Two women take top fire department honors in Prince George’s Public Safety Valor Awards

Two women on Wednesday took home the top fire department honors in Prince George’s County’s Public Safety Valor Awards — a first in the history of the program’s 37 years.

But 32-year-old Katie Johnson and 31-year-old Sara Shaffer have more in common than just being women. They both don’t believe they deserve the medals — they say they were just doing their jobs — but they aren’t surprised women received the fire department’s top two awards.

“It’s a majority male department, but we are very high in our female numbers,” Shaffer said.

The awards will hopefully inspire other young women to consider careers as firefighters, Johnson said.

“You can be a mom, a wife, and still be a hard-core, cool firefighter,” she said. “You can do your job and get recognition for it.”

Below are the two incidents that won Johnson and Shaffer their top honors:

2013 Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Departments Paramedic of the Year

As Katie Johnson was taking her 8-year-old son to the dentist one afternoon, she came upon a deadly scene: a Camaro had crossed the center line on Mount Harmony Road and T-boned an SUV.

“I turned the corner and there was a horrible accident, right there,” Johnson said.

The crash occurred in a rural part of Calvert County and help was miles away. So Johnson pulled over, told her son to stay put in the family’s gray Jeep and ran to the scene. After calling 911, the 11-year veteran of the Prince George’s County fire department started rescue operations alone.

Johnson immediately realized the 17-year-old girl in the passenger seat was dead, so she ran to help the driver, opening the woman’s airways and starting CPR.

With sirens wailing toward her location, Johnson heard something else — a “piercing shrill” coming from the back of the car. A 10-year-old girl was pinned in the back seat and had just regained consciousness.

“It took me a second to realize there was another person in the back seat,” Johnson said. “It was unbelievable.”

After a police officer — who by then had arrived at the scene — took over CPR for the driver, Johnson cleared out the back window. Digging through the car, she found Payton Curl with a broken leg.

With the help of paramedics, Johnson tended to the girl and kept her calm while rescue crews spent 20 minutes prying her from the wreck.

“I was able to make a bond with her in the car,” Johnson said. “She was very brave.”

Johnson stayed with the girl until a helicopter transported Payton to the hospital.

“She was really brave for saving me and not waiting for anyone else to come,” said Payton, who is now 11 and joined Johnson onstage at the awards ceremony Wednesday.

Johnson said she is honored by the award, but “I wasn’t doing anything spectacular. I was just doing my job.”

2013 Prince George’s County Fire Fighter of the Year

As Sara Shaffer arrived at the scene of an early morning crash on Jan. 30, 2013, she knew it wouldn’t be a routine call. It wasn’t just an overturned tractor-trailer that had slammed into a Jersey wall. And it wasn’t just an SUV flipped on its side.

At about 1:30 a.m., near State Route 50, Shaffer eyed a fat fire hose snaking across the lanes of the Capital Beltway. The hose was from a fire engine that also had been involved in the crash.

As the rest of Shaffer’s team tended to the overturned truck and SUV, Shaffer ran to the fire engine. She discovered firefighter Ryan Emmons trapped in the cab.

“His arm was all but amputated,” Shaffer said.

Rescue crews needed to pull Emmons from the engine. But Emmons, who was nearly unconscious, had already lost a lot of blood. They couldn’t wait for the Jaws of Life to come.

Thinking fast, Shaffer ran to grab a backboard from an ambulance and ran back to Emmons.

“We were able to wedge the backboard over the seats and use it like a seesaw,” Shaffer said. “We lifted him out . . . and — like a conveyer belt — slid him out of the engine and down to another backboard.”

Shaffer and others loaded Emmons onto an ambulance and rushed him to the hospital. With no available tourniquet, she held onto Emmons’s arm to keep him from bleeding to death.

“Everybody did a great job to help get me out, but she stayed with me to the end,” said Emmons, who helped present Shaffer with her medal at the awards ceremony Wednesday.

Shaffer, who started as a volunteer firefighter when she was 18, said that after making sure Emmons was safe at the hospital, she went back to the accident scene. She wanted to be back with her crew and help clean up.

“It’s weird that I’m getting this award for myself,” Shaffer said. “Everyone was on the squad operating together.”

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Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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