A decade ago, Capt. Andrew Vita and Pfc. Martin Nachtman played soccer together while at George Mason University.
"We used to talk about what we wanted to do," said Vita. "Mine was fire service, his was police officer."
On Thursday, Feb. 16, both Vita and Nachtman received top awards in the City of Fairfax Fire and Police departments. Vita was honored as Career Firefighter of the Year, while Nachtman was designated Police Officer of the Year.
The Public Safety Awards luncheon, presented by the Central Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, was a way for the Fairfax community to honor the City Fire Department, Fairfax Volunteer Fire Department, and City of Fairfax Police Department.
"It gives us the opportunity to say ‘thank you,’ because they put their lives out there for us every day," said Melissa Choate, Chamber president. "It’s also a time for them to show off their hard work to the people who never experience a fire or a police event."
Police officers are much like Olympic athletes, said Police Chief Rick Rappoport during the ceremony. Both professions take years of training, he said, and while many people have seen a ski race or a police investigation on TV, the real-life Olympics and public safety incidents are completely different experiences.
"Watching a police pursuit on ‘Cops’ gives a little bit of understanding," said Rappoport. "But most people just never see that kind of stuff."
POLICE OFFICERS regularly find themselves in high-stakes situations, and Nachtman’s presence of mind in one such situation helped earn him Police Officer of the Year, said Rappoport. Last year, Nachtman, a bike officer, was performing a routine traffic stop when he noticed the driver was acting particularly nervous, had a history of drug convictions, and that his wallet contained a large amount of cash, said Rappoport. Four years’ experience in the narcotics division peaked Nachtman’s suspicion, but since the driver refused a search of the car, he released him with a warning.
Nachtman then saw the driver enter a nearby community, said Rappoport, and knew from his driver’s license that he was not a resident there. The driver parked and walked away from the car, and after he left, Nachtman called for a K-9 unit, which located the presence of drugs in the car. With probable cause, Nachtman searched the car and found narcotics and $9,000 in cash. Nachtman then arrested the man, said Rappoport.
"Thanks to Officer Nachtman’s skill and expertise, an experienced drug dealer was removed from the community," said Rappoport.
Nachtman joined the City of Fairfax Police Department in 1998. He came to the United States from the Czech Republic with his family when he was 17 and lived in New York before becoming a student at George Mason University. He graduated with a degree in psychology, but throughout his life, he said, the people he looked up to were all in law enforcement.
"It’s a great honor to get an award like this," he said. "Every day, officers out there are doing great things for people."
Leadership defines Capt. Andrew Vita’s service in the City Fire Department, said Fire Chief Tom Owens. Vita has worked as C-Shift commander and went with a regional task force on two different occasions to provide aid to the Gulf Coast. He also works training volunteer firefighters, said Owens.
"Capt. Vita takes volunteers that join the organization on his shift and, quite frankly, adopts them," said Owens. Training effective volunteers takes a great deal of effort and time, he said.
"The realization I had was that I would only be as successful as those who worked for me," said Vita, who became interested in firefighting as a profession when he was very young. Vita said he remembers videotapes from his childhood that show him playing with toy fire trucks and watching firefighting shows on TV.
"It started off little and grew," he said. "I’m very honored."
EXCELLENCE IN helping train volunteers earned Sgt. William Hesse of the Fairfax Volunteer Fire Department his second Volunteer Firefighter of the Year award in a row, said Owens.
"[Hesse] is recognized again for continual efforts in working with every volunteer member of the Fire Department and getting them ready to ride," said Owens. His efforts improved recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters, said Owens.
Silver medals of valor went to Lt. Joe Schumacher and FireMedic Shawn Dunstan for their actions in a fire that occurred last March on Pickstone Drive. The garage fire extended to the living area and firefighters received word that one or more occupants were trapped inside, said Owen. Even when a commanding firefighter radioed the officers to get out of the building, Schumacher continued to search for occupants. Dunstan directed the hose during Schumacher’s search of the building. Schumacher was able to locate an occupant and remove him safely from the building, said Owens.
FireMedic Allen Nicholson received a bronze medal of valor for rescuing Capt. Adrian Munday from a smoke-filled room after an electrical box exploded during a building fire, and Lt. Alex Fitch received a Life Saving Award for persuading a woman who had had a stroke and who refused to go to the hospital to seek medical attention. The patient survived thanks to Fitch’s intervention, said Owens.
Life Saving Awards also went to Vita, Lt. James Jeckell, Lt. Dwayne Harman, and FireMedics Marc Racette and Jeff Berrigan for providing immediate care to a woman who went into cardiac arrest during a severe asthma attack and saving her life.
"Because of their skilled work and professionalism, the patient has survived and has returned home to her family and two small children," said Owens.
Honorable mentions went to Capt. Adrian Mundy, Vita, Lt. Jeremy Speakes and FireMedics Michael Jenkins and Amy Beechler for their support during the Pickstone fire.
It takes a measure of courage to own a business, said Chamber of Commerce chairman Jim Lamb, but it takes a much greater level of courage to work in public safety.
"I salute you for that," said Lamb.