Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, has little in common with the coastal town in England that bears the same name, but it’s not unusual for the the Berks borough's police chief to field messages from people on the opposite side of the Atlantic.

Requests for assistance from the United Kingdom usually concern relatively mundane matters such as lost pets or unruly kids, almost never life-or-death situations, said Police Chief Steven Stinsky, who has headed the borough force for 11 years.

“People often times do an internet search for ‘Fleetwood police’ and we come up,” he said. “That happens fairly frequently, and I just tell people, ‘Sorry, wrong side of the pond.’ ”

It’s especially easy to get mixed up on social media. Type “Fleetwood” in the search field of Facebook and you’re likely to see a story from the Blackpool Gazette, such as the one about a Fleewoodt fishmonger hauling in a bright-orange lobster — a 1-in-10 million catch — before you realize it’s happened on another continent.

Stinsky said his department, which covers the borough of Fleetwood as well as Richmond and Ruscombmanor townships and Topton, maintains a Facebook account as a means for improving communication with the public on matters such as road construction and snow emergencies.

“Occasionally people send messages to us about an issue they have asking an officer to contact them,” he said. “This is another interface with the public. But we don’t have social media specialists monitoring it 24 hours a day.”

When an emotionally troubled teenager from Fleetwood, England, recently reached out for help from police via Facebook, he mistakenly sent his message on the Fleetwood, USA, page instead.

Mystery begins

The message showed up on the Fleetwood Police Department Facebook page about 3 p.m. on Aug. 13.

Stinsky didn't see it until about eight hours later when he checked for messages on Facebook from his home before going to bed.

“The message was placed by an individual saying he needed someone to talk to because he felt he wanted to kill himself,” Stinsky recalled. “I responded back to him saying, ‘Where are you?’ and got a one-word answer saying, ‘Home.’

He passed the information onto an on-duty officer, but the officer found no record of him on the PennDOT database and other resources available to police.

In the meantime, the teen sent another message about 3 a.m. on Aug. 14, writing, “I feel like suicide. Goodbye."

Arriving at work later that morning, Stinsky scoured social media and managed to find the messenger’s personal Facebook page.

Based on the vernacular used to describe his apartment ("flat") and job ("tram car driver") the chief deduced the message was from someone in the United Kingdom rather than the U.S.

“I engaged him in conversation, asking if I could get someone to talk to him, asking for his phone number, those types of things,” he said.

While chatting over Facebook, Stinsky searched the internet to find a contact number for the police department in Lancashire County, where the coastal town of Fleetwood is located in northwest England.

He made several phone calls to the Lancashire constabulary before getting connected to the right person so they could start working on it from their end.

The British police urged him to keep talking to the young man if he felt comfortable doing so.

“So I kept engaging the guy, trying to identify him because there wasn’t anything that truly identified him on his Facebook page,” Stinsky said.

The teen said that he was 16 and lived alone but shared little else. He mentioned he was considering going to the Blackpool waterfront to hurl himself into the sea.

As the online chat continued, Stinsky gathered more identifying information and passed it on by telephone to his British counterparts.

After about an hour of conversation — a period during which Stinsky also had to handle other duties including a few phone calls — he learned from the local police that there was an active missing person report for him.

Putting skills to work 

Stinsky was waiting for his counterparts across the Atlantic to take over for him, but they suggested he continue if he felt comfortable.

As fate would have it, the teen in crisis was chatting with a man highly trained in this sort of thing.

As the head of the Berks County Emergency Response Team, Stinsky has received advanced training in crisis and hostage negotiation. He would draw on his training over the course of three hours.

“As the talk went on, he talked a little more about himself,” the chief said. “I tried to engage him, call him by his name, trying to convince him that people did in fact care about him. He was saying everything's messed up in his life. No one cared about him.

“I was able to call him by his name and say, ‘Listen you have over 200 friends on Facebook and they all seem to be offering messages of support. Plus I’m talking to you, and if I’m spending time talking to you it's obvious I care about you.' "

The youth revealed the main reason he was so distraught: his girlfriend whom he referred to as his fiance, was going on a “holiday” — British vernacular for a vacation — in England about two hours from his home. Although the girl’s family approved of him coming along, his social worker wouldn’t go along with it.

The chief successfully applied some of his negotiation skills, asking the youth for his social worker’s name and suggested they call her and set up a meeting to see if something could be worked out for him to go on the trip. He passed that information on to the police in England.

“They were a little unsure where he could be going," he said. "At one point he said he was waiting at the trolley station and was going to throw himself in front of the next train that went by."

Alarmed, Stinsky asked the youth to send a picture of the station. He forward the picture he received to the local law enforcement.

The teen indicated he was heading to Cleveleys, a 5-minute train ride from Fleetwood.

“It got to the point where as he began to decompress and talk a little more he became open to the idea of someone actually meeting with him and trying to work things out sensibly,” Stinsky said. “After he took this train ride to the Cleveleys bus station he said he’d be willing to get together and talk to somebody.”

He told Stinsky that he was sitting on a bench near the roundabout. Stinsky chuckled at the irony, noting the recent construction of the controversial Route 222 roundabout near Fleetwood.

Transit police were on the lookout for him, and before Stinsky could relay a clothing description, he received word that they had found him.

'Incredible job'

Dr. Edward B. Michalik, administrator of the county Office of Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities, said he was impressed with how the chief handled the entire situation.

Michalik also serves on the county emergency response team, as its chief negotiator.

He said Stinsky called him about three times throughout the exchanges with the young man in England. Michalik was at the New Jersey shore.

“He did an absolutely incredible job,” Michalik said. “He did it on his own. I just kept cheering him on.”

Michalik believes Stinsky may very well have saved the young man's life that day.

Although Stinsky has more advanced training than the average police officer, he pointed out that everyone who works in law enforcement in Berks has training, beyond the police academy, in dealing with those who suffer from mental health or drug and alcohol issues.

He credited support from Michalik, the county commissioners and District Attorney John T. Adams for making sure officers are prepared to intervene with restraint in situations in which a person is in crisis.

Stinsky said he’s used to coordinating with officers from several police agencies, such as incidents involving an armed barricaded individual threatening to harm himself or others.

“What made this exponentially more difficult than the normal person in crisis was the fact that I had no way of coordinating step by step what was happening with the police department in England,” he said.

But he feels he and his counterparts 3,400 miles away worked as well together as possible.

"We were both working tirelessly for the same goal," he said, "and we had a successful outcome, which is what we always strive for."

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