Airman named best military firefighter

By Christopher Gaylord/JBLM PAO on March 15, 2013

Senior Airman Steven Soto is shy and quiet. But make no mistake - if something comes up, he'll probably be the first to volunteer.

That, one of his superiors said, is the attitude that recently earned him the honor of 2012 Military Firefighter of the Year for the Army's Installation Management Command.

"I can't think of a time he's not involved in something," said Senior Master Sgt. Christopher Maxwell, Joint Base Lewis-McChord military deputy fire chief, who oversees more than 30 Air Force firefighters and fire officers supporting JBLM's six fire stations. "If you need something done, he's the first one with his hand up. He's a go-to Airman."

The good news came via email March 1 directly from the IMCOM fire protection office. Soto didn't even know he'd been submitted.

Military Firefighter of the Year, one of several categories that make up the Department of Defense's Fire and Emergency Services Annual Awards program, recognizes the best of the field from each service and in the end, distinguishes one winner.

If fortune remains in Soto's favor through the next level of competition, he'll be the first member of the Air Force ever to earn the award at the Department of the Army level. DA results are scheduled to be released sometime next week.

In years past an Airman wouldn't be seen competing with Soldiers at DA. But joint base realignment, which has placed Soldiers and Airmen together in the same stations, has changed the game.

This year, award guidance for the program's individual categories states that "military firefighters at joint base assignments where their service is not the lead component shall compete in the lead component award process." Fire Chief Dean Dixon, the senior fire chief for JBLM's Fire and Emergency Services, said this is the first year joint installations have sent their top contributors for competition.

"It's a huge sense of pride," Maxwell said. "This department does great things on a daily basis."

IMCOM's four regions encompass the U.S., Europe and Korea. JBLM award submissions first competed against candidates from other stations within the Central Region - an area of responsibility that covers the majority of installations across the U.S.

JBLM's Fire and Emergency Services emerged as the region's Large Fire Department of the Year, and one of its fire officers, Tech. Sgt. Thomas Anderson, was named the region's Military Fire Officer of the Year.

Only Soto, however, was victorious at the command level.

"It's more of an honor than anything," said Soto, 25, who joined the Air Force in 2010 and was assigned to JBLM in February 2011. "I just go out there and do my job, and do it to the best of my ability."

Judges based their decisions on awards packets submitted by the nominees' supervisors that highlight accomplishments, job performance, tactical competency, leadership ability, initiative and resourcefulness. It details how he led fellow firefighters into a home quickly and without hesitation to extinguish a kitchen fire. He had control of the nozzle.

Winners are often difficult to choose, said Maxwell, who reviewed every JBLM packet. But when it came to Soto there was no question.

"Everybody in the department does outstanding work, but he just happens to be a little ahead of his peers," he said.

Among all firefighters Maxwell has worked with in his 23 years as an Air Force firefighter, Soto stands out. "I'd put him right at the top of the list."

Maxwell said Soto frequently trains other Airmen at his station on job-related tasks, while finding time to finish his associate degree through the Community College of the Air Force - an achievement most don't see until they are technical sergeants or higher.

"It took me 10 years," he said.

But Soto also works a second job. That's not in his packet.

The guidance for submitting nominees states that off-duty efforts not in support of a department don't count toward an award.

Firefighters at JBLM work 48 hours on and have the following 48 hours off. But unlike most who recharge at home, Soto heads to an auto parts store, where he stocks and delivers parts.

"I do what I do for my family," Soto, said. The father of two works eight hours a day at the store to help pay for his wife's college whenever he's not on shift at Station 105 on McChord Field. "They depend on me."

He credits his selflessness to his mother.

"My mom always did everything she could to make sure me and my sisters had everything we needed," he said, part of the reason he never stops moving.

"I'm a person who doesn't like to sit still," he said. "I plan to make the Air Force a career, and why am I going to just make my way by and hang behind the curtain instead of putting myself out front?"

But like most who are quiet and humble, Soto isn't letting any accomplishment - even Military Firefighter of the Year - go to his head.

"I'm not going to sit here and think about it," he said. "I'm just going to keep on moving with what I know I need to get done. It just makes me want to keep doing what I'm doing."

The Department of Defense is scheduled to announce winners for the awards program no later than March 31. When it does, said Dixon, who oversees the more than 160 firefighters operating on JBLM, he's not sure how the awards ceremony will play out if Soto wins at DA.

"Do the Air Force stand up, then the Army?" He said, chuckling. "I don't know."