A firefighter with family roots from Puerto Rico who voiced concerns earlier this year that he was a victim of racism at his job was named Sebring's firefighter of year Monday.
David Avila's complaint about racism came weeks after firefighters and other staff selected him as firefighter of the year for 2012.
"It feels good," Avila said after members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars presented him with a plaque and $100. He also will be recognized tonight by Sebring Mayor George Hensley.
When asked if he felt differently, knowing that he received the award before he filed the complaint, Avila said he understood the point, but added: "I've moved on."
City officials had ruled that Avila's complaint and concerns stemmed from misperceptions and misunderstandings, but did recommend additional diversity training at the department. One of his complaints was that when he was first hired he had to wear a pin with the letters FNG. Another was about a noose in Fire Chief Brad Batz's office.
The city's investigation determined the noose was not racially motivated and that several new firefighters wore the pin as a joke, with the letters FNG standing for "f---ing new guy."
City officials said that Batz consistently praised Avila for how he did his job and his work ethic.
"I think it's great," Batz said about Avila getting the honor. He said Avila is a very good employee who does a great job.
"I've never met anyone with such a sparkle in his eye and I admire that about him," Batz said.
Avila, whose family was originally from Puerto Rico, was born and grew up in the Bronx in New York City. He wanted to be a firefighter ever since he was a child, he said.
He said he achieved that by "following his dream."
Avila ended up in Sebring because a brother lived here, he said. He first volunteered as a firefighter and attended classes to become a firefighter, while having a full- time job.
Deputy Fire Chief Michael J. Altman, who has been Avila's shift supervisor ever since he was hired in 2009, said in a summary that Avila deserves the award because he "performs all this duties with professionalism and compassion. He has a natural ability to make people feel at ease and connects on a personal level."
Avila excels in fire education in schools, Altman said. "He is exceptional at communicating with children. There are times he has the kids, teachers and fellow firefighters rolling in laughter, while making a presentation."