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Firefighter's commitment to duty earns honor

The man is recognized as EMT of the Year after racing to help a heart attack victim stricken in a hair salon.

Firefighter and paramedic David Pacheco was off duty that July morning when he heard a call for help at a local hair salon: A woman had gone into cardiac arrest.

His effort to save the woman's life in the minutes that followed has earned the 32-year-old the distinction of being named Pinellas County's Emergency Medical Technician of the Year.

It is a bittersweet honor for Pacheco because the woman, Phyllis Hopkins, died three days after he restored her breathing and pulse that morning on the floor of Main Street Hair.

But Hopkins' family was thankful to have those three days to say goodbye. And Pacheco's actions were heroic because he went above and beyond the call of duty, said Chuck Kearns, director of Pinellas County's EMS and Fire Administration.

"Dave responded when he wasn't on duty to a cardiac arrest, and we certainly felt that was laudable," Kearns said. "We hope everybody would do this to respond in a life/safety emergency."

It is the first time anyone in this city's 30-person Fire Department has ever captured the honor, said Safety Harbor fire Chief Jay Stout.

Typically, the Sunstar ambulance service garners awards for top EMT and top paramedic. This year, Sunstar paramedic Steve Cerovich won Paramedic of the Year in the annual competition, in which rescue workers are nominated by their peers and judged by a panel of county officials.

Pacheco is following in the footsteps of his firefighter father, David Pacheco of Stonington Borough, Conn. The elder Pacheco still has a 1979 newspaper clipping of a story about his then-11-year-old son climbing on another kid's back to pull a fire alarm at a community center after he saw flames in a nearby building.

"With Dave, it's more than a paycheck, it's a lifestyle," Stout said. "To have Dave recognized as EMT of the year is significant for the whole community and the department."

A 38-year Safety Harbor resident, Phyllis Hopkins had a standing Thursday morning hair appointment at Main Street Hair, where she had been a regular customer for years. Her appointment on July 15, 1999, was extra special because in two days she and her husband, Jack, were to leave on a cruise to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

As she often did, Mrs. Hopkins, 69, lifted the hair dryer off her head that morning and removed her rollers, said Jack Hopkins, who was with her at the salon. Around 9:30 a.m., Mrs. Hopkins stood up and walked from the drying station over to hairdresser Patty Lee's chair and sat down.

Within minutes, both Lee and Mr. Hopkins noticed Mrs. Hopkins had slumped over the side of her chair.

"I knew something was seriously wrong," Mr. Hopkins said. "I yelled out, "Call 911.' "

Pacheco was off duty when he stopped by the Safety Harbor Fire Department on Main Street the morning of July 15 to pick up paperwork for an inspection that needed to be done at a Main Street business. He left the department as the entire Main Street crew that was on duty left to respond to a 9:32 a.m. medical emergency at the Arbors nursing home on Fourth Street N.

Pacheco was crossing Main Street heading for the business when he heard a call over his hand-held emergency radio at 9:37 a.m. for a cardiac arrest emergency at 310 Main St.

Pacheco knew there was no one in the station to help because they were tied up at the nursing home. A rescue unit from Clearwater was responding, but it would take several minutes for it to arrive.

At the salon, the scene was becoming chaotic as people realized Mrs. Hopkins needed help, said Patty Lee, owner of Main Street Hair.

"We didn't know what to do," Lee said.

Outside, just a few blocks away, Pacheco got in his truck, drove to the salon and jumped out with a CPR breathing mask he carries at all times.

"We had another city coming in to cover our city and I knew there was going to be a bit of a delay," Pacheco said. "It being my city I felt it was my obligation to protect my citizens. Those people are my responsibility."

Lee said Pacheco was the first rescue worker to arrive. He quickly calmed the crowd and lifted Mrs. Hopkins out of the chair and onto the floor. She was not breathing and had no pulse, Pacheco said. He enlisted the help of a bystander and began performing CPR.

"It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it," Lee said. "He was just there for us. He was an angel."

Mr. Hopkins said much of what happened that afternoon is a blur for him, but he remembers the young man who was there first to help.

"I'm pleased they're honoring him," he said. "That makes me very happy."