GOLDEN VALLEY - Every prominent fire and emergency service leader from across North America and around the globe attending the Fire Rescue International 2013 general session in Chicago had their eyes affixed on only one person.
As Golden Valley Fire District Chief Thomas O'Donohue stepped onto the stage Aug. 16 to receive the 2013 International Benjamin Franklin Fire Service Award for Valor, the room of more than 3,000 attendees exploded in applause.
The Franklin Award for Valor, co-sponsored by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and Motorola Solutions, Inc., recognizes firefighters around the world for their expert training, leadership, heroic actions and safe practices, and is the highest honor bestowed by the IAFC.
This is the first time in the 44-year history of the IAFC that a fire chief received the award.
O'Donohue was the recipient of the 2013 award for his actions on Dec. 21, when he placed himself in harm's way to save the lives of two people in a burning home.
It was about 7:36 a.m. on a Friday when the call came into the GVFD from the 911 dispatch center for a structure fire at 5324 Destiny Way. O'Donohue ran out of the fire district administrative offices and saw smoke rising from a short distance away.
When O'Donohue arrived at the fire scene in his service vehicle about two minutes later, he called in a "fully involved structure fire with exposures." Exposures mean a propane tank could explode or a vehicle or other structures are near enough that they could also catch fire. As he began his walk around to size up the situation, he came upon civilian PaulBissonette and off-duty firefighter Steve Winn standing at the rear of the home.
As soon as he spoke to the civilian and the firefighter, he learned there were two people inside the burning home. "When I arrived, I thought the whole house was involved," the fire chief said. "People were yelling to me that there was someone in the house. I thought we were going to have to do a body recovery."
One of the civilians had entered the burning home through a window and was attempting to assist a 260-pound elderly woman through the window.
The fire chief, wearing his "turnouts," a firefighter's protective clothing, but without the self-contained breathing apparatus, entered the burning house by using a ladder that was leaning up against the chest-high window.
"I really didn't think of my safety," O'Donohue said. "I knew I had to get into the burning home and get those people out."
As soon as O'Donohue got inside the burning home, he saw civilian Robert Davies attempting to hold the woman up next to the window. The woman was having a very hard time standing and was also having a hard time breathing because of the smoke in the room.
O'Donohue broke the rest of the window glass so no one would get cut while exiting through the window.
"As we were attempting to get the woman out of the window, we could tell the fire was entering the room," the fire chief said. "The fire had breached the bedroom door and was beginning to creep along the walls and across the ceiling."
After two failed attempts, the fire chief was able to get the woman through the window with the help of Davies by squatting down and placing his shoulder against the elderly woman's lower extremities. When O'Donohue stood up, he was able to use his shoulder as leverage to get the nearly unconscious woman through the window and to safety.
As soon as O'Donohue knew the woman was safe, he turned his attention to Davies, who also appeared to be having a hard time trying to get out of the window. Davies had grabbed onto the window seal, and because he was having a hard breathing due to smoke inhalation, didn't seem to be able to crawl through the window.
O'Donohue grabbed Davies and was able to launch him through the window to safety.
Then it was the fire chief's turn to exit the burning structure. Just a second after the fire chief crawled out of the window, there was a fire flashover in the room and flames shot out the window. A flashover is the near-simultaneous ignition of most of the directly exposed combustible material in an enclosed area. It can cause the instantaneous death of anyone in the room.
Once to safety, the woman and Fire Chief O'Donohue were transported to the hospital for smoke inhalation. He said the woman was coherent and talking when she was loaded into the ambulance and Davies refused medical aid.
When asked if he had to do it over again, O'Donohue said, "It's our job to protect property and our residents' lives. We love serving our community."
According to O'Donohue, the GVFD firefighters continually train to handle any situation that may confront them, and that includes putting themselves in harm's way.
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