Retiring fire safety educator instilled safe practices in all

by Chris Studor

The first memory most Highland students have of Lydia Wochna is of her teaching them to stop, drop and roll. The same can be said for many adults in the community who have stopped to listen over the years as the fire and life safety educator has addressed the topic of emergency preparedness at community events.

But what perhaps made Wochna even more memorable was her first safety dog, Kodak, who often accompanied her dressed in costumes, including  paw mittens and a warm hat she used to get her point across to young children.

Wochna decided to hang up that warm hat for good last month after retiring from the Hinckley Fire Department following seven years of service.

Wochna began her career as a volunteer firefighter in 2015 and her ability and talent for designing safety programs quickly led her to assume the role as the department’s fire and life safety educator serving nine area schools, including Hinckley Elementary.

Taking note of Kodak’s ability to offer comfort in stressful situations, it wasn’t long before Kodak was accompanying Wochna in the classroom. While Kodak was the first dog, following in his paw steps soon after were other dogs, including Canon, Jpeg, and currently Little Kurt, Baxter and Barkley.

“When you think about it, the lessons I am going into classrooms teaching involving topics such as fires and tornadoes can be frightening to children,” said Wochna. “When I bring one of the dogs with me, they offer a sense of calm and comfort. Some of the dogs have had a special sense of which children scared or anxious and would just go over and lay down by that child. Sometimes I would tell the children that the dog needs a pet to feel safe and would end up with six students holding on to the dog. So what can be a scary topic can turn into a fun experience for the students who all get to pet the dog at the end of the lesson as we go from one aisle to the other.”

Safety and emergency preparedness lessons advance from the basic stop, drop and roll – which, by the way, the way which the dogs are trained to demonstrate – to having students in the higher elementary school grades draw a map of their classroom, locating all doors, windows and furniture, to determine how they would escape if a fire occurred.

“The students love this exercise because I tell them I’m giving them permission to mess up their rooms and scatter things all over,” said Wochna. “They illustrate the messes on their room maps and then I would explain how having items in the way of possible exits would be dangerous.”

Once the school year ended, Wochna could often be found at community events and making neighborhood visits, where she and her fellow firefighters spoke with residents about fire safety. Wochna said videos showing how fast fire spreads in modern homes where synthetic materials are used, compare to older homes where more natural materials were used and fire spreads more slowly, leaves a lasting impression on adults.

Furthering her passion for fire and safety education, Wochna has authored several children’s books on safety, often addressing seasonal hazards, such as ice dangers in the winter or playing with matches. Currently she is working on her first novel, a faith-based story involving heaven and, as you might guess, a special dog that can sense when people in trouble.

Throughout her years serving as a firefighter, Wochna earned numerous awards ranging from the Star of Life award from the state of Ohio for EMS response to a critical automobile accident victim, to an Outstanding Leadership Award from Medina County Safety Services with her late partner, Kodak, receiving an award for exceptional service for a search, rescue and therapy dog.

Wochna said her passion for safety education will continue into her retirement as she plans to train an incoming firefighter to take over her role as Hinckley Fire and Life Safety Educator. She also looks forward to spending time with her husband, Don, their three dogs and nine cats. The Hinckley couple will also be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this year.