When Dawn Zurcher received a telephone call at the Payson Fire Department a few weeks ago informing her that she had been named firefighter of the year, she assumed it was a joke.
"I thought it was a brother firefighter playing a trick on me," she said Wednesday morning. "When I found out it wasn't, I was blown away."
During a special presentation Sept. 9 at the State Fire School in Mesa, Zurcher will be announced as the 1999 United Fire Firefighter of the Year. Zurcher was previously named Payson's firefighter of the year for 1998.
"We received nominations from all over the state of firefighters who have shown courage, compassion and dedication to their profession," said Daniel Matlick, president of United Fire and chairman of the selection committee.
Firefighters can be nominated for their courageous initiatives, Matlick said, or for making safety advancements in education and prevention.
"I think Dawn probably falls into both categories, to tell you the truth," he said. "But she's being recognized for the many wonderful things she does for the advancement of education and prevention."
That's just the tip of the iceberg, said Payson Fire Chief John Ross.
"She's done so many things in so many areas here," Ross said. "We're proud and fortunate to have Dawn working as an employee of the Payson Fire Department. She's extremely dedicated in serving her fellow citizens, not only as a professional paramedic firefighter, but also as a caring volunteer."
Through the fire department, Zurcher teaches children about fire safety, normally while dressed as Edith the clown. She developed a program that has members of her department installing smoke detectors in homes. She's volunteered her time to play on the department's wheelchair basketball team to raise money for charity.
In her spare time, she also serves as one of the more refreshing features of the town building department's neighborhood clean-up program. Zurcher not only helps with the actual cleaning of neighborhoods, but also staffs a fire truck during the project, then sprays off the overheated workers when the work is finished.
"She has an outstanding rapport with children," Ross said.
United Fire --one of the state's largest suppliers of fire equipment and services --established its firefighter award in 1994. As the sixth recipient of the award, Zurcher is the first female firefighter to earn the honor. It's a distinction she quickly shrugs off.
"In fire service, I don't look at men and women as being separate," she said. "We're just people."
In addition to receiving United Fire's Symbol of Excellence Award, Zurcher will receive a $1,000 cash prize --money she's already earmarked as a donation to her church.
She'll also receive more than $3,000 in prizes, including a complete safety wardrobe, a five-day vacation, tickets for Phoenix International Raceway, and a gift certificate from Circuit City.
The Payson Fire Department will receive a $500 credit toward future purchases from United Fire.
"We are not singling Dawn out as the best firefighter there is," Matlick said. "She will be our symbol of excellence for the next year. What she really does is exemplify the virtues and qualities of fire service."
"Imagine that," Zurcher said humbly. "Seriously, I'm going to accept this award that really belongs to every firefighter in the state. I'm in no way at the top of the heap."