As a Philadelphia firefighter, the most frightening incident Lawrence "Larry" Amaker experienced was battling flames from a building with an earthen basement, sinking into the ground and stumbling over holes as he moved through.
As a paramedic, his most gut-wrenching experience was handling the death of a 2-year-old child and confronting the man convicted of the killing, who remained at the scene and needed medical attention.
But through these experiences, Amaker, 61, has learned to value every day. Now in his 25th year of service for the fire department, he received the 2012 "Paramedic of the Year Award" from the Philadelphia Fire Department during a ceremony Wednesday morning at the Fireman's Hall Museum. A handful of family members, as well as dozens of colleagues and friends were present for Amaker's recognition as one of the longest serving and most dedicated of the more than 2,000 fire department employees. Fire paramedic services Chief Jeremiah Laster, Amaker's first partner, nominated him for the award, which has been handed out since 2001. Laster said he nominated his former partner because of Amaker's willingness to help people even when no one is watching, and called Amaker, who frequently takes overtime shifts or aids people while off-duty, one of the hardest working people he knows.
"I've had my share of ups and downs in my career, but rest assured, when the bells ring and lights come on, I am the person you want to answer that call," Amaker said as he accepted the award. In addition to a plaque, Amaker received a $500 check, passes to city museums, and certificates for local businesses.
Although honored, Amaker did not want the recognition. For him, his award is a job well done, a job he said he took on to make a difference and help those about to give up on life turn back.
Amaker became a firefighter in 1987 and then moved on to the position of fire paramedic in 1991. He has worked at Medic 4 in North Philadelphia, Medic 5 in Roxborough, Medic 18 in Olney, and he is currently at Medic 13 in North Philadelphia. At Medic 5, Amaker and his former partner Joe Mancini, 55, averaged 48 hours together per week, more time with each other than with their families. During their eight years together at Medic 5, Mancini recalls the kindness and devotion Amaker showed on the job. Once, when the two were called to respond to a domestic dispute, Amaker and Mancini found two children crying on the porch as a husband and wife argued inside. As the fight continued inside, Amaker focused on the children who had been forgotten.
"He sat with these children who just wanted to be paid attention to and loved," Mancini said.
Mancini said he could not have asked for a better partner to help share the demands of the job. The two had a rule that only one was allowed to be in a bad mood during a shift so the other could provide support. Their partnership ended in January after a departmental shift, and Mancini now calls Amaker a lifelong friend.
Firefighter Samuel Gollapalli started his career as a paramedic about 17 years ago, learning from Amaker who was his first partner and mentor. Gollapalli said Amaker was always ready to work, going straight to their paramedic truck when he came in for a shift and trying for perfection.
Both Amaker and his colleagues described several times Amaker responded to emergencies off-duty, such as carrying a woman who was stranded on top of her car in a flooded street or caring for a resident suffering from chest pains.
Amaker said it was his mother, Vera Wilson, who instilled his work ethic and taught him never to ask for something he could work for himself. His father, a prisoner of war in the Korean War, died before Amaker was born. During his acceptance speech, Amaker thanked his mother for her constant support. He choked up as he acknowledged her, and both had tears in their eyes.
Today, his family said Amaker always pushes them to test their boundaries and work harder. His son, Ethan, 23, is a recent Harvard graduate and his daughter, Tyler, 15, hopes to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tyler said that as a child her father played games with her in which she would memorize sets of information, such as the bones in the body or state capitals.
Although Amaker said he is approaching retirement, he vows never to slow down. He has always had a sense of adventure, taking family members on helicopter rides and trips to go camping and skydiving. He said that same adrenaline push is what has kept him going.
"Being a fire department paramedic has not been just a job - it's a never ending adventure," he said.