MONROE - Two Monroe County firefighters - both of whom founded a local fire investigation team - received Firefighter of the Year awards yesterday.
Chief Jim Grahek of the Frenchtown Fire Department and James Kansier, fire marshal for the City of Monroe Fire Department, were recognized by the Kiwanis Club of Monroe as men "who valiantly serve our communities."
The firefighters co-founded the Monroe County Fire Investigation Team in 2000 after they noticed an area trend.
"We both recognized a problem with deliberately set fires in the county," Chief Grahek said. "There were a lot of fires that weren't getting investigated properly."
Fires are typically set to collect insurance money, if somebody is losing a home to foreclosure, when the economy plummets, because of personal feuds, or "typical arsonists" which include a variety of reasons, Chief Grahek said.
"I like the investigation side because of the puzzle, trying to put the pieces together trying to get it right," Mr. Kansier said.
"To identify the origin of the fire, we go from the least damaged area to the most damaged area," Mr. Kansier said. "If there are two different starting points of the fire or if there were not utilities connected to the house at the time of the fire, then there is the possibility that it was humanly caused."
This week is National Fire Prevention Week, which occurs ever year around the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire that left about 100,000 homeless and destroyed some 17,000 structures on Oct. 8, 1871.
"I really enjoy the fire investigation side of it, but the most rewarding side for me is the fire prevention, ... teaching the kids, because that seems to help out the most," Chief Grahek said. "If it's saving their lives or their families lives because of what they learned, that's the most rewarding."
Fire departments throughout the county have held open houses this week, and firefighters are giving presentations at local schools to teach children about basic fire safety.
This year's theme for Fire Prevention Week is "Prevent Cooking Fires: Watch What You Heat."
One of the main ways to prevent fires is to make sure families have functional smoke detectors on every floor, especially outside of each sleeping area, according to the National Fire Prevention Association, which organizes the week-long event.
Mr. Kansier is distributing 225 smoke detectors to families in need across the county through a $1,000 grant he received from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. this summer.
Judge Joseph Costello of the Monroe County Circuit Court said that he decided to start giving awards to county firefighters in 2000 after hearing about an incident in Massachusetts.
Six Massachusetts firefighters died in a warehouse fire in December, 1999, after going in to rescue a homeless couple, who, it later turned out, had left the building.
"I thought it was horrible that not one of these firefighters had been recognized during their careers. And I thought something like this award was needed to show these firefighters, when they are still with us, what they mean to us," said Judge Costello, a Kiwanis Club member who nominated them for the award.
The judge said fire departments are reluctant to single out any specific members of their team for nomination.
"They certainly don't want to nominate themselves or others in their department and no one seems to want to ask for any special recognition," Judge Costello said. "Because of this reluctance, we may start recognizing entire departments next year."
Contact Benjamin Alexander-Bloch