Honoring first responders
GABE STIRNUS was named firefighter of the year by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bear Flag Post #1943.
Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars know a thing or two about heroic actions that don’t always get the recognition they deserve. That’s one of the reasons the local Bear Flag Post #1943 works to ensure that those on the front lines at home get their moment in the limelight with the annual First Responders Award.
“I think it’s appropriate for an organization to recognize those in the community who go above and beyond,” said Dan Parker, commander of Sonoma’s VFW Post, during the Jan. 18 awards dinner at the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building.
The national First Responders Award program of the VFW allows each post to select a firefighter and law enforcement officer of the year, who then go on to compete at district, state and national levels, judged by a panel of other first responders and VFW representatives. Gabe Stirnus, who joined the Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue Authority in 2007 and works as an engineer and paramedic, was named firefighter of the year in Sonoma, and took top prize in the 16th district as well to earn recognition at the state level.
“I was just amazed. It was totally an honor to be nominated, let alone win,” Stirnus said.
Stirnus first considered a job in law enforcement, but instead decided to fight fires after he began volunteering for the Bennett Valley Fire Protection District in 2001. He ultimately pursued a fire technology degree at Santa Rosa Junior College, graduating in 2003, before receiving his paramedic certification in 2006. After graduation, while working for the CalFire station in Boonville, Stirnus joined a specialized team that utilized a Huey helicopter to fight wildfires and aid injured or stranded individuals in locations inaccessible to other emergency vehicles.
But it was a standard auto accident that proved to be the most significant moment of his firefighting career. After receiving word of a single vehicle crash in Bennett Valley, he was part of the team dispatched to the scene.
“We had an equipment truck. It had all the evacuation equipment and the jaws of life, but no water,” he said, explaining that when the first responders arrived, the wrecked car was in flames. He immediately attempted to free the restrained driver from the wreckage, but the man was pinned in the car. So, instead, Stirnus worked to keep the young driver breathing and covered with a fire blanket while other first responders cut the vehicle apart to free the trapped man.
“He and others rescued (the man) without regard for their own safety,” said Dennis Meredith, chair of the VFW awards committee.
Stirnus said, sadly, the driver ultimately died from injuries sustained during the crash. But Stirnus, along with other members of the team, earned the Medal of Valor for the daring rescue.
“The core values of a fire department include honor, courage and devotion to duty,” said Mark Freeman, division chief of the Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue Authority. “Gabe’s education, experience and character exemplify these core values both on and off the job. Gabe has on many occasions provided positive outcomes to the community we protect in both emergent and non-emergent situations.”
Stirnus is also active in a variety of charitable efforts, including volunteering with the City of Santa Rosa Parks Department as well as participating in the CHOICES program to educate students about the benefits of staying in school, and the Every 15 Minutes program to teach youth the dangers of drinking and driving. He has been attending classes at Sonoma State University while working fulltime, and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree this spring.
Jody Olney, a deputy at the Sheriff’s Valley substation, was named law enforcement officer of the year. Like Stirnus, she was focused on her career from a young age, earning a criminology degree from Fresno State before immediately joining the police academy. She has been with the Sonoma County Sherriff’s Office since 2000, where she distinguished herself by pursuing myriad professional training opportunities ranging from crisis intervention and internal affairs to tactical weapons for female officers and interrogation techniques.
“She carries out her duties with distinction and embraces the concepts of community policing. She is well known for her compassionate service to victims and her relentless pursuit of criminals. Deputy Olney is a leader among her peers and takes great pride in conducting thorough, complete and in-depth investigations,” said Police Chief Bret Sackett.
In addition to her career in law enforcement, Olney also gives back with a variety of nonprofit organizations, from the March of Dimes to benefit premature babies, to the American Cancer Society and Special Olympics. She also uses her professional skills to give back with programs such as Alive at 25, which teaches defensive driving for young people.
During the Friday night awards ceremony, the VFW also presented a teacher of the year award, which this year went to Terry Swehla of Santa Rosa High School, who successfully wrote a $3,000 grant to bring 500 students to November’s Cost of Freedom Tribute in Sonoma.
Finally, the VFW honored some of Sonoma’s younger talent with the annual essay contests. Writing on the topic “Is the Constitution Still Relevant?” Delaney Gold-Diamond placed first in the Voice of Democracy contest for high school students, and nearly made it to the state level with her essay (sonomanews.com/News-2013/What-the-Constitution-means-to-me/). Buster La Haye came in second, while Eugene La Haye got third.
The Patriot’s Pen contest is for younger students, and this year the topic was, “What I Would Say to the Forefathers.” First place was a tie between Grace Cutting and Taylor Stiffler, with Quinnlan Cordero in second place and Gabriella Girish in third.
To learn more about the Veterans of Foreign War Post#1943 and its various programs, visit vfwpost1943.org.