Local EMT named top instructor of the year

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

DACULA -- There weren't any wrong answers in Julio Diaz's emergency medical training class one recent day.

As the new firefighting recruits talked about how to triage a bomb scene and answers were mixed for a few hypothetical victims, Diaz was quick to point out that when the men are face to face with bloodied victims, they would know what to do.

"There's no set way. It's what the patient really looks like," Diaz told the class of 38.

It is that approach of instilling medical concepts and real-world instincts into students rather than rote memorization that caused Diaz to be named the Georgia Emergency Medical Services Instructor of the Year for the local region.

"Instructor Diaz is an energetic and enthusiastic EMS instructor," said Gwinnett Fire Training Chief Rod Dawson. "He is well respected by members of the department and throughout the entire state."

Diaz has plenty of experience as a paramedic. The Cuban-born man, who came to the United States when he was six months old, became a paramedic for Grady Hospital when he was 20. He later joined the DeKalb Fire Department, where he rose up the ranks to captain and spent a decade teaching basic emergency medical and paramedic classes.

Four years ago, he decided to start all over again. Impressed with the Gwinnett Fire Department's standards and its reputation as an organization that becomes a family, he chose to transfer and was sent to one of the busiest county stations to work as a firefighter and medic.

He loved it, he said, but when officials asked if he would again become a teacher, Diaz jumped at the chance to help redevelop the county's programs, including teaching the first EMT class the county has offered in years to new recruits instead of sending them to Gwinnett Technical College.

"I like to say I can talk the talk and walk the walk," Diaz said. "I feel like I'm making an impact here."

In his very first paramedic class, he faced his toughest student, his wife Tania.

"She did it on her own," Diaz said, explaining that he left much of Tania's training to his fellow instructors so that he wouldn't be accused of favoritism. "She's a good paramedic now."

The two met while Diaz pursued his other passion, fencing. Twice, he almost made the Olympic team, and he is still in training for the honor, at the same time acting as national coach for wheelchair fencing.

That role of coach is the same one that motivated him to create a training program that produces good medics.

With a thick textbook to cover in only a matter of months, Diaz said officials had found that people would pass a rigorous certification test but wouldn't be prepared to act quickly in the field.

So he teaches the concepts and theories while putting a lot of visual work and practice into the classes. The students use online programs to help, said the man who has gone back to school himself, working on a bachelor's degree in fire science through online courses.

"I feel I'll make a great impact for the system," he said, adding that he has goals of earning his master's degree and rising through the ranks again to lieutenant or captain.

Diaz also took the initiative to begin an accreditation process for the department from the National Registry of EMTs. The idea had been tabled because of budget restraints, but is now back on track for a site visit later this year, which could make Gwinnett the first department in the state to receive the accreditation.

All the while, Diaz has been raising two daughters, 12-year-old Rachel and 18-year-old Madeline.

Last month, the girls were with him when he was surprised with the trainer of the year award.

"I know they are very proud of me," he said. "That makes me feel good."