W.Va. emergency leaders honored with DHS Freedom Awards

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Gov. Jim Justice and his Department of Homeland Security are honoring West Virginia county emergency managers for their commitment to their challenging call to duty.

Homeland Security has inaugurated awards for the fiscal year 2020 to recognize emergency officials in six categories: lifesaving, innovation, teamwork, perseverance, leadership, and lifetime achievement.

“These dedicated men and women help make sure we run to the fire,” said Justice. “Whether it’s COVID-19 or flooding or any other emergency, they know how to respond to save lives and they keep our communities prepared in the meantime.”

The honorees will be presented with the Freedom Pin, developed by Homeland Security Secretary Jeff Sandy.

“Our intent is to honor those lives by recognizing current first responders who go above and beyond to protect West Virginia citizens from natural disasters and threats to our way of life from both foreign and domestic evil powers,” Sandy said. “The men and women on the front lines of emergency management spend countless hours preparing for natural and manmade disasters.”

Homeland Security coordinates with West Virginia’s 55 emergency management agencies through its Division of Emergency Management, which is currently being overseen by DHS Deputy Secretary Thom Kirk.

“Although I have watched these people from a distance as part of my position at Homeland Security, it wasn’t until eight months ago when I was appointed acting director that I was able to see the day-to-day sacrifices and accomplishments of the people receiving these Freedom Awards,” Kirk said. “I am forever grateful to them for the work that they do for the state and for the West Virginians who benefit from their commitments.”

The 2020 honorees:

Lifesaving: Roger Bryant, director of Logan County’s Office of Emergency Management. Director Bryant has worked extensively through the years developing policy, conducting training exercises, and managing real-world incidents.  He has been a leader in preparing for mining disasters, flooding, winter storms, and other emergencies that threaten the loss of life.  He is responsible for the development and management of Logan County’s emergency medical, rescue and disaster response system.

Innovation: Lou Vargo, director of the Wheeling–Ohio County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. Director Vargo has been a leader in using state of the art technology to make emergency management the best to aid in the effectiveness of responses to emergencies.  He has also served as deputy director and has more than 30 years of emergency management experience in West Virginia and Ohio. 

Teamworkall 55 county managers. In the view of the W.Va. Emergency Management Council, at no time in its history has its members been more unified and working together as they have during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Perseverance (two recipients): Tom Hart, director of Marshall County’s Office of Emergency Management; and Director Laura Pysz of Harrison County Office of Emergency Management.  Each has been challenged with disasters, major road issues and many other obstacles in the past few years. Both have stood strong and persevered through them all.

Director Hart currently serves as an executive board member of the W. Va. Emergency Management Council, after terms as president and vice president. Hart is also chairperson for the W. Va. Homeland Security Region 2 Interoperability Committee and was tasked with developing the bylaws for all six regional interoperability committees.

Director Pysz began her career at the City of Bridgeport, working her way up to Director in 2014.  In 2018 Laura transitioned from City Government to County Government and became the Director of Emergency Management for Harrison County.

Leadership: Dean Meadows, director of Wyoming County 911 Center and Office of Emergency Services. Director Meadows has led Wyoming OES/911 since its inception in 1991. Meadows is also in his second term as president of the W. Va. Emergency Management Council, which consists of all 55 county emergency management agencies.

Lifetime Achievement: Walter Smittle III, director of Jackson County’s Office of Emergency Management. Director Smittle was West Virginia State Fire Marshall for more than 25 years, following his appointment in 1974. Among other distinctions, he served as president of what is now the International Fire Marshals Association and the National Association of State Fire Marshals. He was previously named Emergency Manager of the Year by W.Va. Emergency Management Council and a life member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

“To be acknowledged by our peers and state leaders for our dedication and commitment is very rewarding,” said WVEMC President Meadows. “It is an honor that Gov. Justice and Secretary Sandy have recognized members of the emergency management community for these prestigious awards.”

Sandy created the Freedom Pin upon taking office in 2017, to honor the men and women of what has become the Department of Homeland Security who have made the ultimate sacrifice since the state’s founding on June 20, 1863. To date, 136 members including State Police troopers and correctional officers have perished protecting West Virginia freedoms. 

More about the 2020 recipients:

Roger Bryant worked his first flood at age 13 as a Boy Scout volunteer.  He washed dishes and attended to flood evacuees at a shelter in the basement of the Masonic temple in Logan.  He worked with the Red Cross and later became chapter chairman. Bryant has 40 years of experience in emergency management, both as a team member of various rescue teams providing direct field services and managing small and large emergencies. He served as deputy director of the Logan County OEM for 20 years and then became its director in the 1990s. He served as chief of operations and incident commander for the Hurricane Katrina Evacuees Relief Center at Camp Dawson, as well as the fatal Aracoma mine disaster in Melville, Logan County.

Bryant was one of the founders of the W.Va. Search and Rescue Network, Among the numerous local and national awards recognizing his accomplishments: the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR) State Award, the 2006 President’s Volunteer Service Award, the W. Va. State Medical Association’s Presidential Citation, the Weirton Heights Rescue Award, the Samuel Channell State EMS Award, and EMS Administrator of the Year.  He is a principal member of the NFPA 1670 Standard Committee for Technical Rescue.

Lou Vargo started assisting the Jefferson County, Ohio, EMA in the 1980s as a co-coordinator of Hazardous Materials Response. He joined Ohio County, W.Va. Emergency Management as director on Sept 1, 1990.  He then appointed John Tagg as director and he served as deputy director due to administrative duties at Wheeling Hospital. He returned as director in 2008. Vargo is the director of the Ohio County Emergency Medical Service where he serves as a paramedic. 

