Chief Leader - June 13, 2018by BOB HENNELLY
On June 6 thousands of Firefighters, their families, and supporters turned out for the FDNY’s annual Medal Day at City Hall, when heroism outranks title or tenure and a veteran Lieutenant became the first woman firefighter in the department’s history to win a medal.
Among the 76 department employees honored were fire officers, Firefighters, several members of the Emergency Medical Service and a Fire Marshal. For some honorees, the recognition for actions taken in the field came after years on the job, while one Probationary Firefighter's heroic moment came fighting his first fire.
In his remarks, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro recounted two of the scores of incidents that were being recognized in which training, initiative, and bravery converged.
“Moments like when Lieut. Michael Conboy of Rescue Co. 3 crawled to the second floor of a home fully engulfed in flames to rescue an unconscious young boy whose clothes had caught fire. After saving him, he returned to rescue a trapped man as well,” Mr. Nigro said. “Or when EMT Taylor Perez, with Station 8, subdued a knife-wielding individual before he could harm or kill himself or others. And then, once the situation was under control, he administered urgent medical care to his would-be attacker. The commitment of our members is extraordinary.”
Rescued Entire Family
He continued, “These moments when off-duty EMTs rush into gunfire to care for a police officer shot in the line of duty or when firefighters in Harlem rescued an entire family trapped by fire just before Christmas. These were moments of truth.”
Mayor de Blasio found a common thread running through the dozens of heroic scenarios being celebrated.
“And no matter what the crisis they confronted, they were there when others needed them,” he said. “When we use the term The Bravest, it wasn’t something that someone just bestowed lightly one day. It was earned. It was forged in countless fires and crises.”
West Side Story
In addition to individual commendations for valor, the department recognized teams whose tight cohesion produced heroic results.
Mr. de Blasio described the efforts of Squad 18, which is quartered in the West Village and was first on the scene at the Halloween 2017 terrorist attack on the West Side Highway bicycle path when bicyclists and pedestrians were mowed down by a terrorist driving a rental truck.
“Just blocks away form here we had to confront our deepest fears,” he said. “There was an act of terror in what would have seemed a normal day: eight lives lost, 11 people injured and of course, confusion. And for all the people at that site on the West Side it was fear, but in the midst of all that, the bravery and the ability of members of Squad 18 were on full display.”
He continued. “And once again the members of the FDNY responded to an act of terrorism with acts of heroism. Led by Lieut. Adrienne Walsh, the team quickly and expertly treated the wounded, undoubtedly saving lives ....Special congratulations to Lieutenant Walsh for her achievement, and her team’s achievement, but it is also worth noting that she is the first female firefighter in FDNY history to receive a medal.”
In a brief press conference after the ceremony, Ms. Walsh was joined by her squad and fellow medal-winners Firefighters Sheldon L. George, Richard T. Naviasky, Brian T. Roberts, Sky O. Shepard, and Santos Torres.
On that day, a 29-year-old man from Florida allegedly drove a pick-up truck he had rented down the bike path before crashing into a school bus.
The suspect got out of the vehicle with a pellet gun and paintball gun but was shot by police and taken into custody.
Abrupt Change in Direction
All Squad 18 knew at the time was it was a live fire scenario producing a mass-casualty event, according to Ms. Walsh, who also responded to the World Trade Center on 9/11.
“We were headed for a car accident and then we were stopped and given a piece of information about an active shooting, multiple victims,” Ms. Walsh told reporters. “So, I jumped over the bike path and saw the amount of people we had as victims and we had to reassess the entire situation. While I [transmitted] messages the guys were already piling out of the rig and grabbing equipment.”
She continued, “So it was an immediate change in direction, but everybody just completely flowed into their training and what they needed to do and came right to the bike path and started triage.”
Ms. Walsh said the key to unit cohesion was leadership that supported and backed up each team member.
“Trust your people,” she said. “They know what they are doing, and as I always say, whatever they do, they are making an assessment of a situation at the moment they had it...and when it changes rapidly, I also have complete confidence in them...they are remarkable at doing that, they really are.”
Even with the successful outcome, Ms. Walsh said there was a post-mortem. “We all rehash every incident we have, trying to put in more variables to see how we could have tweaked it a little bit,” she said.
The Son Also Rises
Much of the focus of Medal Day is on the first-responder families, many of whom have links to the FDNY going back several decades, like Denise Feldman, who was on hand to support her brother, Lieut. Brian Cross.
Mr. Cross won the Holy Name Society Medal for his response to a December 2016 fire where on two separate occasions, without the protections of a hose-line, he crawled “past and under fire...to save those in peril," including seven people.
“My father was a firefighter, his uncle, my godfather was a firefighter. Our grandpa was a firefighter,” Ms. Feldman said, noting that Brian was fulfilling his lifelong ambition.
She continued, “Our father was killed September 11. He was Battalion Chief Dennis Cross. It gives us tremendous pride to see[Brian] follow in my father’s footsteps and follow his dreams as a child. It's wonderful."
Fabric of FDNY
“This is the fabric of the Fire Department,” said James Lemonda, the Uniformed Fire Officers Association president. “We have a lot of young firefighters that are out here today. They are here joining companies honoring the members of their houses who have performed such heroic deeds.”
He added that it was evident by the diversity of the medal honorees that today’s FDNY was a different department than 20 years ago.
“Through the Commissioner and Chief of Department, the demographics of the Fire Department are changing but nothing else is changing,” Mr. Lemonda said. “The men and women of this department every single day put their lives on the line for the citizens of New York and they do it like nobody else.”
But it wasn’t just family and members of the FDNY who turned out to honor the medal recipients. Josefina Sanfeliu, a Brooklyn community activist with Latinas Against FDNY Cuts, also came.
“Firefighters raise the bar,” she said. “They raise my value. These are people that do not know me but think my life is worth saving, risking their life for, risking their health for...They are persons that think everyone has a high value and they have the dedication, the interest, the courage to take action on behalf of others.”