Vancouver Police Department Officers J. Tom Topaum, Dennis Devlin and Brian Viles aren’t used to being in the limelight or, really, any sort of bright light. They work the graveyard shift, taking calls under the veil of darkness while the rest of the city sleeps.
Even so, early Thursday afternoon was their time to shine during a departmental awards ceremony at the Water Resources Education Center.
Interim Chief Chris Sutter presented each with the medal of valor for kicking down the door of a burning apartment building and pulling out a woman who was trapped inside.
The officers softly smiled as Sutter placed the medals around their necks. The gold medallion hangs from a ribbon the same color as the early afternoon sky, light blue. The lighter the shade of blue, the greater the valor.
“We never expected to get a medal,” Topaum said after the ceremony.
They also didn’t expect the paparazzi of family photographers who followed them onto the second-floor balcony.
“We didn’t have this many pictures at our wedding,” Devlin said to his wife as they grinned for another photo op.
The three were the first on site to an apartment fire reported 1:23 a.m. May 12 in Vancouver’s Harney Heights neighborhood, where a woman was said to be trapped inside. Topaum kicked in the door, but could hardly see due to thick, dark smoke and flames. Devlin used a fire extinguisher from his patrol car to help them move into the building.
Viles got a gas mask from his car and found a woman on the couch. They pulled her from the apartment a few minutes before medics arrived. Though badly burned, she had a pulse.
While the woman, 66-year-old Karen Kimberling, died later that day, her daughter Dede Kimberling was grateful for the officers’ response — especially because they were not wearing any gear to protect them from fire.
Over the past couple of years, Topaum said he’s worked a lot with Devlin and Viles. May 12 was just another example of teamwork.
Five Evergreen High School employees received the Life Saving Award for resuscitating Heidi Stewart, an 18-year-old student who suffered sudden cardiac arrest at school on the morning of Feb. 12. Dianna Lynch saw Stewart collapse on the office floor and radioed other staff members, including nurse Debbie Fowler, who said she was on her way with an automated external defibrillator, a portable life-saving device.
Associate Principal Reuben Dohrendorf arrived first, finding no pulse. Dean of students Marshall Pendleton prepped the AED while Fowler started performing chest compressions. Officer Eric McCaleb later took over the chest compressions.
With administered shocks from the AED and continued chest compressions, life slowly pulsed back into Stewart’s body. Medics later said Stewart would not have survived without the efforts of the school’s staff.
They each received a plaque and a hug from Heidi Stewart, who says they’re like family now. Thanks to them, she starts classes at Clark College this fall.
Cpl. Doug Rickard received the Special Service Award for his years with the Tactical Emergency Medical unit. When he started in 2003, the unit was in its infancy. He’s since gone to hundreds of SWAT call-outs, including a 20-hour police standoff at a Cascade Park home in 2007, where a barricaded subject shot Cpl. Christopher LeBlanc. Rickard tended to his wounds and later LeBlanc reportedly gave a thumbs-up to his fellow officers as he was wheeled out on a stretcher.
Officers with Vancouver’s Police Activities League were also awarded for their work with at-risk youth. Officer Brian Schaffer was credited with doubling the amount of volunteer support for a reading program that helped serve more than 1,000 second-graders over the last year in Vancouver. Julie Ballou was recognized for supporting a program with the Fisticuffs Gym, a boxing and jiujitsu gym on Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard.
Sutter is quick to point out that many good deeds are unmarked by pins, plaques and medals. They often go unnoticed, unrecognized.
“You don’t see the day-in, day-out acts of honor, courage and bravery,” he said.
Of course, the Vancouver police officers didn’t sign up for the trinkets. They took an oath to protect and serve.
Cpl. Neil Martin recites a popular quote before swearing in nine new officers: “All that’s necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
These officers and good people, he points out, are looking to go beyond that and do something. Five of the nine new recruits have military experience. Many hail from the Pacific Northwest, though they went to different parts of the country for education, training and experience.
For now, they’re still figuring out Vancouver, but during their career look to get involved in the agency’s specialty units: K-9, SWAT, the Crisis/Hostage Negotiation Team, the Domestic Violence Unit, the Safe Streets Task Force and the Traffic Unit.