NVFC Announces Recipients of the 2024 Fire Service Achievement Awards

The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) is pleased to announce the winners of its annual fire service achievement awards, which recognize fire service volunteers who have gone above and beyond in service to their department and community.

The 2024 recipients are: Stephen Austin, Lifetime Achievement Award, sponsored by Lincoln Financial Group; Chief John Swan Sr., Chief James P. Seavey Sr. Health & Wellness Leadership Award, co-sponsored by VFIS and Ward Diesel Filter Systems; Joseph Valentino, Junior Firefighter of the Year, sponsored by California Casualty; and Inver Grove Heights Fire Department Explorer Program, Junior Firefighter Program of the Year, sponsored by California Casualty.

“We are honored to recognize members of the volunteer fire service and junior fire service each year for the amazing contributions they make to their departments and communities,” said NVFC chair Steve Hirsch. “This year’s award winners showcase the many ways our nation’s volunteers give back, help their neighbors, and make their communities and departments safer, stronger, and better prepared.”

Austin, Swan, and Valentino will be recognized at an awards ceremony taking place during the NVFC spring meeting on April 26 in Arlington, VA. The Inver Grove Heights Fire Department Explorer Program will be honored during a local ceremony to enable all of their members to attend.

Learn more about the 2024 NVFC award winners below.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Stephen Austin (DE)
Award sponsored by Lincoln Financial Group

Like many others, Steve Austin joined his local volunteer fire company on the encouragement of friends. His journey began with the Rouss Fire Company in Winchester, VA, in 1963. Captivated by the fire service’s history, Austin embarked on a mission to contribute to it. Six decades later, he has expanded his local circle into a national network and is a highly recognized and influential figure in the American fire service.

He served in four states as an active volunteer and is currently serving with the Aetna Hose, Hook, and Ladder Company in Newark, DE, and the Allison Hook and Ladder Company in Harrisburg, PA. Austin has been a staunch advocate at the local, state, and national levels for numerous critical issues impacting first responders. This includes championing and garnering support for key fire service legislation, including the establishment of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant programs, and serving in leadership roles with the Congressional Fire Services Institute, International Association of Arson Investigators, and Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firefighters Association (CVVFA). He was the first chair of the NFPA committees for 1033: Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigators and 1091: Standard for Traffic Control Incident Management Professional Qualifications.

Austin is a founding member of the CVVFA’s Emergency Responder Safety Institute and has dedicated significant efforts to promoting safe operations on roadways for the fire service, law enforcement, and other responder groups. He is past president of the Delaware Volunteer Firefighter’s Association (DVFA), founding chair of the DVFA Foundation, and was the first chair of the board of directors for the First Responder Center for Excellence. His contributions to the fire service have garnered him many awards and recognitions, including being inducted into both the Firehouse Magazine Hall of Fame and the National Fire Heritage Hall of Legacies, Legends, and Leaders.

There is no doubt that Austin’s hard work, innovation, advocacy, and unwavering commitment will continue to benefit current and future firefighters across the nation.

Chief James P. Seavey Sr. Health & Wellness Leadership Award: Chief John Swan Sr. (IL)
Award Co-sponsored by VFIS and Ward Diesel Filter Systems

After reading the Lavender Ribbon Report put out by the NVFC and International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Volunteer and Combination Officers Section, Chief John Swan Sr. of the Colona (IL) Fire Department wanted to do more to raise awareness among firefighters about cancer risks and put into practice actions that would reduce those risks. He decided to start by focusing on immediate, on-scene, gross decontamination, knowing it would be an easy-to-implement, low-cost intervention with huge benefits. He named the program “Go Green Clean” and began to use green cattle ear tags in his station to identify clean gear. The tags were removed when headed to a fire, and the gear would not be used again until it was cleaned and had a tag back on it.

Seeing the success the Go Green Clean program had in improving firefighter safety, Swan, who was president of the Illinois Firefighters Association (IFA), decided to pitch the idea to the organization. They saw the potential, and the Go Green Clean Initiative was born with the mission to develop and promote a health intervention program to reduce the risks of firefighter cancer at the local, state, and national levels.

Inspired by the “Pink Heals” trucks and their impact on cancer awareness, Swan worked with Alexis Fire Equipment to secure a donated, working 1994 HME fire engine. Using donated funds, the engine was polished and wrapped in neon green with graphics promoting the Go Green Clean Initiative. It was then outfitted with television screens to show videos about cancer prevention. The Illinois State Fire Marshal donated buckets, soap, scrub brushes, and hoses to hand out from the truck to stations across the state. Visitors are also encouraged to sign up for the National Firefighter Registry for Cancer and are given cancer risk reduction posters to take back to their departments. Since hitting the road in 2022, the truck has visited over 40 towns and distributed over 94 free decontamination kits. It has gone to conferences and the state fair, reaching over 100,000 people.

The Go Green Clean Initiative is committed to supplying the necessary information, training, and decontamination equipment to all firefighters. Led by Swan and his dedication to firefighters, the IFA’s long-term goal is to have a fleet of trucks traveling nationwide.

