An alarm sounds and a voice comes over the loudspeaker. Suddenly five firefighters stop what they are doing and hustle to the emergency vehicles. A quick glance on the computer screen inside their vehicles, and they know what’s ahead of them as they respond to one of many calls for the day. This is a day in the life of a Firefighter and Paramedic at Los Angeles County Fire Station 40.
The men who occupy this Fire Station are very humble. Captain Sal Chavez graciously offered a tour of his home away from home. We explored the paramedic's rest area, the dormitory and the kitchen where a hearty meal can be prepared but interrupted at any time. Captain Chavez quipped “every fire station has a microwave for that very purpose.” But it’s all part of the job.
Fire Station 40 proudly displays on their station patch, “Up all Night.” It’s a testament to what they do on a daily basis. The Paramedic Squad, a duo fully trained to perform lifesaving emergency first aid out on the field, receives more calls for service throughout the day compared to the firefighters. According to the crew, the Paramedic Squad is perhaps one of the busiest squads in Los Angeles County. The Fire Station as a whole receives an average of 20 calls per day.
The alarm went off as we were setting up for an interview with one of the firefighter/paramedics. In a controlled chaotic manner, the firefighters grabbed their already prepped gear, climbed into their vehicles and sped off to the emergency. It was a medical call and Fire Engine 40 was dispatched to the scene while Squad 40 was on another run. With a paramedic on board the Fire Engine, a patient could be treated and stabilized until another Paramedic Unit arrives on scene. For this call, Fire Engine 40 arrived at the same time as did another Paramedic Unit. With the scene under control, Engine 40 rushed to the scene of Squad 40’s call to provide additional assistance. It was another medical call, and this one was a familiar call to the Station. Staff knew this individual personally and the nature of this call.
Many calls are routine according to the crew at Fire Station 40. There are calls that come in on a regular basis. According to third generation firefighter and paramedic Wes Delabar, “We see all the one in a million shots.” It’s those calls that firefighters and paramedics not only have to use their basic training, but investigative skills as well to better treat injured victims and handle calls appropriately. Firefighter and Paramedic Spencer Tasich recalled an incident where on the surface all is well but there was more to the story. It was a traffic incident involving an infant. Upon examining the infant, all seemed well however, someone had told Paramedic Tasich that they didn’t see a baby seat inside the vehicle. Upon further investigation and confirmation from the parent, it turned out that the baby was not in a child seat and was being held by the parent. That changed the entire situation and the baby was sent to the trauma center instead of the local hospital. During most emergency calls, it can be frustrating when victims are not honest about their injuries. According to Captain Chavez, victims become upset when questioned about whether they were drinking or on drugs. If the victim is not forthcoming, it makes it difficult for the proper treatment to be given. Often, it’s a life or death situation, especially with drug overdoses. What the patient doesn’t understand is that the Fire Department is not there to arrest, rather they are there to help. When the firemen or paramedics ask about drug or alcohol use, it’s for the purpose of treating.
No matter the call, firemen and paramedics are there to help. On a daily basis, they often see things that many of us would be shocked to see. They get through it. Firefighters and paramedics at Station 40 are each other's therapists. When they respond to a call that may have been out of the norm, they discuss the call to evaluate and to grasp the situation. According to Paramedic Tasich, “the sooner we talk about it, the better.” The crew at Station 40 is reminded by the Station’s Captain that there is a reason they may see people on their worst day, there is a reason why they called 911. Once they arrive on scene, they are reminded that for paramedics, their bedside manner toward patients is of the utmost importance to ensure that the patient is not just another patient, but another human being that requires the help and assistance from another human being.
Throughout the day, the impending possibility that the alarm could go off at any moment remains on everyone's minds. Even during the interview at any given time, the alarm could sound and they would be off to another call. These guys take it in stride. During a lunch break, we were reminded that all food ordered must be to go. While typical 9 to 5 jobs have a one hour lunch break, not these guys. Knowing the alarm could go off at any given time, they must be prepared to respond to whatever call comes over the radio. It’s all part of the day. So, what do they do in between calls? According to Captain Chavez, many use the time wisely and take advantage of the down time. Many will take the opportunity to study required materials and some take the opportunity to take online training courses required by the County. Thirty minutes into the Station interview, Paramedic Squad 40 returned from a call. As soon as the Squad was parked, Paramedic Delabar and a Station Intern quickly hosed down the vehicle and gave it a quick wash. According to Delabar, the Squad has been in suds when the alarm goes off. It’s just something that can’t be avoided. The two worked very quickly to wash the squad, and they finished the job within a few minutes. Twenty minutes later, the Squad would be dispatched to a scene.
At the end of the shift, a new crew comes in and the relieved crew goes off duty. Or do they? The answer was best given by Captain Chavez who was quoting a movie, “the funny thing about firemen is they are firemen 24 hours a day.” Fire Station 40 Engineer Daren Wallach known as “Dubbs” at the station jokingly said that you need to know 400 different jobs to be a fireman. Many people look to firemen when problems arise. When it comes to being off duty, at home, where they live, they are “The Fireman.” People in the neighborhood know when there’s a fireman living nearby, and typically they are first to be called upon for help of any kind whether it be an emergency or something as simple as help with a neighbors plumbing. Many times, training kicks in during off duty. During an emergency, the fireman is looked upon to decide whether or not a situation is a real emergency or a non-emergency.
As one might imagine, the chemistry amongst the crew must click. Many of the firemen agreed that everyone must get along in order for the station to function properly. In essence, every Fire Station is a second home to any number of crew members, they become a family away from home. It’s a family that supports each other, that jokes with each other, and it’s a family that has bonded and helps each other out. It’s not only limited to the Fire Station, it’s the brotherhood of being a firefighter. Just like the close-knit brotherhood of Law Enforcement, the firefighters band together to help another fellow firefighter whether it be in their agency or another.
The firefighters at Station 40 take their job seriously, but they are also modest about what they do. From the outside looking in, many can agree that each of the individuals who puts on over 70 pounds of fire gear to fight a fire, or one who cautiously traverses a steep canyon to save an individual’s life, they are heroes. Even in passing when we see them shopping at the market, when they are wearing that navy blue uniform, we know that being in that profession is heroic. If you ask any firefighter if they think they are heroes, they will disagree. Captain Chavez quickly pointed out “We’re just doing our jobs, we know the type of work we do.” Paramedic Tasich agreed with the Captain’s statement and added that often the real heroes are the ones who come to someone’s aid, someone who performed CPR on a complete stranger and kept them alive, they are the heroes.
As the day turns to night, the Fire Fighters at Station 40 turn in for the night. Sleeping in what is described as gym clothes, they fall asleep, ready at a moment’s notice. Paramedics follow the same night time routine but know that they may get called out even before they sleep. The profession of being a firefighter comes with the territory: it is dangerous, exciting, and rewarding. The men and women know this, and that’s why they are here.