LAWRENCEVILLE -- As a teenage cadet with the Explorer training program, Tommy Rutledge's mentor was a county firefighter who brought information to the public as the department's spokesman.
Now, Rutledge is the county department's spokesman, the leader of the Explorer program, and, according to the State Insurance and Fire Safety office, the best at what he does.
Last week, Rutledge was named the public information officer of the year, only the second person to hold the honor bestowed by Georgia Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner John Oxendine.
Oxendine, who lives in Gwinnett, said it was Rutledge's ability to integrate lessons on fire safety into his job reporting details on fires and emergencies that make him the best.
"He's really used his job to reach out to the citizens of Gwinnett County," Oxendine said. "He has used situations to really promote fire safety. ... There's a tragedy of fire, but he looks for the silver lining."
Rutledge, who worked on the department's fire safety team not long after he started working with his home county 22 years ago, said talking about a fire always provides an opportunity to teach a lesson.
Too humble to send out a press release about his award, Rutledge is known for quickly getting information to the media, so residents not only know about an emergency, like the floods that devastated western Gwinnett on Sept. 21, but they are able to learn how to avoid hazards.
If a smoke detector saves a life in a fire, Rutledge talks about the importance of checking batteries, or he gives tips on how to avoid a blaze, if a backyard grill fire creates headlines.
"These are teachable moments," he said. "We can heighten people's awareness on how to prevent these emergencies from happening."
While a student at South Gwinnett High School, Rutledge said he remembers watching Tim Szymanski, his Explorer program coordinator, at fire scenes talking to the media.
"I started early realizing I had a passion not only for fire safety but for interacting with the media," he said.
Before he took over the public information officer role five years ago, Rutledge worked in local stations and trained recruits at the fire academy.
"Tommy's one of those pure public servants," Chief Bill Myers said. "Nobody cares more about the children and adults in Gwinnett County."