The Star-News - Sept. 20, 2002

A breakfast of champions


National City firefighter Dean Nunley was honored as Fire Department firefighter of the year at the National City Chamber of Commerce breakfast on Wednesday.

He personally rescued three people despite, on one occasion, having to repair a damaged fire hydrant in order to get sufficient water and, in another emergency, having to improvise his way past a jammed security door.

The St. Florian award for fire department employee of the year, however, went to management analyst Walter Amedee whose achievement took place in less dramatic conditions. Nowadays, the traditional activities of a firefighter are only available because of a techno-warrior doing clever things with databases.

Technology has provided advanced tools for many tasks firefighters are called upon to perform. Firefighter Scott Springett, visiting from La Mesa Fire Department, recounted his tour of duty at Ground Zero where he had assisted in what was still a search and rescue operation with an arsenal of equipment the FDNY had never seen before.

Some of the kit fetched in by the San Diego crews was helpful in the task described by Springett as the equivalent of searching Miramar landfill for a golf ball of undisclosed color.

But there was a protocol to be observed when working with New York's firefighters. The FDNY had lost 343 of its own on Sept. 11 and there was an understanding that, when a firefighter's body was discovered, none but FDNY personnel should remove it. Visiting firefighters would stand back and show due respect when this happened.

Springett's talk had a show-and-tell element. He passed around photographs of "the pile" to show the scale of the operation in which firefighters worked alongside HAZMAT specialists, search technicians and canine units. The San Diegans stood out from the others because they wore the yellow Nomex coveralls we're accustomed to seeing when watching television coverage of California wildfires.

Springett passed around a fragment of the high-tech lightweight concrete with which the World Trade Center's steel frame had been clad. He said it was an average-sized piece of rubble. It was about the size of a primitive arrow head.

Despite all the technology and the expertise, it was old-fashioned dedication and stamina that prevailed during the 12-hour shifts. And the piece of equipment used most was the kind of 5-gallon plastic bucket you might buy at Home Depot. The low-tech buckets were for collecting body parts and any salvageable items such as business cards that might identify a missing person. "There was more looking than finding," Springett said.

And it was around this point in his talk that a few pagers started to sound among those attending the breakfast. Don't you hate it when somebody's so inconsiderate as to leave his pager switched on in a meeting? But these were National City firefighters getting up from their tables and filing out of the National City Community Center to face their continuing challenge.