Prince George’s County firefighter Katie Johnson, 32, said she was taking her son to the dentist last August when she found herself climbing through the wreckage of a “horrific” car crash that left one girl dead and her two sisters seriously wounded.
Johnson, who was off-duty, said her training kicked in and she got to work.
“I did a quick scene survey,” Johnson, of Chesapeake Beach, said. “It was an accident with multiple patients, one person was already dead, one was entrapped … we didn’t know there was a third until she started screaming.”
Johnson said she immediately contacted first responders who worked with her to care for the two crash victims who were still alive. Johnson said the two injured girls survived the crash thanks to her and other responders’ quick reactions.
Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department honored Johnson and another firefighter, Sara Shaffer, 31, of Chesapeake Beach, for their heroic efforts during the 37th Annual Public Safety Valor Awards on Wednesday, an event that honors the heroism of county firefighters. Both Johnson and Shaffer received Gold Medals of Valor and were named Paramedic of the Year and Firefighter of the Year, respectively, two of the top awards.
It is the first year two women have taken both firefighter and paramedic of the year, said Mark Brady, Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department spokesman.
“I think it is crazy that it is just me,” Shaffer said. “It is a big honor, but I’m just a representative accepting it for them as well.”
Shaffer said she was awarded for her efforts last January when her fire engine responded to a three-vehicle accident on Interstate 495 near the intersection of U.S. 50. Another Prince George’s County Fire/EMS engine had been rear ended by a semi-truck and an SUV had been turned over, she said. The fire engine had been flipped as well, and Shaffer said she was responsible for tending to the injured in that vehicle.
That engine had four firefighters, one of which was severely injured, she said.
“There was debris everywhere,” Shaffer said. “He was in the cab and breathing apparatus had fallen on him. His arm was pretty much detached … just a piece of skin was holding it together.”
Shaffer said she removed the firefighter from his precarious situation and placed him in the back of the ambulance where she clamped her hand over his mangled arm to prevent him from bleeding out. The firefighter survived and kept his arm, she said.
Capt. Charles Waggoner, Shaffer’s boss, said he was proud of both women and their efforts.
“[Shaffer] was doing her job and she did it well,” Waggoner said.
Both women said they were honored to receive their respective awards, but they also credited their fellow firefighters.
“I feel honored and privileged, there are other people that do things that aren’t recognized at all,” Johnson said.
Shaffer and Johnson’s opinion differed when asked about being the two women to take top honors for the first time.
Shaffer said while the firefighter career is male-dominated, Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department does a great job of embracing female employees.
“Our department is 20 percent female, the volunteer force has a lot of females,” Shaffer said. “It was never really an issue for me.”
Johnson said her career has been different. Female firefighters have to prove themselves to their male counterparts, and Johnson said she has used that as fuel in her career.
“Hopefully we set a precedent for future females,” Johnson said. “As a female who wants to be taken seriously, you always have to go above and beyond what you are expected to prove to the guys.”