San Diego Fire Chief Brian Fennessy poses with members of the Girls Empowerment Camp.
San Diego Fire Chief Brian Fennessy poses with the firefighters who presented the Girls Empowerment Camp. Photo by Chris Stone

By Chris Stone

The image of the soot-covered veteran firefighter has always inspired respect and honor. But that dirty garment may be deadily.

Firefighter Paramedic Kurtis Bennett was honored Friday by the San Diego Fire Rescue Foundation for the work he and his staff are doing to deal with cancer as an occupational threat to the life of a firefighter.

He was one of 52 firefighters, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, civilian fire personnel and local citizens saluted for saving lives and going the extra mile for fellow San Diego residents.

Here are three stories of those honored:

Kurtis Bennett, Firefighter of the Year

San Diego Fire Chief Brian Fennessy congratulates Kurtis Bennett on being named the 2017 Firefighter of the Year at a service awards luncheon. Photo by Chris Stone

He was chosen for his contribution to the Cancer Awareness and Prevention Program. Bennett said depictions of the dirty firefighter are the first that have to go.

While most honorees were recognized to saving the lives of civilians, Bennett and his department was being honored for trying to save the lives of their own firefighters.

“It’s a cultural thing because for years we esteemed the firefighter … covered in soot and ash because it was like they were allowing their uniform to show their experience and that kind of thing,” Bennett said, “so now we recognize that that’s a problem.”

About two-thirds of firefighter deaths are attributed to occupationally acquired cancer, he said.

“Most frequently people think if you are a firefighter, you are going to die falling through a roof or getting burned in a fire — and that’s really only a small number of people who die,” Bennett said. “The vast majority of people die from exposure to toxins.”

The tragedy is that cancers in large part are likely preventable, he told Times of San Diego after a luncheon ceremony at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina.

“They’re preventable if we wear our masks longer, if we clean our gear, if we change our culture,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

Bennett wants to reduce the exposure to hundreds of toxins, biproducts of combustion, smoke and soot.

“We know that the quicker you get it off, the less of it you are exposed to, the less the chance that you will succumb to disease,” he said.

The first steps to deal with the risk are cleaner uniforms and heavy-duty washing machines, Bennett said.

“The most important thing we can do is redefine what a professional firefighter looks like because the image in yesteryear was this soot-covered veteran firefighter,” he said. “The firefighter of tomorrow we hope will be clean and have a more professional appearance, embrace a safer culture at work and it will result in them living longer.

Fire department rules have been that firefighter turnouts (uniforms) are to be cleaned after exposure to any kind of fire.

Past washing machines have been adequate, but knowing what he now knows, Bennett has pushed for programmable, heavy-duty machines that allow for controls of temperature, spin speed and number of rinse cycles.

Secondly, firefighters must remember to hook up their diesel-fueled engines to the exhaust extractor system when they return to the station.

“Diesel exhaust is a known carcinogen, and it permeates the station,” Bennett said. “We face risks [at fire scenes] and in the station. Because it’s our home — it’s especially concerning.”

Bennett said the cancer awareness and prevention program has been “extremely well received” by fellow firefighters.

He concluded: “The goal of our program is we say we want you to make it to retirement healthy and enjoy the fruits of your labor. That’s what we want.”

Jeannette Benacchio, Dispatcher of the Year

San Diego Fire Chief Brian Fennessy poses with Jeannette Benacchio, who received the Dispatcher of the Year award. Photo by Chris Stone

“It was a shock to me, but I feel very honored,” she said of being the first person to receive the new award.

Benacchio joined the fire department 16 years ago after filling out a job interest form at the Del Mar Fair.

“I thought that it was just going to be a job, and 16 years later, I’m still here,” she said.
But she talks about lessons learned and the challenges of her job.

“The hardest part is learning how to deal with the calls on an emotional level,” she said.

“Nothing is good about taking calls there. People call 9-1-1 because there’s a life-threatening emergency, and that’s hard to deal with. So we take the call and try to kind of let it go and not take it home with us.”

Through experience, she’s found ways to calm down callers — to decipher what is happening.

“Each caller has a different level of panic,” said Benacchio, who works at the Emergency Command & Data Center in Kearny Mesa. “You’d be surprised how many people call that are nice and calm and then on the other end of the spectrum … are inconsolable [people].”

