- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

STOW, Ohio (AP) - Sandy Ray was an eager, young firefighter when she was faced with a horror that has yet to be repeated in her career: The fire death of a child.

She was a 19-year-old University of Akron freshman and a rookie with the Tallmadge Fire Department in 1988 when she skipped class to answer an emergency voice page. A South Avenue house was engulfed with flames and a 4-year-old boy was missing.

“I can remember that day so vividly,” she said. The flames kept firefighters at bay, but Ray remembers holding onto one glimmer of hope: “That maybe he’s outside, hiding behind a tree because he’s scared to come out.”

He wasn’t. His body was found among the ruins. It was suspected he had been playing with matches.

Ray’s budding professional life took an immediate turn.

“I said I never want that to happen again. I went to the chief a week later and said we can turn this into something positive,” Ray said.

She didn’t have to twist his arm. She immediately was made the city’s part-time fire safety education officer.

Soon after, she made the jump to the Stow Fire Department and took over its education programs full time. More than 25 years later, “Firefighter Sandy” is teaching second and third generations of Stow families how to escape tragedy.

“She’s like a rock star,” Stow Mayor Sara Drew said. “Everyone loves Firefighter Sandy; everyone knows Firefighter Sandy.”

Ray remains a part-time firefighter in Tallmadge- it’s not uncommon for firefighters to juggle jobs in two cities -and the 45 hours a month she puts in there keep her in the field with real-world experience.

But her 40-hour-a-week job in Stow satisfies her need to teach.

“It felt like a calling,” she said of the moment she realized she wanted to prevent injury and death even more than she wanted to fight fires.

Ray, 47, doesn’t come from a family of firefighters. Growing up, she remembered wanting to be a truck driver, then a postal worker.

In high school, she finally settled on becoming a teacher.

“There were a lot of teachers who were very impactful to me; they really made a difference, and I realized I really wanted to make a difference,” she said.

She entered UA to study education.

Something else made an impact on her high school years. She belonged to the Explorer Program, which introduces young people to their fire departments and even allows them to help with minor chores on real calls.

She stayed involved with the Explorers after graduation, and at age 19, Ray was invited to take a physical agility test. The petite blonde passed.

“I was so pumped,” she said. She joined the Tallmadge force to train as a firefighter and EMT in 1987.

Her career has been all-consuming, she admits.

“It becomes part of your lifestyle,” she said, explaining how she handles being part of two fire departments. “I live, eat and breathe fire safety.”

She even has expanded her school programs to touch on anything that might help keep children from injury, from cars and bikes to behaving properly as a pedestrian to water safety. She has preached about bullies.

“It’s a big problem, and kids can be hurt physically and emotionally,” Ray said.

Just about all of Stow’s 2,000-plus public and private elementary school students will come in contact with her each school year.

She will teach them about the importance of changing smoke detector batteries and having an escape plan. She’ll warn them to keep their bedroom doors closed at night to give firefighters precious extra moments to reach them, or instruct them on how to crawl beneath choking fumes.

On a recent afternoon, Ray was showing off the city’s safety center to a group of Girl Scouts earning their first-aid badges. She took a spin down the fire pole and let the youngsters pass through a firetruck.

Gretchen Gies recalled how her daughter, 9-year-old Kendall, came home and made the family decide on a fire escape plan after meeting Ray.

“Most kids in the community would know (Ray) on sight,” Gries said. “When the kids see her and come home, it’s all they talk about.”

Ray reaches out to the other end of the age spectrum as well. Last fall, she arranged for the fire department to take a ladder truck to high-rise facilities in town.

“We wanted to say, ‘Here’s this wonderful piece of equipment, but we are limited in what we can do,’?” she said. Ladders are a time-consuming way of trying to rescue people, and residents of apartment buildings can help by reacting immediately to alarms.

“We just really stress with them that when the alarm goes off, they need to go. They might not want to get up out of bed, or it’s cold outside. It’s human nature. Unless they see, smell or hear danger, they don’t always react,” Ray said.

Fire Chief Mark Stone said it’s rare for a department to fund a full-time education position.

“I think when Stow was up and coming, they made the decision at that time. Now it’s just a tradition that we won’t let go,” he said.

It also has had the effect of giving the fire department an iconic identity.

“Firefighter Sandy is the most famous firefighter we have in Stow, and she’s fantastic with the kids,” Stone said. “They are at an age where they just soak up the information, and she really makes an impression.”

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Information from: Akron Beacon Journal, https://www.ohio.com

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