Captain Willy Giddings was awarded the Gerry Frank Meritorious Achievement Award for his work teaching CPR to the community. (Courtesy/Salem Fire Department)

At first, Willy Giddings thought he just wanted to be a firefighter.

He saw his dad and two uncles respond to calls as volunteer firefighters, sometimes in his Sheridan backyard, but didn’t know much about what a paramedic did.

He rode on an ambulance a few times, before there was a paramedic assigned to every engine, and responded to a call for someone with diabetes.

The firefighters couldn’t do anything until a paramedic showed up and administered advanced life support.

Giddings thought, “I want to do that, I want to be able to help somebody.”

[ Help build Salem Reporter and local news - SUBSCRIBE ]

In more than two decades on the job, Giddings has taught thousands of people how to do CPR.

This week, he won the annual Gerry Frank Meritorious Achievement Award, in part for his work teaching lifesaving skills to the community. The award is named after community leader Gerry Frank.

Fire Chief Mike Niblock said past award winners have gone above and beyond to make a difference in their community.

Niblock said Giddings has been instrumental since the Salem Fire Foundation -- a nonprofit that aims to save lives through community outreach and CPR and automated external defibrillator training -- was established five years ago.

“He is putting a lot of hours in over the last five years,” Niblock said.

Giddings, who was hired at the Salem Fire Department in 2001, helps teach CPR classes and distributes AEDs throughout the community.

At first, he did a few test classes with seventh-graders, but they were younger and it was difficult to keep them focused.

So, he went back to Niblock and suggested teaching the eighth-graders.

This is Giddings’ fifth year teaching Salem-Keizer School District eighth-graders how to do hands-only CPR. Through the program, he said, he’s taught about 18,000 people.

“I think it teaches them good lifesaving skills,” Giddings said. “People have used it, people have went and helped people.”

He said the training teaches more people what to do in an emergency and shows the students firefighting as a career option.

“It kind of gets the kids more hands on than just sitting in a classroom staring at a white board,” Giddings said.

On his days off, he would stop by local businesses, ask if they wanted a free AED and teach employees how to use it.

Before the program was implemented, Giddings said he could count on one hand how many people were saved from cardiac arrest during his two decades as a medic. Now, he said people are doing CPR before firefighters arrive on scene.

“Most people are doing CPR before we show up,” he said. “I can’t remember how many people we’ve saved because of people doing CPR before we show up.”

As a result, Salem has a higher survival rate for heart attacks than the national average.

“We’re still higher than the national average but we still think we can do better,” Giddings said.

The mobile phone app Pulse Point shows where AEDs are placed throughout the community, which has been part of the fire department’s outreach.

Giddings also organizes an annual fundraiser called Fill the Boot, which helps kids with muscular dystrophy.

In the summer, kids with the disease come from across the state for a weeklong camp where they play games and have big water fight.

“It’s a hoot,” Giddings said.

He said he’s been volunteering for years and didn’t think twice about getting an award for it.

Giddings said he’ll probably never know who chose him for the peer-nominated award because “firefighters, we’re the worst at giving compliments to one another.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.