Stow -- Her name is Sandy Ray, but for many children in the city, she is Firefighter Sandy.
For more than 25 years, Ray has been the Stow Fire Department's education coordinator. In September, the Ohio Department of Commerce Division of State Fire Marshal named her the Ohio Fire Prevention Educator of the Year.
"It was a big surprise. I was shocked," said Ray, who also works part time for the Tallmadge Fire Department.
Fire Chief Mark Stone said the recognition is deserved.
"We're very proud of her," said Stone. "She has done a fantastic job for the 25-plus years she has been in Stow and she's had a huge impact on the community and fire safety, as well as just being a great role model for the kids to look up to and we're very appreciative of her efforts."
The state fire marshal's office said Ray "has proven her dedication and passion for educating her community on how to keep individuals and families safe. She has a well-established reputation in the schools where she visits the 100 kindergarten through fourth-grade classrooms each year in Stow school system."
It also recognized Ray for her work on the city's long-time annual safety poster contest, in which numerous elementary school students design posters around a theme each year in a competition.
"It is not only students who benefit from Ms. Ray's expertise and passion," states a fire marshal's office press release. "She teaches CPR classes to adults and has consulted with numerous area businesses. City of Stow employees are able to utilize her experience for initial and refresher CPR classes. She is a familiar and friendly face of the fire department, and local companies know that they can call upon 'Firefighter Sandy' if they have concerns.
"Community members who live with a disability and their safety are a priority of Ms. Ray. She assisted the Stow Police Department and Stow Youth Services in modifying Stow's traditional safety town curriculum to better meet the needs of students with developmental disabilities. She talks with students in the schools about disabilities and how to help people with a disability in the event of an emergency. Ms. Ray visits nursing homes, group homes and other facilities to ensure that the safety needs of our most vulnerable citizens are met."
Ray gives credit to the city for what she has been able to accomplish.
"I have been very fortunate," she said. "Many people have helped me get to where I am today. People in the community, political leaders, a lot of people I have to thank for where I am today, for giving me that chance or opportunity to kind of prove myself. School officials, they allow me to come in, even times when I'm sure their schedules are pretty packed."
Stone said he hopes Ray remains on the department's staff for a long time to come.
"We know the day she does retire, it's going to be very difficult to replace someone with her expertise and her character," he said. "She's a great asset to the department, and we certainly don't want to lose her, so we're hoping she stays on for a number of years."
Hired for the job
Ray began her career with Tallmadge when she was hired there in about 1987 as a part-time firefighter, which was a year after graduating from high school. She said she still goes out on fire and EMS calls for that department.
By the time she was hired in Stow about two years later, again on a part-time basis, she had an associate's degree in fire science and was working on her bachelor's degree in elementary education. She was doing some teaching in Tallmadge, but in Stow, she was hired to teach by then-Fire Chief Robert Dauchy.
"I was hired specifically just for that," said Ray.
Ray said that Dauchy, who retired in 1998, was a big believer in education and in 1991, Ray became the department's full-time education coordinator.
"I am forever indebted to Chief Dauchy because he had a vision to have safety education a part of the Stow Fire Department," Ray told the Stow Sentry shortly after Dauchy's death this past February.
'It's not like work'
Ray attended the National Fire Academy's Community Education Leadership Program in Maryland and conducted more than 250 programs, reaching 5,102 children and 942 adults, last year.
"I start at preschool and go up pretty much up to senior citizens," she said, adding "for a lot of the businesses, I do the fire extinguisher training and safety education."
In the schools, Ray specifically teaches fire safety in the fall. In the spring, she teaches subjects that she rotates year to year, such as dog bites, poison, seat belts and even about bullying.
But as long as Ray has been doing this, there is still room for some firsts. Usually, she teaches at the kindergarten to fourth-grade schools, but this fall, for the first time, she is at Lakeview Intermediate School, working with fifth-graders. During an Oct. 5 class, she said that she wanted to do this because periodically children at their level started fires while playing with matches and she felt it was time for a refresher course. She talked about smoke detectors and showed a DVD about fire safety.
"This is a very good tool to have, but you have to have it working," she told the class while holding up a detector.
Ray said it was not a typical lesson. For younger kids, she finds ways to make it more interactive, but with the older kids, she is keeping it simpler for now by just talking to them, although she may incorporate something more later on.
"I love working with people, being able to help them understand the need for safety education. Especially with school kids, I try to make it somewhat fun, but educational. Usually, I'll involve some kind of game or activity," she said.
Ray said that every once in awhile, it gets back to her that what she teaches sinks in, including a couple of occasions when kids called 911 in emergencies, one time because of a house fire and another in a medical emergency involving the child's mother. Both children were taught to do that by Ray.
"I'm really passionate about what I do. I think that makes it fun for me to do it. It's not like work," she said. "It just consumes me."
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