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Off-duty Florida paramedics win Never Quit awards for rescuing tornado victims

Photo: Michael Rivera/ Wikimedia
Off-duty Florida paramedics win Never Quit awards for rescuing tornado victims
By Pablo Ros ·
Off-duty Florida paramedics win Never Quit awards for rescuing tornado victims
Heath Schmidt (left) and Paul Tucker.

The damage left behind by several powerful tornadoes that ripped through northwestern Florida back in January are a reminder that, in the hands of Mother Nature, the structures we build to protect ourselves are as frail as children’s toys.

But the people who protect us in a natural disaster are anything but frail. The courage and determination of paramedics, fire fighters and other first responders who put their lives on the line to save ours are formidable in their own way.

AFSCME members Heath Schmidt and Paul Tucker were in the Florida Panhandle on Jan. 9. The two paramedics, who work for UF Health ShandsCair in Gainesville, were off-duty and had traveled to the Panama City area, some 200 miles away from home, on union business.

It was 5 o’clock in the morning when their cell phones went off announcing a tornado warning. Soon the electricity went out. Then Tucker’s cell phone rang — it was one of their co-workers back in Gainesville.

“He’d heard that we were in the Panhandle area, and he told us that his son was in a campsite where a tornado had gone through and now he was trapped under the roof of his cabin, and he couldn’t get help,” Tucker said. “It turned out his son was only five miles away. I told him we would head there.”

Tucker and Schmidt knew that what they were about to do was risky because the storms were still coming.

“We knew we could get ourselves into a bad situation,” Schmidt said. “When you’re working with your department and you need assistance, you always know there’s someone coming behind you. But in this case, we were on our own.”

As they drove out there, “There were power lines all over the ground, and we came across a washed-out bridge,” Tucker recalled. “What we walked into was mind-blowing: buildings collapsed, RVs flipped over. It looked like a war zone.”

They arrived at the campsite as their colleague’s son was being loaded for transport to a hospital — he had some pretty bad lacerations to his legs, Tucker said. Then he and Schmidt talked to the first responders who had done a primary search of the area.

“Paul and I decided to do a secondary search, and we ended up finding two people who were injured inside RVs that had rolled over from the tornado,” Schmidt said. “They were able to holler back and say they were injured. And we were able to assist them.”

For their service to their community, Schmidt and Tucker, who are vice president and president, respectively, of Local 260 (AFSCME Florida), are winners of our union’s Never Quit Service Award, which recognizes public service workers who go above and beyond the call of duty to make their communities better.

“I like to go home at the end of my shift and feel that I made a difference today,” said Schmidt, when asked why he chose to serve as a critical care flight paramedic. “Every day I go to work, I’m doing something for the greater good.”

“I went into this line of work because I wanted to help people, I enjoy helping people,” said Tucker, who serves as a critical care paramedic. “I never look for awards. I do what I do because I want to do it.”

Tucker and Schmidt also agreed that any one of their colleagues would have responded the same way.

“Any one of the people I work with would have made the exact same decision,” Schmidt said. “I work with some incredible people that put it all on the line every day, and none of them would have hesitated to do exactly what we did.”

Know a co-worker who goes the extra mile to make their community better?

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