Junior Firefighter of the Year: Joseph Valentino (NJ)
Award sponsored by California Casualty

A proud third-generation member of the volunteer fire service, Joseph Valentino has distinguished himself in his community as a junior firefighter with the Independent Fire Engine & Truck Co. No. 2 of the City of Long Branch (NJ) Fire Department (LBFD) and with the Oakhurst Independent Hose Co. No. 1 of the Oakhurst Fire Department in Township of Ocean Fire District No. 1 (NJ). Valentino’s multifaceted involvement across various disciplines showcases a remarkable spirit of youth community involvement.

While Valentino is committed to both fire departments, the LBFD holds special significance for him. For his Eagle Scout Service Project, he played a pivotal role in a volunteer recruitment drive for the LBFD, orchestrating a campaign involving door-to-door canvassing, social media interactions, city-wide parades and community events, and appeals at community organizations. The initiative utilized resources from the NVFC’s Make Me A Firefighter campaign and ultimately reached 35,000 residents. The drive resulted in a 25 percent increase in the LBFD’s active volunteer firefighting force. In recognition of Valentino’s efforts, LBFD awarded him the Robert “Bullet” Feeney Medal and his recruitment drive has been named the Glenn A. and Melinda W. Adams National Eagle Scout Service Project of the Year.

Valentino is constantly demonstrating his commitment to community service, from his extensive participation in the Boy Scouts of America and its honor society, the Order of the Arrow, to engagement in his church community, to multiple service and leadership roles at school, including membership in the National Honor Society. This extensive involvement reflects his empathy, care, and genuine desire to contribute positively to both his immediate and extended communities.

In pursuing these varied interests and such a high level of achievement, Valentino has not just overcome personal challenges, but he has used those challenges to fuel a passion that strengthens and enriches the communities he serves. His journey demonstrates his extraordinary commitment to the values of the fire service and the difference that he can make on the well-being of the community at large.

Junior Firefighter Program of the Year: Inver Grove Heights Fire Department Explorer Program (MN)
Award sponsored by California Casualty

The Inver Grove Heights Fire Department (IGHFD) had one of the longest running Explorer programs in Minnesota before COVID. To bring it back, Deputy Chief Eric Bergum and Lieutenant Dan Bernardy worked with a local high school to create a joint Explorer program for high school students. Five students joined this new program, meeting every other week at the fire station, even throughout the summer.

Bergum and Bernardy then approached the high school about adding a Cadet Pathways Program for students in grades 11-12. The school agreed, and the program was born. The program is a step beyond Explorers, allowing high school students to receive certifiable/transferable training and direction toward a career in firefighting. The goal is to get students excited about firefighting as Explorers in grades 9-10, and those interested in learning more can move on to become a cadet. Six high school students are currently participating in the cadet program; three started in the Explorer program and are continuing with both.

Once a week, students in the Cadet Pathways Program leave school to attend the Northern Dakota Training Academy (NDTA) for morning classes covering Firefighter 1-2 and HazMat Ops. Bergum is also working with a local college to create a Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) pathways program for the cadets. The program would provide 10 free college credits for the NDTA fire classes. Those classes, combined with the high school’s emergency medical technician training, will give students a path to volunteer, part-time, or full-time careers in firefighting upon graduation.

With many departments struggling to attract new firefighters, the programs offered by the IGHFD are invigorating an interest in the emergency services among young people who will go on to be the next generation of firefighters. Students can graduate from high school with a solid career path, training, and certifications, giving fire departments a boost in their recruitment pools. If cadets choose to become career firefighters, they will still be encouraged to join a non-career department while finishing their college degrees or waiting to get hired. The positive and long-lasting impact these programs will have on the future of the fire service is clear.

About the Award Sponsors

Founded in 1914, California Casualty provides auto and home insurance to firefighters, peace officers, education professionals, higher education employees, and nurses in 7 states. We protect those who serve our communities, delivering peace of mind and exceptional service with auto and home coverage that is Simple. Trusted. Affordable. Right for you.

Lincoln Financial Group provides advice and solutions that help empower people to take charge of their financial lives with confidence and optimism. Today, more than 17 million customers trust their retirement, insurance, and wealth protection expertise to help address their lifestyle, savings, and income goals, as well as to guard against long-term care expenses. The National LOSAP HEROPLUS℠ Program was designed to help individual fire and emergency services departments recruit, retain, and reward dedicated volunteers with a program that will help boost their retirement readiness.

VFIS is the largest provider of insurance, education, and consulting services to emergency service organizations such as fire departments, ambulance and rescue squads, and 911 centers. They have a long history of helping the emergency service community protect their assets and manage their exposure to loss. They pioneered the first tailored insurance package and formed a program for emergency service organizations. VFIS drafted the first specialized insurance policy in 1969 and continues to be the leader in the industry, insuring more emergency service organizations than any other provider.

Automatic and vehicle-mounted, Ward Diesel NO SMOKE Systems offer diesel exhaust protection on scene, in the station – anywhere you need it. Building modifications are not required for installation and there are no mechanical pieces to be attached by the firefighter when exiting and returning to the station. NO SMOKE is the only diesel exhaust removal solution on the market today that provides complete protection against harmful diesel exhaust both inside and outside the fire station.