FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Sometimes, the most rewarding kind of recognition comes unexpectedly, a message from on high that hard work, achievement and progress pay off.

It's what leaders of Fort Drum's Fire and Emergency Services Division are saying after recently receiving the Director of Army Safety (DASAF) Composite Risk Management Award for the department's comprehensive safety program.

"This was totally unexpected," said Fort Drum Fire Chief Donald Striejewske. "It shows that some of the practices we are doing are being recognized not just at the installation level, but the regional level, the command level, and all the way up to the DA level."

"We were very surprised when we heard we had won," said Joseph Margrey, Fort Drum director of emergency services. "But this is something that we have been working on here. It's a change in the thought processes. But it's a very, very good program, and it's a very good way to do business on a daily basis.

"It's good to know you are being recognized," he added. "I'm happy to see (that)."

Col. Gary A. Rosenberg, Fort Drum garrison commander, told firefighters during a brief ceremony last week at Fire Station 2 on post that the award presented a good opportunity to celebrate the department's high standards of training, specialization and expertise.

"You guys are tremendously competent and do a great job here," Rosenberg said. "There's a high level of trust in you guys and providing for the safety of the (community). That can't be stressed enough.

"The fact that you (are receiving) this award is a great testament to the improvements and all of the hard work you guys have put in," the colonel added.

The DASAF award recognizes organizations or individuals who have made significant contributions to Army readiness through composite risk management. CRM is the Army's primary decision-making process to identify hazards, control risks and prevent both accidental and tactical losses.

Fort Drum firefighters safeguard more than 40,000 residents and workers on a daily basis and protect some $140 billion of federal property and equipment.

In addition to the chief and fire officers, the force consists of 70 firefighters. They work out of three stations located on North Post, South Post and Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield.

Fort Drum is one of only a handful of fire departments Armywide to have received national accreditation from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International.

The fire chief said applying CRM practices to everyday operations can appear daunting, but that it is obvious Army leadership is on board.

"They are saying, 'You know what, this can be done,'" said Striejewske, who began working to implement CRM practices at Fort Drum after he arrived here in November 2009. "It's a huge (money-saver). Coming from the DA level and all the way down, we knew we needed to look at how we could reduce (costs)."

With support for CRM from the top, Striejewske said a challenge would be in changing the way the department met mission requirements.

"The changes have kind of rocked the department a little, but that's just growth," he said. "I knew it would be a huge culture change. It's a whole (new) way of doing business."

The chief noted, however, that the CRM process makes sense, and that it often involves asking simple questions, like "What type of emergency gets which kinds of resources?"

"The things that we have been doing are common-sense approaches," Striejewske said. "Today, you look at these newer buildings -- a lot of it is noncombustible construction. They are sprinklered. There are alarm systems and detection systems. They are engineered for protection and designed to keep the occupants safer in those facilities.

"So now," he continued, "looking at the risks, the chance of fire in those newer rooms is slim -- unless it's an accidental fire or somebody actually starts a fire."

Striejewske said that now, instead of sending a full assignment of two engines, a truck, a rescue vehicle and a command vehicle to every fire alarm activation, as was the case when much of the post still operated from "old World War II wood," only one engine gets dispatched.

Additional resources are typically sent only if the 911 center receives multiple calls in one location.

"I can say that about 95 percent of our fire alarm activations here are due to cooking, smoking or accidental trips," Striejewske said. "Of all emergencies in the Army last year, only 1 percent of all the calls were structure fires."

Another area the department looked to cut costs was on the airfield, where as many as 10 firefighters were often placed on standby duty in years past.

"You can't look at the number of times that the Air Force or a commercial airliner might, just all of a sudden, need to emergency land and set down here," Striejewske said. "Is that a possibility? Yes. But even in the last 20 years, how many times has that happened? It's not a common thing."

The chief said rethinking where to concentrate resources and how to better distribute staffing helped to reduce costs. He said tens of thousands of dollars in overtime alone have been saved since implementing CRM over the past two years.

Sue Gurdak, Command Safety Office garrison safety manager and the individual responsible for submitting Fort Drum's awards package, said CRM practices have not only saved money but also have reduced accidents and fatalities on the installation.

"The 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum's success in safety is not focused on just one area," Gurdak said. "It is a collective interaction of all areas with the focus on composite risk management down to the lowest level.

"It's not a surprise that they won the award," she added. "They represent a world-class, highly skilled and trained department … (that) stands ready to react immediately.

"I can honestly say that Fort Drum's Fire and Emergency Services Division is not one of the best, but the best in the Army," Gurdak said.

The department previously won Best Fire Prevention Program in 2005 and Best Fire Department (large) in 2004, 2005 and 2008, before being reclassified as a medium-sized department in 2009.

Most recently, Fort Drum placed first in the Northeast region for Best Fire Department (medium) and Best Fire Prevention Program in 2010.

"The people in my department are second to none," Striejewske said. "When it comes to responding to a call, you couldn't ask for a better bunch of guys. They are on-the-spot professionals who know how to take care of any incident."

The post's emergency services director also boasted of Fort Drum as one of the top fire departments Armywide.

"They are very professional and very dedicated," Margrey said. "I would trust them with my life any day."