By Brandi Makuski
A Stevens Point firefighter has been named Public Educator of the Year.
Shane Westphal, 33, said he had no idea he’d been nominated for the accolade — only one of two given in the entire state — by Chief Bob Finn and Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Davis.
“I had no idea; it was a total surprise,” Westphal said on Monday.
Davis said the award was “well-served”, and pointed to Westphal’s work in public education on fire safety, which he characterized as “dedicated…like no one else before him”.
“He’s taken the Explorers program by the horns and basically developed that from the ground up,” Davis said, adding Westphal has also helped procure fire safety books for local elementary school students.
But then, Westphal went a step further, Davis said, and “revolutionized” the mandatory fire safety education taught in local schools.
“He came and asked us for a tablet, so he could take it into the schools and actually plug it in to the Smartboard, and he downloaded all the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) apps on it,” Davis said. “So we can actually go in there and give a consistent public education presentation.”
Westphal said “there’s a time and a place for coloring books” teaching fire safety, but today’s youth are very tech savvy, and have a different expectation when it comes to interactive education.
“Kids today, I mean, my three-year-old can use a tablet,” he said. “Right, wrong or indifferent, it’s the way it is, and kids’ attention spans are a lot shorter, so the electronic forms of education are very interactive and the kids respond to it very well.”
Wesphal, who’s been with SPFD for five years, said he’s always had a passion for teaching others, and has a degree in agricultural education.
“I often wondered how I’d ever use my degree, and this is a great niche for me in the fire department to help promote and utilize curriculum,” he said. “That’s something I’ve always loved about the fire service.”
Westphal was awarded a plaque during the annual Wisconsin State Firefighters Convention, held in Wis. Dells on Oct. 27.
It was a convention he almost didn’t attend.
Westphal had been looking forward to an anniversary getaway with his wife, when, unbeknownst to him, Assistant Chief Davis intervened.
“I told [Davis] I probably wouldn’t be able to make it because I was going away for my anniversary,” Westphal said. “But then he called my wife and told her about it, so she was in on it the whole time. Assistant Chief Davis kept telling me, ‘Shane, you’ve got to go,’ and then my wife started telling me to go, so she helped get me there.”
Westphal said he only attended the conference for one day, and as he sat in the audience along with Lt. Tracy Aldrich, someone tapped him on the shoulder. Behind him was his wife, along with Finn, Davis and others in the dept. to surprise him.
“I was really caught off guard, I had no idea,” he said. “It’s such an honor.”