary shelter and any necessary food and clothing.
That day will forever mark Gebhardt’s mind and career. In his nearly 17 years in law enforcement, he said he couldn’t remember ever responding to a more perilous event.
“It’s not something that you get the opportunity to do every day,” he said.
And it was for Gebhardt’s courageous life-saving efforts that the Summerville Police Department bestowed the prestigious Award of Valor on him this month. He was recognized during a town council meeting on July 13, two days after the incident. It’s also an honor the South Carolina Police Chiefs Association recognizes.
“It was a complete surprise,” Gebhardt said.
The lieutenant is only one of at least two Summerville officers who’ve received the Award of Valor since 1999, according to Chief Jon Rogers.
“I couldn’t be more proud to have individuals like Rick wearing our uniform,” Rogers said. “Lt. Gebhardt’s initiative, selflessness and courage likely saved the life of this Summerville citizen. ...This action serves as a model for all those who engage in the service of public safety.”
Gebhardt graduated from the state’s Criminal Justice Academy in 2001, and later this month he will celebrate a decade with Summerville Police Department. He started his career in North Charleston where he served a year before transitioning to the police department on Isle of Palms for five years.
Gebhardt is watch commander for team four in the patrol division and oversees the Emergency Services Unit. He also spent six years as a detective, a season when he received another coveted award: the Award of Merit.
The Tri-County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3 gave Gebhardt the accolade for talking a man out of suicide in 2014.
“Last I heard he was doing well,” Gebhardt said.
But Gebhardt described his most rewarding career moment as helping send a local child molester to prison and “knowing he’s not going to have the opportunity to victimize vulnerable children (anymore).”
Prior to law enforcement, Gebhardt spent four years serving in security forces for the U.S. Air Force. It was during that time right out of high school that he prepared for his future public servant role. After all, Gebhardt said it was law enforcement that first captured his heart as a young boy.
“It was what I wanted to do since I was a little kid,” he said.
He admired his grandfather and uncle who also worked as police officers and heard about their brave calls and adrenaline-pumping experiences.
“Just to know that they were doing good out in the community they were...(making) it safe for my family,” Gebhardt said. “I would hear stories, and I remember my uncle going on a SWAT call one night, and it just makes you appreciate what they (do).”
Now he, too, encounters the community love—random acts of kindness that he said greatly outweigh the recent negativity against cops.
When not training, patrolling or suiting up for an emergency event, Gebhardt said he enjoys cheering on the Boston Red Sox or Patriots—he’s originally from New Hampshire—or spending time with his wife Kellie and three daughters.