Durham Tech opticianry student saves life from house fire, receives Valor Award

person holding eagle trophy and smilingWhen TJ Johnson isn’t working in the lab at LensCrafters or studying opticianry at Durham Tech, he’s serving the community as a firefighter with the Cumberland Road Fire Department in Fayetteville.

In November 2020, after three years on the job, Johnson responded to a call he would never forget.

“We were responding to a residential fire alarm going off so we thought it would just be a normal, run of the mill call – walk in, turn off the fire detector and leave, but that wasn’t the case. As we got closer we started smelling heavy smoke,” he said.

His lieutenant reported this to dispatch and requested the incident be upgraded to a residential structure fire.

“As soon as we pull up, people start running toward us saying there’s people in the house and kids in the house. We get geared up and ready to go and as soon as I was pulling the line, we see something. It was a woman on the floor who was semi-conscious.”

Search and rescue efforts then began.

“We rushed in and pulled her out to safety, and went back in the house looking for more people. Luckily, her grandkids were not there that day. They were just there the day before, which is why the neighbors were concerned.”

The victim recovered in the hospital and was able to return home.

“It feels great to help save a life. To help give that person another day to fight in this crazy world. She has grandbabies so now she can still be there for them.”

This call earned Johnson a 2021 Lifesaving Award at the Greater Fayetteville Chamber’s Annual Public Safety Valor Awards ceremony last month. The Lifesaving Award recognizes official acts taken in a life-threatening situation where an individual’s life is in jeopardy, either medically or physically.

“I was very excited and grateful to be recognized for this award,” he said. “This makes me feel that what I do as a firefighter doesn't go unrecognized even on tough calls. The most rewarding part of being a firefighter is helping out my community like this.”

Johnson is equally passionate about opticianry as he is the fire service. He lives in Fayetteville and commutes three hours round trip twice per week to attend classes at Durham Tech. He also works full-time as a Lead Lab Tech at LensCrafters.

“When I started working in the lab is when I really fell in love with optics. I never really understood the science behind seeing and I didn’t realize how much work goes into a pair of glasses to help someone see. It’s phenomenal,” he said. “That’s when I started looking for opticianry programs and found Durham Tech.”

Janet Alspaugh, Director of the Opticianry program describes Johnson as patient, thoughtful, funny, and hard working.

“We are so proud of his bravery and continued service to his community. He exemplifies eagle logo of chamber fayettevillecourage and compassion in and out of the classroom,” Alspaugh said.

Johnson expects to graduate in May 2022 and looks forward to his career as a licensed optician. He will also continue working part-time at the fire station.

“Durham Tech helped me realize that the sky is the limit,” he said. “All of your goals can be accomplished with hard work and dedication.”

Contact Marcy Gardner, Content and Social Media Coordinator, at gardnerm@durhamtech.edu