After surviving three tours and 19 months in Iraq and Afghanistan, combat-tested Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph Barrios returned home and almost died on the Brooklyn campus of Kingsborough Community College in May of 2009.
Feeling lightheaded, he fell down a flight of steps on his way to the Marine and Academics Building in the middle of the afternoon. "The next thing I knew, I was on the floor, and I was having trouble breathing. Everything was blurry," said Barrios, who suffers from asthma.
"I was able to say I was having trouble breathing. Right after that I collapsed and stopped breathing," he said. "The last thing I remember before I went unconscious was seeing two campus officers flying down the stairs to my rescue. They were assisting me with breathing, speaking with me, trying to keep me awake."
Campus Peace Officers Elaine Lopez, 38, and Amna Ahmed, 23, both also emergency medical technicians, administered oxygen and Albuterol to keep his lungs open. They kept Barrios stable until the FDNY Emergency Medical Service arrived.
"They were extremely prepared, very ready, very calm and professional," said Barrios, 23, a criminal justice major who intends to become an FBI agent. "What these officers did for me that day was nothing short of heroic. I owe them my life."
For Ahmed and Lopez it was all in a day's work.
"It was just part of what we're supposed to do," Lopez said. "We do that all the time." But Lopez was also driven to save a young man who she'd learned had served his country. She told Ahmed, "He just came back from Afghanistan, and I didn't want him to die here."
Because such valiant actions often go unsung, the CUNY Department of Public Safety honored Ahmed, Lopez and 39 other officers in its University-wide force of 650 peace officers in a ceremony at the Graduate Center on January 29. Amid colleagues, family members and CUNY administrators, the men and women in blue uniforms received citations and medals for their life-saving rescues and other interventions. They had shown extraordinary bravery, saved life at personal risk, used exceptional good judgment and exceeded the job's requirements during 2009.
Such recognition "gives them more pride in their job and creates better morale," said William Barry, a retired FBI special agent who is director of CUNY's Public Safety Department. "All the individuals presented awards have risen above the crowd. I felt it was time to go back to a recognition program for the entire University." Previously, individual campuses have honored their own heroes.
Barry described one "act of bravery and quick thinking" last July 3, when a fire erupted near midnight in a high-rise apartment building on Convent Avenue, opposite City College's Baskerville Hall.
Before police and firefighters arrived, Campus Peace Officers Orlando Quinones, Desiree Joyner, Jacqueline Delarosa and Sgt. Celisha Copeland rushed into the building, started evacuating residents and cordoned off the surrounding streets.b
"We split up to knock on doors," Sgt. Copeland said. "We made sure people came out of their apartments. Some were very resistant, some were frantic, running back and forth. They slammed doors in our faces, but we still went on. We gave first aid to those with smoke inhalation. One young lady was having an asthma attack. We kept them in a spot off the street where they could cool down, and we spent more than an hour with them."
Other officers at Bronx, Hostos and Borough of Manhattan Community Colleges, as well as Brooklyn College and New York City College of Technology, were recognized for averting suicides, reviving an unconscious professor, assisting a student who was having a seizure and helping police apprehend suspects in off-campus incidents in which college personnel were victims.
There were unit citations recognizing exceptional service to the campus and community by the volunteer, 10-member EMT unit at Brooklyn College, and for dedication, motivation and resourcefulness by the six EMTs at Baruch College. The six-member staff of the Public Safety Training Academy was cited for expanding the training curriculum from 165 to 380 hours.
In-service training and remission of college tuition provide opportunities for campus peace officers to "rise to the top," Barry said. For example, Cpl. John McWilliams, 34, of City Tech, an EMT honored for performing life-saving CPR on an elderly man who went into cardiac arrest, is among those who rose through the ranks. He moved up from college security assistant to campus peace officer, EMT, and his current status.
Barry said the University began the process of professionalizing its security force in the aftermath of a 1991 tragedy when an outside promoter overbooked a weekend concert at City College and nine concert-goers died in a stampede. Twenty years later, Barry said, the University maintains a professionalized force of approximately 650 peace officers, 200 college security assistants, and another 200 contract guards.
Public Safety units operate 24 hours a day, year-round. In December alone, they responded to 600 incidents. The officers are first responders, all trained in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). They control access to buildings; monitor alarms, cameras and closed-circuit TV; patrol in marked cars, bicycles, Segways and three-wheeled vehicles; and, when necessary, break up fights.
Prospective public safety officers must be 21, high school graduates, U.S. citizens and have a valid New York State driver's license. They must pass a background check, a written exam and psychological and physical agility tests.
The screening and training pay off.
One afternoon last March, Nancy Oley, a psychology professor at Medgar Evers College, began to choke on a peanut butter sandwich in her office during a classroom break. "I was in a rush. I took a really big bite, and I realized very quickly that it was not going down. I couldn't breathe. I realized I had 60 seconds to get help before I lost consciousness."
She ran to the security desk at the building's entrance, hands crossed at her neck to signify choking. Campus Peace Officer Minnie Thigpen was on duty.
"I mouthed the word 'peanut butter,' and she got it right away," Oley related. "I was counting on her. I knew they had training and I'd seen them in operation in other emergencies."
Thigpen, 53, performed the Heimlich maneuver and dislodged a piece of food. Thigpen sat Oley down and brought her a glass of warm water. Breathing again, a thankful Oley returned to her class.
"Her skill and calm saved my life, for which I and my family are deeply grateful," Oley said. "Perhaps it was all in a day's work for her, but for me it was a life-transforming experience," she wrote to the college's public safety director, Elvert Miller, a former U.S. Marine and a veteran of Iraq Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. Oley added in her letter: "I want to thank her and the other members of your staff who work tirelessly and often without acknowledgement to keep us safe every day."
Thigpen, a former police officer assigned to the city's Human Resources Administration, said, "I just thank God for using me as an instrument to save someone's life."
Like his colleagues, McWilliams is proud of being part of CUNY's Public Safety system. "We do our jobs so well," he remarked, although "a lot of people don't know what we really do."