Learning how to control her own emotions has been a goal as well.

“There have been calls that I’ve had to excuse myself when you get a little emotionally involved with, and so learning to be able to deal with that is one of the most important things I have learned,” Benacchio said.

Now a trainer and supervisor, she said she’s never regretted her career choice. And as a bonus, she met and married a paramedic.

Omar Daniel, Civilian Lifesaving Citation

Omar Daniel hugs Jorge Chinchilla, whose life he saved in a fitness center. Photo by Chris Stone

Daniel was working out at a fitness center when he noticed an elderly man fall off a treadmill.

The 80-year-old La Mesa resident, Jorge Chincilla, told paramedics he felt a tightness in his chest and slowed down and that was the last thing he remembered, according to a news report.

Daniel immediately started CPR and instructed others to call 911 and get the defibrillator. After Chinchilla received one shock from the machine, he opened his eyes and grasped Daniel’s hand, according to a news video.

Chinchilla appeared at the fire-rescue awards dinner and hugged Daniel on stage.

He said that up until the day of his heart attack, he had been walking on the treadmill for an hour five days a week.

“I’m happy that he was prepared and well-trained,” Chinchilla said. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

Chinchilla said he was back on the treadmill.

Honorees of the 2017 service awards:

UNIVERSITY CITY ACTIVE SHOOTER

Lifesaving Citation (Unit)

Engine 35/C

  • Capt. Jonathan Frichtel
  • Engineer Steven Asaro
  • Firefighter/paramedic Ryan Ferguson
  • Firefighter Bryan Bujarski

Truck 35/C

  • Capt. Donald McKinney
  • Engineer Steven Holmerud
  • Firefighter/paramedic Michael Culver
  • Firefighter Javier Ucha-Lassalle

FIREFIGHTER OF THE YEAR

  • Firefighter/paramedic Kurtis Bennett

SAUDI ARAMCO FELLOWSHIP

Exceptional Performance Citation

  • Battalion Chief Dan Froelich
  • Battalion Chief Steve Lozano
  • Battalion Chief Willy Melendez
  • Battalion Chief Jeff Mitchell

GIRLS EMPOWERMENT CAMP

Exceptional Performance Citation

  • Engineer Jeri-Ellen Miuccio
  • Engineer Amber Taddeo
  • Firefighter Jennifer Wolf

PARAMEDIC OF THE YEAR

  • Capt. Ted Chialtas

EMT OF THE YEAR

  • Terry Brannam

DISPATCHER OF THE YEAR

  • Jeannette Benacchio

SAN DIEGO CITY LIBRARY

Civilian Lifesaving Citation

  • Magdalena Armendariz
  • Linda Britton
  • Luis Coucina
  • Anthony Martinez
  • Derek Moses
  • Melinda Neal
  • Robert Surratt

RAY & JOAN KROC CENTER

Civilian Lifesaving Citation

  • Omar Daniel

RANCHO BERNARDO HIGH SCHOOL

Civilian Lifesaving Citation

  • Ashley Balingit

ADAMS RECREATION CENTER

Civilian Lifesaving Citation

  • Robbie Bowers

VOLUNTEER OF THE YEAR

  • Christine and Tom Johnson and family

REMEMBRANCE RESCUE PROJECT

Certificate of Appreciation

  • Bob Allen
  • Ron Edrozo
  • Chris Gantz
  • Paul Guide
  • Ken Matsumoto
  • Don Miner
  • Savannah Miner
  • Jeremy Painkin
  • Nick Pavone
  • Darrell Relyea
  • Darren Skelly

STEVEN F. HOLLADAY MEMORIAL AWARD

  • Firefighter Charles Brookes

CIVILIAN OF THE YEAR

  • Jay Alvarado

LIFEGUARD I OF THE YEAR

  • Trevor Wageman

LIFEGUARD II OF THE YEAR

  • Jacob Magness

SUNSET CLIFFS RESCUE

Civilian Lifesaving Citation

  • Chris Struble

Heroism Citation

  • Lifeguard III Eric Meech

WINDANSEA BOAT CAPSIZE

Lifesaving Medal

  • Lifeguard II Ryan Dammann
  • Lifeguard III James Lockwood

Medal of Valor

  • Lifeguard III John Bahl
  • Lifeguard III Chris Ingalls

Certificate of Appreciation

  • Andrew Weisiger