Picnic, ceremony pay tribute to firrefighters


City of Gainesville Fire Rescue Chief, Gene Prince (from left) recognizes Lt. Michael Tringali as a Firefighter of the Year nominee at the 7th Annual Sunrise Rotary Club of Gainesville Firefighter of the Year Recognition Award and Firefighter Appreciation Picnic Gainesville, Fla. on Saturday, March 13, 2013.

ASHLEY CRANE/ Correspondent
Published: Saturday, April 13, 2013 at 6:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 13, 2013 at 6:18 p.m.

The fire engine, once quiet and at rest, raised heads as it lit up in a series of wails. The engine growled to life and in no time the truck peeled out of The Oaks Mall parking lot, lights flashing.

The firefighters had set aside their barbecue and conversation to take care of business, but they'd be back for more of the 7th Annual Sunrise Rotary Club's Firefighter Appreciation Picnic -- and to applaud their comrades at the Firefighter of the Year Recognition Award ceremony.

Rick Medina, chair of the event and member of the Sunrise Rotary Club, put forward the idea of a day to appreciate firefighters in 2000, when his father was successfully resuscitated by paramedics after he lost his pulse from a heart attack, going on to live seven more years.

"All of us as a club and as a community appreciate (the firefighters)," he said.

Saturday's event marked the recognition ceremony's return from hiatus since 2005, thanks in part to money endowed by Lois Hensel, the first woman in Alachua County to be a Rotarian.

"Before that, it was an all-male bastion," said Jim Hensel, husband of Lois, who became a member in 1987. "She had a special place in her heart for Sunrise."

Lois Hensel died last year, and Saturday's event was staged in her memory.

Firefighters and their families enjoyed lunch provided by David's Real Pit BBQ as they were briefly relieved from duty. A fleet was sent to cover for each station, allowing the firefighters to take some time to eat and relax before returning to their 24-hour shifts.

"It's a real commitment serving the community," Deputy Fire Chief of Alachua County Bill Northcutt said. "It's nice to have somebody reach back and say thank you for the service."

Gainesville Fire Rescue Lt. Michael Tringali won the Firefighter of the Year award, and Alachua County Fire Rescue's Lt. Jennifer Blakeney won the Award for Meritorious Service.

Tringali said he began hanging around the fire station at age 22, hoping to join the team.

"I was like a stray dog," Tringali said. "They fed me once, and I kept coming back."

He was hired a year later.

"We thought we knew him by then," Gainesville Fire Chief Gene Prince said, as he remembered Tringali joining the department. "Actually, we thought he was a relative."

Tringali worked for the next 11 years covering assignments that awarded him the Gainesville Fire Rescue Medal of Valor, which is presented to department members who have gone through extreme danger to save a life.

In June 2012, Tringali and firefighter John Bowling rescued a man who had filled a bath tub with gasoline in what was believed to be an attempt at suicide. A candle burning in the bathroom had combusted when met with the fumes from the gasoline, blowing doors off their hinges and displacing walls. Tringali and Bowling forced themselves into the apartment despite the building's tenuous structural integrity and removed the severely burned man.

"It's easy to be brave when the folks that you look up to make it easy to go out there and do our jobs," Tringali said. "I think personally we are reflections of who we are around, and I work with some awesome people."

Northcutt nominated Blakeney on the basis of her attitude and her ability to put people and patients at ease. She loves to teach and is an excellent mentor, he said.

In September 2012, Blakeney, her partner Wayne Aylor and the crew of Gainesville Fire Rescue Engine 4 responded to a man in cardiac arrest. The man no longer had a heartbeat but was resuscitated using shock.

Blakeney pointed out that the firefighters just do their jobs, but she added that the work can be amazing.

"That guy," she said, referring to the man she helped to resuscitate. "We still keep in touch."

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