When I arrive at the firehouse, dinner preparations are already in full swing. Captain Dan Dunn is cooking tonight and, as is most times the case, there are gluten free options. This isn’t your grandpa’s fire station, folks. These guys are very health conscious and tell me that someone in the firehouse is always eating a certain way whether gluten free, paleo or keto, they make sure healthy options are available. They do all their own shopping and cooking and rotate those duties; no one escapes. They tell me, “if you can’t cook, you learn.” On tonight’s menu; brown rice fusilli with chicken in a pesto/garlic sauce. I know, right? The second option is the same but with a spaghetti squash “pasta” that is surprisingly delicious.
When dinner is ready, the guys serve themselves and all gather at an oblong, family style table. The banter is full of inside jokes and it is clear these guys are family. They’d have to be. The quarters are pretty intimate to say the least. When they come in for a 48 hour shift, they sleep in a dorm-like setting where single beds are lined up in one room. The exception is a little side room that houses two beds if you are a loud snorer. And if someone snores in the main room? They wake up with rolls of toilet paper around them which have been thrown across the room during the night to quiet them down. Brothers indeed. Oh and I should say the Chief and Captains have their own quarters!
And yes, there is a pole. It is across from the sleeping quarters and descends directly down to the waiting fire engines below. And the engines? They are beauties; South Pasadena Firehouse 81 has recently purchased a brand new fire engine, a sparkling 2017 Pierce Puck Ultimate Configuration, which is the engine that was sent to Napa to aid in the recent fires. Chief Paul Riddle explains, “the new engine has a shorter wheelbase, tighter turning radius which allows us to navigate our hill section a little better. It’s a great rig.”
I am to go on a ride along should a call come in. I think about making a joke about someone needing to set a fire but think better of it and ask if joking about fire is allowed. They assure me that it is and that humor is one of the ways they deal with the stress of the job. In fact, they rib each other at every opportunity and play practical jokes like leaving things just ever so askew, as in one chair out of place, one drawer left pulled out, just to get under the skin of one of the guys who is a bit OCD.
But in talking with them, one can see that they are there for each other on the job and off. They know each other’s families, some of the kids call their Dad’s fellow firefighters “uncle”, especially those who have been with the company for decades. Our Fire Chief, Paul Riddle, is one of those guys, having started his career here in South Pasadena 25 years ago along with Captain Kris Saxon and Engineer Kevin Hill, who started here 26 years ago. Firehouse 81 is close to being fully staffed, standing currently at 18 Firefighter /Paramedics not including the Fire Chief and two Division Chiefs. Two firefighters were recently hired after a six week process of extensive backgrounds.
The shift I’m on also includes Division Chief Eric Zanteson (20 years with SPFD), Engineer Mike Larkin with 8 years, Captain Dan Dun with 12 years, Firefighter/Paramedic Anthony Corrao with 2 years and Firefighter/Paramedic J.C. Monticone, who has been in South Pas for 10 months.
This late afternoon hour is “a great time of day for us” says Chief Riddle, “because basically by 3:30 all of our scheduling, inspections and training sessions have been done and this, depending on whether or not we’re getting calls, is break time and the cooking starts and things start winding down.” At 4:15 the engineers go downstairs and wipe down the engines and check all the apparatus, service equipment, top off fuel.
We do eventually go out on two calls which, I ain’t gonna lie, were thrilling! Everyone wears headphones to protect their hearing because, as you can imagine, the sirens are deafening riding on the engine. It is rather incredible watching the sea of cars part to let you through as every driver looks up into the engine as we roar past.
The first call was a medical emergency; chest pains. As I hang a bit back and observe, what surprises me most is how quiet it is. They are not talking between themselves. Each knows their directive going in and they all set about doing it; only one of them speaks directly to the patient. One is setting about taking vitals, one is writing everything down, one is communicating with the hospital and one speaks to the caretaker. I can hear that the patient is reluctant to go to the hospital and the paramedic calmly explains why they need to transfer. When the decision is made, again, practically in silence, two firefighters come in with the gurney and set about getting the patient on it and out into the waiting ambulance.
In fact, our company has just been rated in the 90th percentile and received the Gold Award for STEMI, or ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction which refers to a very serious type of heart attack during which one of the heart’s major arteries is blocked. The rating is given by the Los Angeles County Emergency Medical Authority for recognizing STEMI in the field and transporting to the appropriate facility.
I am so moved by the quiet dignity of these men. What I come away with is that they are a group of good and humble guys who take their jobs very seriously; whose job is to protect us, save us and keep us safe. I hear engine 81 just about every day, roaring down the road, and I always look up and think, “there go our guys!”
Having needed to call paramedics on a couple of occasions, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of the Paramedic Program whereby citizens of South Pasadena may sign up for $80 for the year, which covers ambulance services beyond what insurance covers for an entire household or business with less than 10 persons. I can’t believe what a savings and comfort that is considering most people hesitate to call an ambulance for fear of the cost. You may click this link for more information and to download the application or call the fire department for more details. (626) 403-7300
See story on Badge Pinning Ceremony here.