Firefighter receives Christopher Blackwell Dedication to Service Award

By Steve Coulter Ridgefield Press

Ridgefield firefighter Lt. Rom Duckworth remembers first meeting fellow firefighter Christopher Blackwell at the beginning of his career in 1990.

He remembers getting the call to go down to Ground Zero on September 11, 2001 and he remembers the gradual realization that his comrade, who worked for the Fire Department of New York, wasn’t coming back from the destruction.

“He wasn’t just somebody I worked with,” Lt. Duckworth said of his late friend. “It’s very rare that there’s anybody that you just know from work — you know them personally, because the fire service is a very close-knit community.

“Chris was such an inspiration to all of us in so many ways,” he said. “It was devastating to think that the best firefighter that any of us could think of could have passed away on the job in any situation, even something as devastating as 9/11.

“At first there was a lot of disbelief, but eventually we had to come around to accept it.”

That day is unforgettable for any firefighter and paramedic like Lt. Duckworth, who was awarded the Christopher Blackwell Dedication to Service Award on May 21 at Danbury Hospital.

The award is designated for someone who has a major effect on emergency medical services.

Lt. Duckworth has certainly done that through launching programs with the American Heart Association in Ridgefield and teaching about advancements in the emergency response field across the country.

“Honestly, to have my name associated with his name, in any way, is the greatest honor I can have as an emergency responder,” Lt. Duckworth said. “He was so great at every aspect of his job — paramedicine, rescue, firefighting — across the board; he had both a passion and a humility that I strive for.

“He was just happy to learn something new and share it with someone,” he added. “That’s the person who I want to be — the person who learns something and is able to share it with other people.”

Lt. Duckworth was attending the event at the hospital for other members of the Ridgefield Fire Department who knew in advance they were being recognized. He hadn’t been told he’d receive an award as well.

“I sat there blinking,” he recalled. “I wasn’t sure if I heard the name correctly — I was very, very surprised; I had no idea whatsoever.”

A hands-on profession

Lt. Duckworth, who grew up all around Fairfield County in Newtown, New Fairfield, and Stamford, attended college in Philadelphia and studied chemical engineering before switching paths.

“As part of the major, we took a first aid class and I was a lot more compelled by the first aid training than I was by the chemical engineering training,” he said. “Every class I took — fire, EMS, rescue — just made me more passionate about doing it.”

Despite not growing up in a household of firefighters, Lt. Duckworth had too much passion for emergency response and fire service to reconsider his career choice.

“I’ve always been a hands-on person and, in chemical engineering, there was plenty of research but there wasn’t anything that was hands-on,” he said. “Now I’m in a profession where I can put my hands on what I study and see it positively affecting people here in the community.

“I really enjoy doing the research and applying it.”

The internal motor 

Lt. Duckworth realizes the industry isn’t for everyone.

He says the most important character trait for a medical responder and a firefighter to have is to be self-motivated.

“You have to have a real passion for the job,” he said. “It’s not something you can do properly if you’re expecting to punch in and punch out at the end of the day because there are so many different skills you have to be proficient in.

“If you’re not internally driven to pursue it, then you’re not going to thrive and survive,” he added. “That’s the source behind all of it.”

It’s a lesson he learned earlier in his career volunteering at the New Fairfield Fire Department from none other than Christopher Blackwell, who was working as a contract paramedic around the Danbury area, including in Ridgefield.

“He was passionate about everything,” Lt. Duckworth recalled. “Just because he worked for the FDNY, he never said anything with his chest puffed out; he genuinely wanted to share things with you.

“I met him right at the beginning of my career; back in the days when we had contract paramedics,” he said. “I ended up working with him both in New Fairfield and Ridgefield and he taught me a lot.”

Responding to 9/11

Lt. Duckworth was working as a contract paramedic at Danbury Hospital when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001.

He was called to Ground Zero through the New York State’s Office of Emergency Management, which requested a team from Danbury Hospital.

“I was asked to lead that team and we were relieved around midnight,” he said. “We were doing a lot of work, pulling people out of the pile and treating whoever we found.”

He was scheduled to work in Ridgefield on September 12, but was given the day off after contacting his superiors from New York City.

“When we finally came back, we thought — even after seeing what the scene was like down there —  that people would get dug out and that more people would be there,” he said of the days that followed. “Because it was such a slow process, it became a gradual realization after numerous days that Chris wasn’t coming back.

“It was very tough for everybody.”

Passion for teaching

Lt. Duckworth went on to teach Chris’s son, Ryan, in his emergency medical technician class.

“Everyone knew his family,” he said. “His kids were really young when it happened.”

Ryan has since gone on to become a FDNY firefighter — one of many members in the fire service affected by Lt. Duckworth, a self-described tech and science geek who has spoken at EMS conferences in Canada, Dallas, and Chicago.

“We take programs that we develop for the Ridgefield staff and deliver them locally and nationally through people requesting that we come out and speak,” he said. “When they say the way we teach is useful to others all over the country, not just here, it’s extremely rewarding.

“We work very hard to stay very good at a challenging, ever-changing field.”

His lunch time reading consists of a thick highlighted packet full of information and statistics.

“I’m fascinated by all the things we have to learn,” he said. “There’s so much to keep up on — health care, automotive technology, building structure and building technology; it’s constantly evolving.”

The part he enjoys the most is delivering the message — spreading the information like Christopher Blackwell once did — to those who he works with at the department and outside.

He regularly writes on EMS blogs and online learning sites.

“I’m thrilled to be able to do it and I’m proud of it because it’s something I’m really passionate about,” he said. “It’s sort of embarrassing to get an award and recognition for it — to be singled out, because everyone busts their butts and has applied those changes to help people.”

Home sweet home

Lt. Duckworth, who lives in Sherman with his wife, applied only to Ridgefield after volunteering in New Fairfield.

He has worked at the department for 16 years and doesn’t see himself leaving any time soon.

“I specifically wanted to be here in Ridgefield because, as a smaller department, I knew I could make a difference and face a variety of challenges,” he said. “It’s the reason why I stayed and the reason I plan on being here for a while.”

In 2011, he helped create a program in town called the Best Practices in Advanced Life Support in conjunction with the American Heart Association, which changed the way the department performs cardiac resuscitation.

In March of this year, he was asked to testify in Hartford for the American Stroke Association in an attempt to create an integrated network between hospitals and emergency responders.

“In Connecticut, we have a lot of great resources available but no system to direct EMS providers,” he said. “The goal is to take a patient to the hospital with the most amount of resources for stroke patients.”

While these various programs and interest could be considered his hobbies, he does have others outside of the firehouse.

He’s a gardner [sic] and cook, which has led him to his newest interest — beekeeping.

“It’s just like having a fish tank and watching fish swim around,” he said. “When you’ve had a busy or challenging day at the fire department, having a chair in the garden and watching the honeybees fly around and do their thing is very relaxing.”

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