Vargo received a Master of Science degree in community health management from West Virginia University’s School of Medicine, and a Bachelor of Science degree in anesthesia from the former Wheeling College. He has served as director of Nurse Anesthesia for both Wheeling Hospital and the former Ohio Valley Medical Center. 

Vargo is a certified hazardous materials technician and incident commander. He is certified in Basic Disaster Life Support and Operations Disaster Life Support through the American Medical Association. He is an American Heart Association Advanced Cardiac Life Support instructor.  He has served as fire chief for the Mt. Pleasant, Ohio Volunteer Fire Department. He was instrumental in establishing the Wheeling Fire Department’s Advanced Life Support program, serving as its first pre-hospital care advisor. He has been an EMS, fire and rescue instructor since 1978 and teaches disaster management courses, EMS, and hazardous materials response courses.  He has co-authored chapters of the Ohio Victim Rescue manual in Heavy Equipment Rescue and Technical Rescue.  Vargo is also a member of the executive committee of the U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Safety Committee in Pittsburgh, Pa., and a member of the W.Va. Health Care Coalition Region 10/11.  Lou is a proud graduate of the first West Virginia course of the FEMA National Emergency Management Basic Academy.

Tom Hart began his public safety career as a volunteer with the Cameron Volunteer Fire Department, Cameron Emergency Medical Services and as a dispatcher for the Cameron Police Department.  He then served as a telecommunicator with the Marshall County 911 Communications Center for six years prior to being appointed Emergency Management Director in July of 2000.

Given the rapid growth of the oil and gas industry in northern West Virginia, and following three major gas well incidents in his county, Hart developed the Marshall County Energy Exploration Task Force. This brought together oil and gas operators, first responders, local and state elected officials, community leaders and public entities.

Hart is a member of the W. Va. State Interoperability Executive Committee; chairperson of the Marshall County Local Emergency Planning Committee; and vice-chairperson of the Marshall County 911 Advisory Board.  In 2010, Hart was named West Virginia Emergency Manager of the Year. He is also a proud graduate of the inaugural West Virginia class of the FEMA National Emergency Management Basic Academy in the fall of 2019. A native of Cameron, West Virginia, Hart currently serves as head boys basketball coach at Cameron High School.

Laura Pysz is an accomplished emergency manager with a proven track record for achieving goals in a fast-paced environment. In 2017, she was named the John Tagg Memorial West Virginia Emergency Manager of the Year.  In 2018, she was awarded the National Walter J Bennett Public Service Award.  She has devoted her service to the community, with an emphasis on community engagement, management, supervision, growth, and development. Pysz served as the vice president of the Emergency Management Council for the past two years, and she prides herself on helping others.  Pysz is readily available to help or give guidance to a colleague and she even spent a month assisting Greenbrier County after the devastating 2016 flooding. 

Dean Meadows is a 1978 graduate of Pineville High School, a 1982 graduate of West Virginia University and a graduate of the 60th Basic Class of the West Virginia State Police Academy. He has served as a Wyoming County deputy sheriff and as manager of the Wyoming County Airport. Meadows is a nationally certified floodplain manager and is the floodplain manager for Wyoming County and the municipalities of Mullens, Oceana and Pineville.  He serves as chairman of the Wyoming County LEPC and treasurer of the Wyoming County EDA.

Meadows has managed six presidentially declared disasters and has been the project manager of eight federal Hazard Mitigation grants. He is a former president of the WV E911 Council and currently serves as its vice-president. Meadows received the 2009 WV E911 Council President’s Award as the state’s top 911 director and was chosen as the 2016 West Virginia Emergency Manager of the Year. Meadows was a member of the W. Va. Statewide Addressing and Mapping Board until its sunset and was most recently appointed to the W. Va. State Resiliency Board.

Walter Smittle III was born in New Martinsville and received his elementary and secondary education in Paden City.  Continuing his education at Marshall University on an athletic scholarship, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1965 with a double major in general/biological science and physical education.

Following his graduation from Marshall, Smittle was a classroom teacher for nearly five years, teaching general science and biology, as well as filling the position of head basketball coach.  In 1970, he accepted an administrative position in the Wetzel County School system and became director of Transportation and Safety. Concurrently with that employment, he was a student in the graduate degree program of WVU. In 1973, he received his Master of Science Degree in safety education. During this period, 1965-1973, he became involved with the fire service as a firefighter, officer and instructor for firefighting.  His educational background in safety and active interest in fire science established his eligibility as W. Va. State Fire Marshal. 

Following his confirmation in January 1974, Smittle served as state fire marshal for nearly 26 years. During his tenure, he was active in the NFPA and the Fire Marshals Association of North America. He has served on the Life Safety Code Committee of NFPA, Fire Safety Symbols Committee and Fire Prevention Code and later served as chair on that committee.  He was appointed to the Standards Council of NFPA by the NFPA and appointed to the Board of Directors of the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS). 

Smittle completed the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and received the prestigious 1995 Standards Medal Award from the Standards Council of NFPA,  He also received the Firefighter of the Year Award from the National Volunteer Fire Council in 1997, the Paul C. Lamb Award from the NFPA Board of Directors, and the Percy Bugbee Award from the Fire Marshals Association of North America.  As a result of his participation, he was awarded a fellowship to Harvard University to attending  John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1986. In July 1994, he completed the Duke University Program for State Executives. He served as executive director of the W.Va. Safety Council prior to committing his services to the National Association of State Fire Marshals where he provided consultation services on national codes and standards. He also provided instruction on the Life Safety and Fire Prevention Code of NFPA. 

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